Phoenix Suns swingman Mikal Bridges just blew out the candles in celebration of his 25th birthday on Aug. 30.
Bridges, who’s fresh off of the best single-season showing of his career, has made the most of his summer by all accounts (at least the ones we’ve seen on social media).
He’s a constant gym-rat; seen linking up with Suns running-mates and several former Villanova Wildcats throughout the offseason in efforts to sharpen his skills. He’s made lively excursions — Bridges and a few fellow Suns were constant fixtures on the sidelines during the fiesta that is the league’s annual Summer League.
He even showed off a few of his jovial dance moves at Josh Hart’s wedding a few days ago.
Bridges is known for his vibrant smile and childlike playfulness. His consistent joy is infectious, and it spreads like a wildfire from the top of the organizational totem pole, to the lowest rung of its hierarchy.
But nothing can evoke a beam from a basketball player quite like hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, and Bridges just missed the mark of glory after a valiant effort in the postseason.
And there was nothing more that he could’ve done from a defensive perspective to accentuate their winning chances.
Bridges played like a man shot out of a cannon in his first playoff affair. consistently matching up against premier offensive weapons — from LeBron James, to Michael Porter Jr., to Paul George as he anchored his squad’s perimeter fortress.
Offensively though, his production had the up-and-down trajectory of a seismograph reading. He was moderate in his squad’s first-round faceoff with the defending champs, averaging just north of nine points per game, with a total +/- of 13 and an average game score of 8.1.
His statistical output kicked upwards in PHX’s second series versus Denver. He registered a FG% that eclipsed 50, and exceeded double-digit scoring figures in each of the series’ four outings. Not to mention, Bridges boasted an average +/- that absolutely leapt off of the scoresheet: 18.
But by their WCF bout, Bridges’ points production was back down to a modest nine ppg.
He posted 14 points, and followed that up with a career-high 27-piece in his first two Finals outings, but complemented those superb showings with a four-point night in Game 3, and two seven-point affairs in Games 4 and 6.
The Suns certainly could’ve used additional aid from a scoring standpoint from their wily 3-and-D savant, but then again, they would’ve been ecstatic to receive substantial service from a few of their key contributors.
But Phoenix’s loss can’t be attributed to one singular black sheep. It was a summation of unfortunate events (one namely — sir Giannis Antetokounmpo and his tyrannical tirade through their defense). Injuries, mental blunders and the Greek Freak himself plagued the Suns like a drought in the desert.
Luckily for these fireballers though, fortunes change with the seasons, and summer pains generally give way to fall rains. And droplets those sprout new hopes ripe with visions of spring gains.
For Bridges, he’s looking to wash away the aches of a draining finale to 2020-21, and shower his team, plus its rabid fanbase, with a spirited resurgence into newfound supremacy.
And he’s got the skillset, plus the moxie to do it.
Bridges recorded the team’s second-highest +/- mark (4.7) behind only Devin Booker last season, while finishing in the bottom half of turnover percentage numbers amongst Suns who averaged at least 10 minutes per contest.
A fixture in Phoenix’s lineup, he’s shown that his presence is invaluable when it comes to the greatest moveable metric there is: winning.
Bridges moves the needle in the right direction when he’s on the floor; and be it his energetic communication on switches and screens, the 7’1 wingspan that netted him his “praying mantis” nickname, or the cunning cutting ability Jeff Van Gundy has so notably lauded, Bridges has a knack for making the winning play.
The man’s already cemented his status as one of the association’s best and brightest young small forwards. But there still exists an untapped level of potential that Bridges can ascend to this coming season.
And all bets are that he will.
As his confidence grows, so will his shot attempts, and as those increase in frequency, so will their difficulty.
Bridges has flashed instances of a skillfully creative shot-making prowess (floaters, runners, reverse layups, etc). But with Devin Booker, CP3 and Deandre Ayton chewing up most of the squad’s shot attempts, #25’s arsenal has been minimized to mostly catch-and-shoot tries.
84% of his shots were assisted on according to Basketball Reference, and speaking of his otherworldly cutting ability, he had a 79% conversion rate on shots at the rim, plus a 50% mark from the 3-10 foot range to boot.
Bridges isn’t afforded much wiggle room for iso opportunities, nor does he necessarily need to create his own shots with abundance (he has teammates who are adept playmakers). But doesn’t mean he can’t make something out of nothing.
Just look at his Villanova days for example. During his junior season, Bridges was a dependable bucket-getter, who provided Jay Wrights Wildcats with 17.7 ppg and 5.3 boards on a 51% shooting clip for a national championship-winning squad.
So while he’s known for his defensive feats, Bridges can certainly put the ball in the basket at a high volume.
He’s made commendable offensive improvements in each of the three seasons he’s been a pro. He tried about three more shots (9) in 2020-21 than he did in his first two years, and saw rises in FG% (51 to 54), 3PT% (36 to 42) and effective FG% (58 to 64) from his sophomore year to his third.
Don’t be surprised if you see improvements (although they’ll likely be less steep in growth) in each of those categories in 2022.
Mikal Bridges knows what it takes to substantiate winning basketball, and he possesses the IQ that will clearly illuminate that path for the team plays for.
In ‘22-23, it seems like that path points toward an increased role for the young budding star.