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‘It’s tough’: After a season of massive progress, Mikal Bridges’ career is on pause

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Bridges spoke with Suns reporters about the NBA hiatus, working out at the Madhouse, and leading at a time when he can’t play with his team.

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Mikal Bridges was looking forward to the end of the NBA season.

The Villanova alum has always viewed his path in the pros as similar to the one he traversed as a college kid. Learn from the vets, soak in anything that will help you get better, earn trust, and lead when it’s your time. This spring was set to be an important stepping stone. Now, it’s gone.

After Bridges skipped past many other steps two at a time over the course of his second season, he went into the NBA hiatus as a starter who unlocked the Suns’ small-ball, aggressive identity. Anyone in his shoes would wonder — what’s next?

Time is not on Bridges’ side, especially considering he leans on organization so much.

“I’m big on having a schedule, and knowing if we don’t make the playoffs, how much time I have off, which dates I’m taking off,” Bridges said. “In the beginning, it was tough because it was how am I going to work out? Am I just sort of staying in shape, or am I working out as if the season is going to come back?”

Hypotheticals like these dotted Bridges’ virtual press scrum with local media on Thursday afternoon. Everyone has questions. No one really has answers.

The NBA is in a new freeze, caught up in public excitement over its impending return but still trying to patiently craft a schedule for its July bubble in Orlando that pleases as many parties as possible.

While the latest rumors seem to point toward a 20-team grouping that would just barely slice the Suns out of the plans. Even if the Suns are not flown to Orlando to compete, Bridges hopes he and his young teammates at least have the time to work together more than they’re currently able to under NBA sanitation guidelines in team facilities.

“Even if we didn’t play, just all being together, being around coach, it would help,” Bridges said. “I haven’t missed a game yet, and I intend not to miss any games, so that’s kind of holding me on.”

Personal and team goals are central to Bridges’ approach to basketball. He glows when he talks up teammates like Deandre Ayton or Ty Jerome. He loves to get in the trenches with his guys.

Suns players have a group chat to connect with one another during this time, not unlike how Bridges has had to stay connected with family in Philadelphia, but that doesn’t make up for family bonding or chemistry-building on the hardwood.

Team representative Frank Kaminsky sends out info from the players’ association based on what is currently being discussed. The players talk in the gym here and there when they cross paths, though only four players can be at the Madhouse at McDowell at one time right now. It’s hard to keep things straight and sort rumor from fact. Careers are caught in limbo.

Nobody wants to read another “X in the time of the coronavirus story,” but hear me out: What does it look like for a young, improving NBA player who treasures the process of earning respect and opportunity to do all that when he can’t be around his teammates or coaches?

The answer: It’s hard. Bridges is undoubtedly behind in his goals of taking on more responsibility within this Suns core.

“It’s tough,” Bridges said. “I’m confident that when we have our full team, we’re a pretty good team.”

Not only was he becoming more of a leader, but Bridges also was earning the confidence of Suns coaches. He’s proud of his growth as a play-maker, having grown up loving to watch Rajon Rondo playing and loving to pass. Wing players don’t get that opportunity from day one, though, and these final days of the season, which most think of as a time for tanking and playoff seeding, can really matter for young guys like Bridges adding skills.

Bridges also worries for the rookies who will join the team this summer and enter an uncertain, socially distanced environment that isn’t very conducive to growth. Still, Bridges returned frequently in his 20 or so-minute media call to the phrase “control what you can control.” It felt like he was reminding himself of it just as much as he was explaining it to reporters.

Maybe Bridges and the Suns never get these past two months back. The fact of the matter is none of us will. That means Bridges’ mindset could change in turn, the patient youngster accelerating his transition into a team leader and consistent on-court performer sooner than he’s ready. It will be uncomfortable, and it already has been, but working out with an assistant coach donning a full mask and gloves in an empty gym probably has a way of changing one’s outlook.