Our good pal Zona got the ball rolling the other day with a very interesting comparison of Mikal Bridges and Shawn Marion, two Phoenix Suns forwards known for their defense and hustle. I commend it to your attention.
While Zona is correct that it’s a bit early to compare those two with any finality, a salient question remains: what should Suns fans really expect from Mikal Bridges in the area of scoring?
Further...should they REALLY want whatever that expectation might be?
Quickly, here is a statistical comp of Bridges age 24-25 seasons to Shawn Marion’s age 24-25 seasons. For Bridges, that’s last year and this year.
Marion played over 40 minutes per game on average those two seasons, almost 25% more minutes than Bridges, so this comp is balanced on a per-36 scale. You can see that Bridges is a better shooter (54/41 vs. 46/36) but on much smaller volume (13.8 FGA vs. 22.2).
The balance of this article is an attempt to review Bridges’ offensive game, and ask the question whether he should be a much higher-volume scorer than he is today.
We already know he’s incredible defensively on the perimeter, much the same way Marion was. Comparing them as defenders is another article at some other time (by some other writer, probably). Today, I am simply comparing their offensive roles.
Who is Mikal Bridges, the basketball player, on offense?
Simply put: he’s a finisher. He cuts and he catches and shoots. He does it very effectively, as his sky-high efficiency (63% true shooting at the time of this writing) shows. He finishes at a very high percentage inside (well over 80% on shots inside of three feet) and he’s an effective sniper from long range (currently about 39% from three point land).
But he’s not a shot creator like his fellow starting wing Devin Booker. Bridges essentially does not attempt pull-up shots at all, with NBA stats crediting him with only two pull-up shot attempts per game, including only 0.3 from long range. This is in stark contrast to Booker, who takes about 11 such shots per game, and three per game from deep. In other words only about 20% of Bridges’ shots are pull-up jumpers, while most of the league’s elite scorers like Booker, Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard etc. are making pull-up shots more than 50% of their attempts.
This matters because these players are able to create points efficiently and in volume without a play needing to be run for them. This is what makes great scorers great scorers...and why nobody could seriously argue that Jerami Grant is as comparable to Devin Booker as the counting stats might make it appear.
This shows in their assisted statistics, too: so far this season 100% of Bridges’ three pointers have been assisted, and more than 80% of his two pointers. For Booker, those numbers are just 68% and 37%.
Ok, he’s a great finisher, not a creator. He’s still young, right?
Yes and no. Bridges is 25 and in his 4th NBA season. Suns fans will recall he was a more “mature” draft choice who had an extensive college career, playing 116 games over three seasons for the Villanova Wildcats and not making his NBA debut until the more traditional age of 22. Again, this contrasts him with Booker who was among the NBA’s younger players when he made his debut just two days shy of his 19th birthday.
Many fans tend to assume that NBA players have later and longer primes than available evidence actually suggests. The leading academic on this subject is economist David Berri, who has produced work suggesting that the typical NBA player reaches his peak at age 26 and begins to decline slowly thereafter and more rapidly after age 30.
That means Bridges is about at the point where we’d expect him to be at nearly the best version of himself...if not quite all the way there. Berri isn’t the end-all be-all authority, of course, and there are many who question the model he uses to measure effectiveness. But Bridges is too seasoned at this point to realistically expect his game will evolve in a really profound way. He’s always been a finisher, and so far he’s just gotten better at that. The difference between Bridges in 2019 and Bridges now isn’t that he’s playing in a different way...it’s that he’s taking three extra shots per game and shooting 54% instead of 51%. But they’re the same shots.
Now, all players are unique, of course...but it’s difficult to find any examples of a player who became a radically more effective scorer at age 28 than he was at age 25, controlling for seasons lost to injury.
The aforementioned Jerami Grant could actually be one informative example: he went from being a 12-14 points per game guy at age 24 and 25 to averaging 22 last season and 20 this season. But his efficiency crashed as the much greater volume of shots necessitated more difficult shots and more unassisted shots, as his TS% dropped from 59% two seasons in a row to 56% last season and now only 53%. And even after all that...it appears his age 26 season might indeed end up being the best of his career: right in line with Berri’s expectations.
So what’s your point?
Basically, I think there’s a strong case to be made that Suns fans shouldn’t WANT a Mikal Bridges who becomes a focal point of the offense a’la peak Shawn Marion. Doing so would force him out playing the way that has made him such an effective player to this point, and it seems unlikely that the Suns couldn’t find a player (cough, cough, Deandre Ayton) who makes more sense as the guy to become a bigger offensive focus.
It’s also unfair to the excellent player Bridges is to pin to him expectations of becoming the much whispered of “Kawhi light,” because then his possible failure to become a dynamic scoring playmaker would be viewed as, well, a failure....and it shouldn’t be.