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Mikal Bridges is Evolving, Trust his Process

The Phoenix Suns forward is continuing to improve in his 5th season.

NBA: New York Knicks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns have seen an increase in the demand placed upon their young core to do more, independent of Devin Booker.

Those being tasked to expedite the development in their evolution have been Deandre Ayron, Cameron Johnson, and Mikal Bridges.

Each operates in an extremely unique manner from the others, and the ultimate picture is seeing each of these three exist in a harmony to where they can be “fire starters” in generating advantages within the offense for themselves, in self-creation.

In the case of Bridges, the emphasis has been, at times, even more pronounced than upon their 2018 1st overall pick, Deandre Ayton.

This is understandable though, given the areas on the floor Bridges operates from as well as the ability he has to initiate offense or scoring actions.

Last season, those expectations started in earnest. Though he didn’t necessarily meet those demands, especially as he was called to action at moments in the postseason, he was able to ascend as a scorer in variety, volume, as well as in points per game.

However, as often occurs with younger players, the postseason is the true measuring stick of just how much evolution has occurred from the previous season to the present.

So while many things remain to be seen, as it stands, he is indeed up another point (and some change) on a per-game basis, he’s taking more shots, taking more trips to the free throw line, and is averaging more assists per game too.

His usage percentage is up to 17.2, which is 2.2% higher than that of last season (his career-high). That’s not a super significant rise, however, it’s the manner in which he’s being used that has evolved for the better of the team.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

He’s been featured in his typical manner, as a cutter, and spaced beyond the arc in their many variations of pick-and-roll.

They like to cleverly space him on the single-side in spread pick-and-roll as often as they can, for him to play against single-side taggers. This enables him ample opportunities at either open looks from deep as he lifts or sinks into more optimal positioning for the passer to hit him (41.9% on catch-and-shoot attempts from 3). Or, it enables him to work one of his strengths in driving closeouts to put on display his growing creativity in footwork plus touch at the cup (he’s at 5.5 drives per game, shooting 51.7% when doing so.)

However, what’s new is that he’s been seen used in a lot more of the sets usually reserved for Devin Booker. Meaning, he’s being featured as the “fire starter,” or the “chef,” rather than eating off of what someone else creates, or playing off of the advantages someone else has created.

They’ve run plenty more of their horns “elbow” actions for him to then get into spread pick-and-roll, created more opportunities for him to get into direct pick-and-roll (or pick-and-roll-adjacent) type scenarios to present 2v2 or 2v1 opportunities.

Those have come via single pindowns that allow for him to curl, catch, and get downhill in an empty corner with the screener then rolling. They’ve also come via him functioning as the “get man,” receiving dribble handoffs in their “Chicago/Zoom” (down screen into a DHO) or “Miami” (DHO into a ballscreen) actions via their flow offense, to springboard him downhill.

Recently, they’ve also used him as the screener in some “Flex” action, functioning as the subject of screen-the-screener part, receiving a down screen after setting a cross screen in the block.

In all, his evolution is directly aligned with one of the NBA’s most potent offenses. One that’s been near the top in a sustained manner for the past three seasons. That alone will bring a spotlight to your performance and the evolutions relative to that in development.

He’s done well blending what he’s already good-to-great at, in operating as one of the best players in the NBA in off-ball movement, with slightly more on-ball usage as well as initiation of offense.

It’s subtle and will be fun to continue tracking as the sample size grows, as well as what it looks like after the inevitable changes to the roster occur. Nonetheless, he’s performed well in his evolved role through 28 games.

The sample size may still be low so early in the season, but two of the three most used “Bench + Bridges” lineups are a +16.7 and a +90.0 per 100 possessions, per NBA tracking.

Even more, per Cleaning The Glass, lineups of this variety (sans Booker, Paul, or Ayton) are a +2.8 in efficiency differential. That mark ranks 70th percentile, and they have an effective field goal percentage of 57.4, which has an 88th percentile ranking.

Clearly, in those lineups, he's the number one scoring option in the halfcourt.

These lineups have been “fire starters” within the rotation for Monty Williams, of course being deployed against opposing bench or bench-adjacent lineups. However, just seeing him function as a primary option and garnering those reps are imperative to the process.

The desire to see more from him, in a sustainable manner, is certainly warranted, as the present roster construct certainly demands more from him. However, enjoy his individual process and how his feel for the game evolves as he and the Suns trek forward in the 82-game marathon.

The benefits of the hiccups on the road, and learning from them, will pay great dividends as the Suns keep their focus in the regular season more-so aligned with evolving the attack, rather than going solely with the entities of their offense that they know will work on a postseason stage.

The overarching point is to use the regular season to collect data but to also use the data present to evolve from the perils of last season's premature second-round exodus.

Welcome Stephen to the Bright Side writing team! Stephen has been writing and talking about basketball and the Suns in various places. Make sure to follow him on twitter @StayTrueSDot3 and stay tuned for more to come.

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