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Mikal Bridges has way bigger upside than you think

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The “glue guy” potential with Bridges is immense, but there’s some sneaky star equity hidden deeper if he refines a few areas over the next few years.

NBA: Summer League-San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often you see a prospect come around that not only has sky-high defensive upside, but sharpshooting equity. Package that into his 6’7” frame with an eye-popping 7’2” wingspan and Mikal Bridges is the quintessential modern day wing every NBA team covets nowadays.

Possessing a quick-twitch release, including his shot release being one of the most unguardable from high angles I’ve seen from someone in awhile (think Paul George or Kevin Durant when even bigger defenders can’t bother them with close contact), Bridges will immediately step into his catch-and-shoot weapon role under head coach Igor Kokoskov. And from the minutes we saw out of Bridges during Las Vegas Summer League, he already knows his role in how to properly function within Kokoskov’s system based heavily around motion and misdirection concepts.

After working his way through Villanova’s pro-style program under Jay Wright starting off as an undeveloped wing who took beating after beating in practices from the likes of Josh Hart, Bridges eventually was molded into one of the more consistent two-way forces throughout Villanova’s run to their second national championship in three years.

During his breakout campaign last season, Bridges shot 43.3% on three-pointers while racking up an absurd efficiency at 65.5% true shooting. His shot came along while his defensive instincts were rock solid from the get-go where his defensive impact was felt immensely, with his combined career steal + block of 6.6%. For reference, George’s career IMPACT% was 6.5% at Fresno State while Otto Porter, another name who Bridges is always within the vicinity of when throwing out comparisons, tallied up an IMPACT% of 6%.

Now, you add in a fluid jumper with sound mechanics and there’s no wonder why General Manager Ryan McDonough likely had Bridges with high grades on his draft board, requiring giving up the Suns’ most prized trade chip with Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round selection.

Bridges is someone when you dive in and watch even more film on him from Villanova is someone who could quickly thrive within high-pressure situations, especially playoff settings.

Within the span of only two weeks, I’ve had two different guests on Locked On Suns, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks and Vice Sports’ Michael Pina, throw J.J. Redick as one of his outcomes. However, the caveat being if Redick could ever guard three positions.

The point is, Bridges’s archetype is rare and one that is put into the “high ceiling” category more often than not.

When trying to scour around for possible correlations with college box score statistics and NBA success, four different areas popped off the page compared to others. They were assist to turnover ratio, active hands garnering rebounds and steals, true shooting percentage, and three-point percentage. Bridges grades out very well over those four metrics, which I tallied below:

AST/TO: +1.43

REB + STL: 6.8

TS%: 65.5

3PT%: 43.3

Taking it another step further from the professional lens, George graded out as the only one who amassed a +2.5 STL% while shooting +40% on 3s last season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Bridges reach that plateau, yes even as a rookie, with how I expect Kokoskov to deploy him offensively capitalizing exclusively off cuts to the rim and drive-and-kicks out to him in his corner hotspot.

Then, stretching that same bar out over the past few seasons, only Khris Middleton, Kawhi Leonard and Joe Ingles joined George on that exclusive list.

Shoutout to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and Tjarks for this idea off of their podcast, Draft Class, but I’ve come up with my own Mount Rushmore (AKA Comp Rushmore) of possible Bridges outcomes. Not surprising, but the names listed are ones who have had successful careers but also ones who are set to thrive off long term longevity with games that will age well, as is the case with one of them.

I graded out five different players with skill sets that blend together some of Bridges’s strengths and decided to compare them using three career-long metrics: IMPACT% off steals + blocks, three-point percentage and true-shooting percentage.

Comp Rushmore

Otto Porter - 3.4 IMPACT%, 40.4% on 3s, 58.3 TS%

Trevor Ariza - 3.4 IMPACT%, 35.3% on 3s, 53.3 TS%

Paul George - 3.7 IMPACT%, 37.6% on 3s, 55.9 TS%

Robert Covington - 4.7 IMPACT%, 35.8% on 3s, 54.9 TS%

Khris Middleton - 2.8 IMPACT%, 39.1% on 3s, 56.1 TS%

Covington is the big standout defensively, but his effectiveness on 3s lags behind the likes of Porter, Middleton and George. However, the biggest correlation between all of them, Ariza now being Bridges’s teammate (how ironic, because Bridges told the local media after his press conference that Ariza was someone he modeled his game after), is they all are efficient anyways and know how to flow within their offensive system.

After redshirting at Villanova, Bridges put up an IMPACT% of 6.6 while shooting 40% on 3s and amassing a TS% of 65.6. All of those are right on par, or even above, most of the names mentioned here. However, it’s smart to tone it back just a tad bit for a rookie wing getting his feet wet for the first time with NBA minutes.

If you average out the Comp Rushmore five, it comes out to 3.6 IMPACT%, 37.6% on 3s and 55.7 TS%. That feels like a safe barometer to set for Bridges in his rookie season, and it’s one that still meets his mostly league-wide notion he’s one of the safer bets for immediate production from his loaded draft class.

One area where the Suns desperately lacked in was hustle plays, and it spans over the Earl Watson tenure, including Jay Triano’s 79-game sample size under the interim tag. Plays involving big-time hustle and all-out effort like taking charges, closeouts and deflections were rarely seen with consistency in Phoenix.

Even though he only saw regular minutes over the last 4-6 weeks of the regular season, Shaquille Harrison’s infectious energy showed itself when glancing over deflections per game. Harrison led the Suns with 2.1, with Josh Jackson — who was supposed to fill that role with more effectiveness even in Year 1 as their main on-ball disruptor — tallying only 1.6 (1.8 per game after Triano gave him his benching/wake-up call in early January).

Similarly to how Ariza impacted Houston in that aspect last season creating countless opportunities in transition off these looks, Bridges did plenty of damage for Villanova as well. Bridges’s quick-twitch foot speed and ball-hawking length harassed ball handlers to the point of coughing it up outright or throwing wayward passes that he then gobbled up right away.

Going back to the Comp Rushmore list, here are how those graded out when trying to figure out how Bridges could project within Phoenix’s ecosystem. All five were littered throughout the top 15 in this hustle category, with Covington leading the entire league alongside George.

Deflections:

Covington - 3.9

George - 3.9

Porter - 2.9

Ariza - 2.9

Middleton - 2.7

What should we expect from Bridges next season in a Suns uniform? Well, I’m expecting instant impact on both ends but we should also parse over why some of those names separate themselves from Bridges, showing what steps he still needs to grow.

The obvious one that immediately stands out is his thin frame, reminiscent of Jackson. Plenty will be asked of him, but he will have to show he’s capable of handling thicker wings or bigs in switch situations multiple times per game. During his tenure at Villanova, Bridges would sometimes shy away from contact in that sense, easily allowing backdowns towards the rim for easy looks or being pushed by altogether.

Physically, that’s why Covington and Porter seem to distance themselves showing they can hold their own with no issue even against most 4s and 5s. Sure, Bridges could prove me wrong there right from the jump with his way above-average BBIQ, but I’m already placing high expectations on him already.

When going back and glancing over film from George at Fresno State and Middleton from Texas A&M, they look plenty like the gangly Bridges we see today. Unlike George, Middleton lacked in defensive equity early but has slowly made up for it over the past few seasons.

Another area Bridges has yet to develop is his playmaking acumen. All of those names outside of Covington and Ariza have showed semblance of average to above-average playmaking skills when thrown into pick-and-roll or secondary pick-and-roll opportunities. The latter two haven’t been able to showcase that, but they really haven’t been needed because they are so strong defensively within their switch concepts — something that Bridges could quickly become great at on the next level.

Bridges’s career assist percentage is only 10.6%. Others like George and Porter saw there’s creep into the 20-25% range, but the caveat is they also saw more usage in their college systems there. Again, under Wright’s tutelage, Bridges wasn’t really needed to showcase that with plenty of ball handlers like Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo already surrounding him.

The Villanova product has shown he can create for himself off the bounce, but not yet able to do so for others.

One sequence I saw in Summer League popped to me when Bridges was driving, but he noticed a wide-open Elie Okobo in the corner. He fired it over there even though he had the step on his defender. That’s an area I didn’t see used much, if at all, with the Wildcats but could quickly show itself under Kokoskov’s vision. It’s also a category where Jackson has continued to struggle at, even so in Las Vegas after his strong second half of 2018 wrapped up.

Bridges will quickly show himself to be utilized well under Kokoskov in multiple set actions like floppys, screens, curls and flares with his dynamic shooting on top of his aforementioned absurd high release point that’s unfazed by even hands in the face. Kokoskov’s innovative mind will not only create beautiful actions revolving around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but also for Bridges too.

On seven different occasions, Bridges scored 15 or more points while taking less than 10 shots during his redshirt junior season. Almost all (8/10) were marked with high effectiveness in percentages, showing again how he could be the true diamond in the rough as far as doing so much with rarely having to touch the ball at all.

Over the past three years, Bridges has seen his offense start to blossom next to his already fully bloomed defensive prowess. He’s starting to become that unique player who could not only just be labeled as someone who’s “3&D”, but one who could continue to rapidly develop once placed into another structured NBA system playing off his true strengths.

Bridges likely already knows the realization in becoming the next late lottery gem to reach his upper echelon of his potential. The high ceiling is already there, but he could break through the roof if he adds more playmaking presence while growing into his body even further (around 15 pounds to be near the Ariza’s and George’s of the world).

Is it possible that the No. 10 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft is a more defensive-minded Middleton? Redick who could guard three positions seamlessly? Maybe even one who has sneaky upside to creep into George territory when surrounded by even more plus defenders?

Many will want to throw Bridges into one box and keep him there, but that shouldn’t be the case one bit.

McDonough and Co. likely realized this when they sent off their precious unprotected draft asset, but the blueprint is there for them to turn Bridges into someone capable of making everyone quickly forget about that future selection. It really shouldn’t even matter at that point with the abundance of young talent already in Phoenix.

Bridges will be 22 when the new season begins, being three months older than their franchise star who just received his 5-year, $158 million extension earlier this month, but it’s hard not to imagine the possibilities when he’s reaching ages 25-27.

The already polished product could turn into a full-fledged gem who is not only a Swiss army knife defensively who could switch onto four positions, but one who could also create for himself and others in secondary spots.

Do not place Bridges in the “finished product” category even as an older rookie. He’s only a few more developmental jumps away from becoming the next steal, and I’m not betting against someone who has battled to make it where he is today.