As we are now just three weeks away from the NBA season recommencing, league players and coaches are looking at the fresh slate of games with a positive attitude. In particular, league veterans are getting the benefit of having rested their legs for a few months before gearing up for a playoff push.
But it’s a slightly more unfortunate story for some of the league’s younger players, many of whom were carrying positive momentum into the league’s hiatus. One such player? The Suns’ Mikal Bridges.
It may feel like so long ago that it’s hard to remember now, but before the league suspended its season, no Sun seemed to be improving as rapidly as Mikal Bridges just after the All-Star break.
Kelly Oubre officially went down three games after the break, and it was at this point that Monty Williams began to lean heavily on Bridges. In the final seven games of the season, Bridges played a hefty 39.4 MPG.
Of course, with greater playing time came greater production. It was during this period that Bridges rattled off a streak of six straight 10+ point games—the greatest such streak of his career. Overall, he averaged 13.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks in that final stretch. Best of all, he shot 56 percent from the field, 43 percent from deep, and didn’t miss a single free throw.
The biggest change for Bridges, which occurred gradually throughout the year but became most prominent in late February and March, was the consistency of his three-point shot. In particular, Bridges began to dominate the corner by season’s end. While Bridges shot just 35% from deep overall this season, he shot 40% on corner threes. And while he shot 38% from deep overall after January 1st, he shot an insane 46% from the corner in the new year. It quickly became clear that this was the predominant way in which Bridges—a low-usage player—could generate offense.
While the leap that Bridges took late in the season was not solely due to shooting, the shooting improvement had to come first because it gave him the confidence to try other things. Once Bridges was at the point where he was shooting with both volume and consistency from the corner, it put him in a strong position to attack from that spot as well. While Bridges is not a high-usage player, we know that he is a willing passer. Therefore it wasn’t uncommon to see him drive the ball from either corner and look either for cutting big men or for perimeter shooters.
Here are some examples of Bridges’ most recent assists. While some of these are simply the result of effective ball rotation, others come directly from his drives. The more Bridges has the confidence to drive, the closer he can get to being the type of tertiary ball handler that can average close to 5 APG—even from the SF position.
As Bridges now enters the bubble, the question is how much further he can be asked to push his game. Already he is an effective team defender, shooter, cutter, and passer. Truly, there are few things he’s not at least okay at.
But is there a reality in which he can fill in as the team’s 3rd scoring option with Oubre (possibly) out, even if it’s only for a handful of games?
It all depends on his mindset. I’ll admit, some aspects of being a great scorer just can’t be fixed in a 3-month pause. I doubt Bridges will enter the Bubble as a noticeably better off-movement shooter, or as a noticeably better offensive rebounder or ISO scorer.
But what he can do is have the confidence to drive the ball. Right now Bridges averages just 2.7 drives per game, less than half of Oubre’s average of 6.1. If Oubre doesn’t play, that’s quite a lot of penetration missing from the Suns’ offense. I’d like to see Bridges step up and fill that hole as much as possible, even if it doesn’t lead to quite the same results. Bridges isn’t likely to leap over defenders for poster dunks like Kelly does, but he can use his sharp decision-making to find the right angles for crafty layups or assists.
To be clear, this type of change in Bridges’ role would no doubt come with an adjustment period. Perhaps his efficiency will decrease, or he’ll commit a few extra turnovers. But the point is that we’ll never know if he has the capacity for extra scoring unless he pushes himself to be aggressive. If there’s any great time to experiment with these sorts of things, it’s in the Bubble.
And if the experiment should fail? Well, take solace in the fact that Mikal Bridges is still really good at just about everything other than scoring. Whether he unlocks 20 PPG scoring potential or not, that’s still a very good player who can help your team win for a long time.