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Mikal Bridges is showing he’s more than just a 3&D wing prototype

Not only is the Suns’ rookie an above-average defender, but he’s adding more to his toolkit as the season progresses.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

As I wrote back in July, Mikal Bridges has way more upside than you think. We’ve seen flashes here and there through half of Bridges’s rookie season, but it’s a promising sign for what’s to come in the near future.

At the moment, Bridges is an elite team defender who has shown potential to be a secondary creator out of certain actions. Bridges has seen his assists per game rise from 1.2 to 2.2 since the Trevor Ariza for Kelly Oubre Jr. swap on Dec. 15, but the more surprising complimentary statistic is how Bridges’ turnovers have dropped from 0.8 to 0.6.

We all knew Bridges was one of the most NBA-ready prospects in the 2018 draft class due to his two-way attributes and above-average feel for the game, but he’s even surprised me at points where he looks like he’s been in the league a decade already. It’s rare you see one rookie come in and immediately take over as the best defender, but that’s exactly what has happened with Bridges.

Standing at 6’7” with a 7’2” wingspan, Bridges has the measurables but did you know his +2.32 AST/TO ratio ranks him alongside names like Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Gordon Hayward, and Draymond Green for people playing at least 25 minutes this season? Again, it goes to show how high Bridges’ basketball IQ truly is.

Even though it costed an unprotected pick in 2021 via Miami from the Goran Dragic trade to acquire the former Villanova Wildcat, it’s paid early dividends with his snug fit within Igor Kokoskov’s system. Once Ariza quickly packed his bags and left Phoenix, Bridges assumed his role and ran with it. There’s been an improvement, let alone little to no difference in how the Suns’ offense functions with Bridges as the playmaker who’s making the smart reads quickly.

What Bridges has continued to consistently show throughout his rookie season is sky-high defensive upside. Bridges is putting up advanced metrics at this stage of his career better than other shoe-in candidates for Defensive Player of the Year like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Butler, Robert Covington, and Green did. When combining steal and block percentages to make up my IMPACT% metric, Bridges is the runaway leader.

Mikal Bridges = 4.3 IMPACT%

Paul George = 4.0 IMPACT%

Kawhi Leonard = 4.0 IMPACT%

Robert Covington = 3.8 IMPACT% *

Draymond Green = 3.8 IMPACT% *

Jimmy Butler = 3.1 IMPACT% *

(*) = second season in the NBA due to original lack of playing time

This puts Bridges on an elite path towards being known as one of the best defenders in the NBA soon. And for other wings currently around the Association, Bridges is one of only three to have accumulated at least a 55 true shooting percentage, 2.5 steal percentage, and 1.5 block percentage. The two joining Bridges (minimum 1000 minutes) are Butler and Covington, so not much to argue with there.

By the way, not very often you see rookies pulling off these types of sequences with the game on the line. Bridges does these winner type plays every time Phoenix steps on the court.

Bridges has already shown his floor is something along the lines of Ariza, but his ceiling is one who makes multiple appearances on end of the year award ballots. What makes Bridges’s upside even more appealing is his budding self-creation ability.

During his outing on Tuesday night against the San Antonio Spurs, Bridges put up 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting, 3-for-5 on three-pointers. One area I wanted to highlight here, though, is Bridges’ off the dribble sequences. Leading up to this point, we haven’t seen Bridges put the ball on the floor from the perimeter and let it rain as he’s been one of the Suns’ best catch-and-shoot threats.

And over Bridges’s last two games alone, he’s attempting nine shots while averaging 16.5 points on 66.7 percent shooting. On the season, Bridges has averaged 6.4 field goal attempts, so this could be the turning point in him finally getting more comfortable.

As you see in the play above, Bridges receives the pass from Jamal Crawford, but instead of passing it to Devin Booker, he decides to create for himself off the dribble with the space Davis Bertans provided him. End result was a beautiful splash from deep that featured Bridges’s regular release time we saw during his college career after setting up Bertans with a dribble in both hands.

Here, Bridges is set up with a pick from Emanuel Terry to get his own play run for him by Kokoskov. Before Terry arrives, Bridges brings the ball up like he’s going to pass it over to Kelly Oubre Jr. in the right corner, but Patty Mills then runs into the Terry screen to open up room for him after two quick dribbles. One dribble to get to the space created, then one to stabilize himself to launch.

The two-year starter under head coach Jay Wright with the Wildcats could serve to be more assertive within the flow of this pass-happy offense. One way the Suns could solve this would be moving off one of the other wings after this season, so Bridges can have more usage, but his development arc reminds me of the ones who took a few years before really becoming true All-Star sleeper contenders.

Bridges has all the makings of being the next Covington or Ariza, but that feels like selling him short. He’s starting to flash not only playmaking ability but also three-level scoring prowess. From a more defensive-minded Khris Middleton to a less explosive Paul George, Bridges’s ceiling is limitless if he gets down the nuances of his offensive skillset paired with his innate defensive instincts and immediately promising production.

I won’t be doubting Bridges to take another leap over the second half of this season, or for the 2019-20 campaign, because he had to redshirt his freshman year before becoming a vital cog to two national championship winning teams in three years. Winning players don’t show up until the winning pieces are formed around them.

Add in Bridges with Booker and Deandre Ayton as the three main pieces to the next great Suns team. Some nights his value might not show up in the box score, but, trust me, it’s definitely felt by being vocal defensively and helping build this newfound team culture from the ground up.