I hear the harmonic melodies from the 1963 hit song “My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels playfully ringing in my ears, although the lyrics are slightly altered...
“Mikal Bridges is back and you’re gonna be in trouble! Hey-la-day-la, Mikal is back!”
Now that Phoenix Suns fans are certain that Mikal Bridges is present in Orlando with the team and practicing, we gleefully can resume our love affair with the second year forward from Villanova. The progression Bridges has displayed during the 2019-20 season has fortified our trust in his abilities. The expectations for his involvement in the next Suns renaissance continue to excite with every possession. If Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are the steak and potatoes, Mikal Bridges is the seasoning that makes it work as a five-star meal.
Mikal Bridges is the Suns official “glue guy”.
Every winnimg team has them. They are players that hold the roster together, rise up and excel when the obstacles seem insurmountable, and dig into the trenches, chucking Molotav cocktails over the concertina wire at the enemy. They are more than simply “role players”.
Draymond Green. Bruce Bowen. Shane Battier. Shawn Marion. Mikal Bridges? Okay, clearly I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is impressive about Bridges is his continual growth. How often have Suns lottery picks in the past decade displayed second season improvement? The correct answer is “few and far between”. Bridges has showcased his ability to change his shot, increase his defensive intensity, and even get to the rim on occasion with this freaky length and underrated athletic ability.
And we love him for it.
But we weren’t always sure Monty Williams had faith in him.
A continual frustration this season was Williams neglecting to start Bridges. Dario Saric continued to receive the starting nod over the young player even as the obvious choice (to the fan base) was to go with the defensive-minded Mikal. The season took some twists and turns comparable to the Road to Hana on Maui, but on January 28, 2020, Monty Williams pulled the lever on the ‘BOBRA’.
The Suns cooked the Mavs to a tune of 133-104 that evening. The future of the Suns was born, and Glue Guy Mikal Bridges was the linchpin that made it work.
Sidenote: I continue to take credit for dubbing it the BOBRA lineup. If you can find someone who said it earlier, I’ll graciously step off the BOBRA throne and rejoin the peasants.
BOBRA (Book, Oubre, Bridges, Rubio, Ayton)— Suns JAM Session Podcast (@SunsJAM) January 29, 2020
The leap from role player to “NBA Glue Guy” is not easy. You needed be tested. You need to earn the moniker. The ability to adjust to the needs of the team, understand what your weaknesses are, and fulfill your role effectively and consistently are required. You’re not to most flashy player or the loudest in the locker room. No, you’re the guy who simply G.S.D.’s it every game (Get’s Stuff Done...the PG version).
Mikal may not be 100% of the way there yet. But his efforts are turning heads and he is well on his path to earning this honorable status.
Let’s look at some of the aspects of Mikal’s growth that are earning him the glue guy status.
Adjusting His Confidence
Following practice on Saturday, both Monty Williams and Mikal Bridges sat with the media via Zoom and shared their thoughts on Mikal’s journey this season.
A second year player’s road is an intriguing one, especially for that of a lottery pick. Although the expectations to perform are overshadowed by fellow 2018 NBA Draft class teammate Deandre Ayton, pressure still is present. Unlike previous regimes in Phoenix, who gave rookies minutes like Oprah gives soccer moms new cars, Monty Williams has not provided an abundance of playing time to young players simply because of their draft status.
“He went through the ups and downs of being a second year player with the expectations,” Monty stated. “He wasn’t gifted any minutes. I was pretty tough on him to start the season, which may have helped or may not have.”
Mikal echoed those sentiments as admitted he was told he “needed to work a little harder to get back to where he was at the end of his first season.”
This may explain why it took so long for Monty to give him a chance in a consistent starting role. Yes, injuries permitted Mikal to receive sporadic starts in December, with his first start coming on December 14, 2019 in Mexico City against the San Antonio Spurs (that game still pisses me off). But that was out of Williams’ control. Monty wanted more from Mikal.
“You saw a guy who was in a national program in college, he gets drafted pretty high. So he goes from one coach in one system to another coach and here comes another coach in his second year,” Monty explained. “So that was a lot of change for him and I think it took him a minute to adapt to all of that change.”
The season progressed and so did Mikal. He earned more minutes with his play and his attitude, as Monty noted, “Mikal has an edge to him. Guys respect the heck out of him because he competes every day. He gets the toughest matchup every time I put him on the floor. He makes the right plays.”
A drill sergeant in basic training once told me, “Nothing good in life is easy”. Put the work in and results will follow. Thankfully for the Phoenix Suns, their 10th pick in ’18 has been putting the work in, and Williams has noticed.
“He and (Suns assistant coach) Darko (Rajakovic) have been in the lab a ton, but once he could focus on what I wanted from him and I could listen to him, I feel like that gave him some confidence, a template that he could follow.”
These are the traits of a glue guy. He is worker. He is a defender. He is someone who improves, both in the eyes of his coaches and the eyes of his teammates.
Adjusting His Jumper
One of the most notable changes in Mikal’s game this season in the improvement of his jump shot. No great glue guy should leave home without one. Well, maybe Shawn Marion.
“He had a bit of hitch that had to be worked out,” Monty observed. It was a noticeable challenge as the season began as it lacked rhythm and confidence.
Let’s look at Mikal’s improvements on the season. Let’s start with a game that took place on October 26, 2019. Notice in this clip how Mikal receives the ball but never fully squares to the basket, rather, he shoots from his left hip.
You could build an entire Army base’s barracks with bricks like that.
The challenge continued for Mikal as he tried to find a repeatable stroke from beyond the arc. Early in the season, his form was comparable to the line at the DMV. It took forever.
Here is the slow-mo jumper in action on December 17, 2019 at Los Angeles:
Not one of Mikal’s best moments, eh? I could feel him sizing up the shot in this clip. He consistently would receive the pass and bring the ball down, taking time to gather prior to his release. Time and again this process garnered results that were less than optimal.
The first 40 games of the 2019-20 campaign saw Mikal Bridges average 7.1 points-per-game on 28.8% from deep.
Mikal recognized this opportunity to improve, stating, “It was tough, too, trying to change the shot in-season, mid-season, you have to be confident with it as well. A lot of time, a lot of off-days, just coming in. just starting from ground one just trying to get it better and keep progressing. I’m with [Darko] every single day in the gym, he’s just trying to help me get better.”
Here is another look at Bridges’ three-point jumper, this coming in Boston on January 18, 2020 on the night he dropped a career high 26 on the Celtics:
Less thinking, more doing. The flow of Bridges’ shot, although not completely smooth, displays more fluidity. He is showing more confidence in his catch-and-shoot ability. When he receives the pass from Booker, he squares, he fires, he hits.
Let’s look at one more, this time against the Lakers on February 10, 2020:
Notice again how he is finding rhythm in the game and squaring the ball to the basket The work is paying off. We see less of the catch-gather-think-shoot mentality he had early in the season.
Monty wants him to continue to excel offensively.
“I want him to be the guy you saw the first 65,” he said of Bridges. “But I also want him to be more aggressive with the ball on offense. Because he makes the right plays. Even if he makes a mistake every now and again, I think that’s gonna help him get to the next level as far as his confidence is concerned.”
His teammates having taken notice as well. Dario Saric stated, “His shooting has improved a lot during the season. He’s really looking good.”
New Suns addition Cameron Payne observed, “He surprised me how well he shoots the ball. He’s always around the ball. He’s so versatile offensively and defensively.”
Adjusting to Starting
Mikal Bridges is quickly developing into a player who has gained the respect of coaches, teammates, and fans alike. Don’t believe me? Ask any Suns fan about their willingness to trade Bridges. You’ll be met with opposition. He is ours. We stole him on draft night and you can’t have him!
The moment Mikal joined the starting lineup on January 16, the team changed. The record might not reflect the impact (the team went 9-12 in his final 21 starts, the BOBRA went 4-6 overall on the year), but Mikal’s impact was felt.
His last 25 games of the season, 21 of which were starts, saw Bridges score 11.3 points-per-game on 39.8% from deep. He had on offensive rating of 120 (compared to 114 in his first 40 games) and a true shooting percentage of 64.1%.
His improvement was noticed and recognized by Monty.
“We hope that he becomes that guy with the starting group. That’s something that I’ve thought about quite a lot. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out, but I believe he has every intangible and talent and quality to be a glue guy in that starting lineup.”
Thank you Monty, thank you. You have finally crossed over to the belief that many of us have been holding on to all season: that Mikal should start!
Even the guy who want the starting power forward position is aware of what Bridges brings to the table.
“He’s the guy who can glue every spot on the floor,” Dario Saric said. “I think he will be one of our key players.”
What should we expect for the final 8 games of the season as it pertains to the performance of Mikal Bridges? From a guy who has improved every step of his career, we should expect just that: more improvement. Perhaps he’ll take it to the rim a but more often.
Is it just me, or does Mikal surprise defenders and himself when he drives to the rim and outreaches them as he lays the ball in? He’s longer than even he realizes.
“We all value Mikal,” Williams commented, “He’s a gut that plays on both ends. He has leadership qualities.”
You can’t win games unless you have your glue guys performing as such. You know it. I know it. And Monty knows it.
“He’s a bit of a glue guy in the locker room and on the floor.”