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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mikal Bridges is exactly what the forgotten Phoenix Suns have been looking for

He’s not the type of player the Suns usually target but he could become the most vital piece of their rebuild.

Last summer brought a ton of change for the Phoenix Suns, as they handed a max contract extension to their 22-year-old superstar Devin Booker, drafted hometown kid Deandre Ayton with the first overall pick in the draft and hired a new head coach. Just as important if not equally hyped was the draft-day trade that brought two-time NCAA champion and polished role player Mikal Bridges to Phoenix.

Coming out of Villanova, the book on Bridges was that he was just a 3-and-D role player, but he learned to block out those limited expectations and let his play speak for itself. His electric transition from long-limbed curio to more-than-occasional All-Star stopper is not necessarily a surprise but it happened sooner than expected, begging the question of where Bridges could go from here.

Bridges certainly learned how to dominate on a great team the fun way in college, winning two national titles in four seasons at Villanova despite never once leading the Wildcats in shot attempts or points per game. He redshirted his freshman year and slowly worked his way up from the bottom, becoming one of the key pieces for those Villanova teams and ultimately getting drafted above teammate and National Player of the Year winner Jalen Brunson in 2018.

In a rebuilding situation far different from what he faced at school, Bridges is making a similar all-around impact and showing he could become the third young star the team desperately needs.

Overcoming the failure of falling short can often drive greater accomplishment. So it must be for the Suns to get out of this prolonged organizational swoon, nearing a decade without the playoffs, and so it has been over and over throughout Bridges’ life.

A whirlwind spit Bridges onto the Suns’ laps last June. After months of rumors linking Bridges to the 76ers, Philadelphia indeed drafted Bridges before trading him to Phoenix moments later in exchange for the two coveted picks the Suns acquired for Goran Dragic back in 2015. The Suns’ investment in Bridges was not lost on him.

“They had a lot of confidence in me and in growing me,” Bridges said a few months later. “They gave up a lot for me. I don’t take that for granted”

The Suns traded the 16th overall pick in 2018 (Zaire Smith) and a valuable unprotected 2021 first-round pick — often described as the best trade chip in the league — for Bridges, but the team felt he was worth cost of using their last big asset to add a player who wasn’t flashy.

“Mikal is like the prototypical 3-and-D guy for me,” former Suns GM Ryan McDonough said after the draft. “(But) I don’t want to limit him and put him in that box and say that’s all he can do.”

Around the time of the draft, players are projected years into the future. For the older players in a given class, the ceiling starts to creep downward, and teams talk themselves into the floor. Bridges joined a program at Villanova that forced him to mold to their budding dynasty, a group building together at the right time and playing a style years ahead of their college basketball competition. It was easy to overlook him as a game-changer in a draft where eight of the nine players taken ahead of him were shiny one-and-done freshmen, but the Wildcats’ team game stood out with Bridges as its leader.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Villanova vs Texas Tech Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

“It requires not just a keen eye for projecting talent but also player development and that’s where I think what (Villanova coach) Jay Wright does is probably better than anyone in college,” says David Thorpe, a trainer and coach now working as an analyst for the recently launched TrueHoop newsletter. “If Villanova had not been winning at all you would be saying Bridges did this despite what they did, but it’s just the opposite now.”

This isn’t usually the Suns’ way. They set back their rebuild under McDonough by taking far too many risks in the draft, reaching for project players in the high-lottery. The team’s 2016 draft stands out as one of the worst in recent NBA memory — all three players selected could be out of the league by next season. However, Bridges is the type of guy whose self-motivation and diligence could work to raise the collective ceiling of the Suns’ young core.

He’s used to upending perception at this point — no one believed Bridges’ first Villanova squad could become national champions.

“The year we won (in 2015) there were teams that were way more talented than us,” Bridges remembers. “It’s just they didn’t have that grit and that hard work that we had and we knew a team might be better than us and might have draft picks that year, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to play harder than us, they’re not going to fight out there for 40 minutes like we’re going to and bring the street fight that we’re going to bring.”

Bridges continued to exceed expectations right away in Phoenix by playing hard and executing. The rookie got on the floor for just 16 seconds on opening night against Dallas but by March was near the top of the team in total minutes played.

“He’s got a sneaky level of confidence,” says former Villanova assistant and current Quinnipiac head coach Baker Dunleavy, who coached Bridges for three years. “He knows he’s really good, he’s just not arrogant about it.

“I think if you ask anyone on our staff, I think he surprised maybe even himself with how quickly he developed. I think we thought it might take a little longer.”

His incredible off-ball instincts on defense transported directly to the NBA court — he is among the league leaders in deflections and fifth in steals and the Suns’ defense is far worse when he sits.

Bridges is the Suns’ chameleon, a purple and orange shapeshifter who can fill a multitude of roles on both ends. He’s continuing to grow as a player and leader despite the Suns’ disappointing season.

The coaches at Villanova were shocked when they first evaluated the versatile youngster, taken aback by what he could be thanks to his 7-2 wingspan and incredible feel for the game. After he got to school st Villanova, they realized they had something even more special — a positive, upbeat person his teammates wanted to be around. His Phoenix teammates are noticing the same thing. Bridges is timid when you ask him about being a leader, preferring not to acknowledge he’s older than Suns star Devin Booker or how successful he was in college. But he wants to lead by example and bring hard work out of others, from the four other rookies on Phoenix’s roster to anyone who may need a kick in the butt.

“Even if you piss them off, people play angry, they play hard, so it will come out of you somehow,” Bridges says of his leadership approach, which Wright helped coax out of him. “I’m just blessed that I have that in me every time I step on the court but you really just gotta get it out of people.”

Houston Rockets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The year before Bridges’ arrival, things started to flip at the school, led by Darrun Hilliard, who now plays in the Spanish ACB league but also took Bridges under his wing to show him how things were done at Villanova. Long, versatile players like Hilliard and Bridges meshed Wright’s vision for a read-and-react, defense-first brand of basketball with the talent to make it happen. The Suns’ rookie loved that style.

“This is not pretty, this is basketball and we’re going to go hardcore,” he says, dictating a mantra for those teams’ mettle.

Comfort with improvising on the court takes time, and it began for Bridges at Great Valley High School in southeast Pennsylvania, where coach Jim Nolan first saw Bridges’ potential as a “skinny, goofy” teenager. Bridges came to Great Valley in seventh grade amid a dominant stretch for the school, playing alongside his cousin, Kyrie Ames. At that point, though, “he wasn’t any different than any other kid who would come through our program,” Nolan says.

Bridges’ role was simple back then: Cut, box out, play good defense. He acclimated quickly, learned the fundamentals Nolan preached and became much more passionate about the game. Great Valley improved from 19-6 in Bridges’ sophomore season to 22-3 when he was a senior. Bridges was the ultimate role player who shared the ball and still impacted the game. Nolan sees highlights now of Bridges throwing down dunks and making plays off the bounce and can’t believe it’s the same player he used to coach.

It certainly was not always sunny at Great Valley. In the district tournament after Bridges’ incredible senior season, Bridges fouled out of his final high school contest.

Soon after, Nolan helped Bridges get ready for college. He had been calling Division I schools, but most weren’t interested, responding coldly. After Bridges’ junior season, Virginia Tech offered him a scholarship. Interest from a program of the Hokies’ caliber gave player and coach the confidence to keep looking, and when Nolan walked into Wright’s gym at Villanova, he recognized terminology and structure that were similar to what he did at Great Valley.

“I would go and sit there and feel like, ‘This is what we do,’” Nolan says. “It was just an easy transition for Mikal.”

Bridges accepted a scholarship offer from Villanova early in the summer during his final AAU season, that improvisational style making his game a perfect fit with the school. He learned little tricks as a scorer, like how to tinker with defenders off-ball — how going backdoor when his man falls asleep will open up a window to speed back to the perimeter for a pass, the defender scrambling to catch up. It helped him fill out his game.

“When I got older in college and became like a go-to guy, I knew how to be effective in a game without having the ball in my hands,” he says. “I don’t have to be the type of guy to go get 20, pounding the ball 100 times.

“I don’t even have to dribble the ball in a possession to score.”

Phoenix Suns v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

When Bridges arrived at Villanova, the time came for what could have been a tough conversation. Again looking at his slight frame and developing game, Wright and his staff wanted Bridges to redshirt his freshman season. Bridges took it better than expected, and by the time he came home to talk about it, his mind was made up, says his mother and the 76ers’ Vice President of Human Resources, Tyneeha Rivers.

Despite not playing that year, Bridges got to see up close the level of buy-in from Wright’s recruits to work hard in their role and wait for their opportunity to contribute, the type of attitude that must exist for a dynasty like Villanova’s to bloom. He never charted his course on draft boards or put pressure on himself to show off for NBA teams. Instead, he waited his turn.

“I’ve seen it since I was a freshman and when it was my year to be that guy, I kinda just knew, now it’s my time, and I know what I have to do and I gotta work even harder to lead this team,” he says.

It may not be Bridges’ time in Phoenix yet, but the rookie has the confidence to step up when needed. Throughout the year, Bridges has quietly made key plays to spur big wins for Phoenix. He doesn’t jump into the spotlight — it finds him.

Rivers saw that spotlight far before Bridges realized his own potential.

“Some people probably thought I was delusional, but way back when, I would tell everyone, ‘when my son grows up, he’s going to be in the NBA,’” she says.

She was right. But before the trade sending Bridges to Phoenix and into a hairier unknown, he flipped a 76ers cap onto his head and made true Rivers’ prophecy.

2018 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

“That night, I walked through the doors and I got chills,” Rivers remembers. “It’s just that moment in time where it’s here, he has arrived. All off the hard work that he did as a child, as a young adult, all the sacrifices, it’s paid off.”

Rivers hates coffee but has gotten hooked in an effort to stay up late to keep supporting her young son and maintain the unspoken promise to not miss a single game. She doesn’t hesitate to let her son know he still owes her pushups for missed free throws, though she is impressed with how quickly he has taken to the NBA.

That support system is a pillar for the work ethic Bridges has developed over the course of his life. He says it’s why he has been able to keep getting better and focus on himself.

In college, when he finally got onto the court, the focus, just like at Great Valley, was how to affect the game without a play run for him. He had a green light on open shots and slowly built out his game from there. As opponents reacted to his shooting ability (he shot 39 percent from three as a junior), Bridges learned to use his length and athleticism to get by them, digging back into the bag of off-ball tricks he developed under Nolan.

By his final season, Bridges was in the 90th percentile or above as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and a transition finisher in addition to being one of the top spot-up shooters in the country, according to Synergy stats. Villanova cruised to a national championship — Bridges’ second.

That’s the type of player who gets better — the guy who is passionate and works desperately to become great. Teams can’t often peg it in the draft but it’s easy to see in the NBA. Those who have been around Bridges for years saw it right away.

“He’s got a great capacity for learning and thinking, and when you talk, he really listens and tries to apply that to his game,” Dunleavy says.

A stretch in early February of his first NBA season saw Bridges defend two former MVPs, James Harden and Kevin Durant. Harden exploded in the fourth quarter to lead Houston in a comeback victory, scoring 44, while Durant went for 21 in a win three days later, but Bridges doesn’t see those important matchups as any sort of chance to prove himself mano-a-mano against legendary players. It’s merely what is needed to win.

“I really don’t look at it as just me against them,” he says. “Basketball is not just a one-person sport.”

The Suns, amid chaos, confusion and lots of losing, need more than just talent. Under interim general manager James Jones, the talk this year has been about culture, revamping what it means to truly be a championship organization, the powerful stuff that resides below the Ws.

By mid-March, after a stretch of five wins in seven games, the Suns were starting to look like a real team again, a group playing for one another and capable of finishing the season strong. Still, Bridges sometimes worries the Suns are falling into lapses in effort, his focus always on building, growing and maintaining success.

“When I was at ‘Nova and we see teams like that being too cool, that’s when we beat them by 30, and that’s what happens (with the Suns) when we lose by 30, because teams go out there and just play hard on us,” Bridges says.

He refuses to accept it. Every answer to every question comes back to work ethic, to controlling the controllable. Bridges is just a rookie but he has a belief in what can work at the highest level.

“Even teams that are better than us, that’s not going to stop us and we damn sure ain’t scared of nobody.” It’s an attitude that helped the Suns beat the league-leading Bucks and the World Champion Warriors during their stretch of improved play.

He’s seen it before and his conviction, more than any player the Suns have in the building, is backed up by championship pedigree and personal growth.

Both qualities were on display playing Golden State and childhood favorite Kevin Durant once again, the Suns desperate to maintain momentum against the defending champs. As Bridges would tell you, basketball is not a one-person sport, and Phoenix took the lead late thanks to inspired play from the whole team.

Sometimes, one person’s impact can feel heavier than the rest.

Booker took note of contributions from Bridges and the rest of the roster, and four years into a breathtaking career, Booker says his team used “the ability, the resilience to keep fighting,” to take down the mighty Warriors.

With 14 seconds left, Bridges stole the ball from two-time MVP Steph Curry to secure the Suns win. He finished with just 10 points in 27 minutes but closed the game with a huge defensive play.

Particularly with this franchise, it is impossible to predict what will happen years from now, but Bridges’ impact and growth is undeniable. He is different than the parade of youngsters Phoenix has brought in during its rebuild but his dogged positivity and belief in how to play basketball the right way may just be the mystical missing factor that separates those who stop getting better from those who never do.

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