Even though Mikal Bridges is shooting 29.4 percent from the floor since the All-Star break, and just 23.1 percent on threes, you might not be noticing because his defensive chops continue to hold up while his ability to facilitate continues to improve month-by-month.
Lost in the Suns’ first win in six weeks — even I admittedly didn’t notice this at first glance — but Bridges quietly had a career-high eight assists against Miami. And in his last three games coming off the bench, Bridges is averaging 5.7 dimes and 2 steals.
That is a surprising development, and one that could go a long way when remembering there were plenty of playmaking questions about the eventual No. 10 pick during the pre-draft process.
When Trevor Ariza was traded to Washington for Kelly Oubre Jr. on Dec. 15, Bridges immediately assumed the role of third playmaker who makes smart reads off cuts and quick motions. Honestly, he’s taken this role and absolutely ran with it.
Comparing Ariza during his Suns tenure to Bridges’ numbers since mid-December, Phoenix upgraded. The disgruntled veteran averaged more assists (Ariza - 3.3, Bridges - 2.7) but the rookie continues to push ahead in terms of assist-to-turnover (Ariza - 2.23, Bridges - 2.84). The Suns paid a big price for Bridges sending the No. 16 pick plus the 2021 unprotected selection from Miami to Philadelphia, but he’s paying early dividends as one of the most NBA-ready prospects in this class.
This is why I wrote last week that Bridges should be viewed as nearly untouchable in the upcoming roster overhaul alongside Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. He’s the ideal 3-and-D wing needed to have this pairing work.
The former Villanova Wildcat has a very high basketball IQ, which is showing through with his ascension in playmaking production. If Bridges develops into a player who averages 3-5 assists per game, that’s a huge asset when pairing it with his already above-average defensive ability (2nd in NBA in steals over last 10 games behind only P.J. Tucker).
Since December, Bridges has amassed at least two assists, but it’s been nearly doubled in his last nine games as the calendar turned to February.
December - 2.1
January - 2.0
February - 3.9
Bridges isn’t a finished product, not even close yet. With a 7’2” wingspan on top of his lanky frame, the defensive potential is oozing but his scoring off the dribble and playmaking are like a rising tide. Eventually, it’s going to overflow with plenty of top-notch skills with the tireless work ethic Bridges possesses.
Phoenix hasn’t had a starting-caliber point guard since Eric Bledsoe 16 months ago, but Bridges’ passing improvements can also be brought back to head coach Igor Kokoskov. Even though his system is hamstrung to the point he has to run the bare bones of it because he doesn’t have the necessary pieces and experience, the Suns have improved from 29th to 18th in terms of assists per game.
Kokoskov was brought to Phoenix from Utah with one of the main reasons being his intricate offensive system, but also his lauded player development reputation. He found an ideal match for his system to thrive with Bridges, who could be the new version of Joe Ingles in time when you see how he’s utilized by Quin Snyder. Ingles is one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot threats from deep, but his assist numbers have continuously improved since his third season (2016-17 - 2.7, 2017-18 - 4.8, 2018-19 - 5.0).
Bridges’ rookie season is being not only underrated nationally, but also locally as well. When you have the package of great awareness on both ends of the floor, it’s hard to be a negative. According to Basketball-Reference, Bridges will be the first rookie (minimum 1,500 minutes) to accumulate a plus-55 true shooting percentage and a plus-2.5 steal percentage.
Add in the ever-improving playmaking, Bridges could quickly turn into a 3-tool player who is almost impossible to take off the court in any situation. Whether he’s the next Leonard, Ingles, or another valuable wing archetype, it’s already been proven that Bridges has an extremely bright future ahead of him.