One of my favorite developments when it came to the late-stage offensive utilization of Mikal Bridges when he was still with the Phoenix Suns was the way they used him as screener — or in some cases a pseudo-screener.
At the time, it was a cute little quirk to a Suns offense that started to face some stagnancy as defenses would load up to stop the ball, whether initiated by Chris Paul or Devin Booker. It also gave Bridges a chance to get some “on-ball” reps without really being on the ball.
One of the other gravitational responses came as a product of Bridges often slipping these screens; in the examples I’ll show in just a second, you’ll see him tag — in some cases with his hands, looking for a second like a press corner in football giving a receiver physicality at the line of scrimmage — the on-ball defender to get himself separation as he gets downhill, playmaking on the short roll.
Because it puts the defense in such a panicky position with minimal defenders having to account for a multitude of avenues that the offense opens up, Deandre Ayton becomes one of the benefactors as well. They have to help off of Ayton when Bridges gets downhill. Here’s a great thread pointing out examples from the early stretch of this season:
We’ve been talking about using Mikal Bridges more as a screener and the main guy in the short roll to counter traps for a long time and it’s finally happening so here’s a thread of Mikal as a screener. pic.twitter.com/hi2B3NFdmX— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) October 31, 2022
Over the course of the rest of the regular season — and moving past the departure of Bridges — Josh Okogie became progressively more and more integrated in the Suns’ offense. Monty Williams had to pick his spots and get a little more creative in some instances because of Okogie’s limitations as a true offensive threat, and one of the ways to do that is utilizing him in that Bridges-adjacent screening role.
However, when it came to the round 1 series against the Clippers, Okogie was almost completely a non-factor on offense, at least to start, averaging just 4.8 points and 1.0 assists over the first four games before an 11-point, 3-assist game 5. Part of that is, of course, due to minutes (averaged 16.8 in the first four and played 32 in the fifth), but that also speaks to a willingness to be more creative with his utilization in the fifth game.
In the first example of the Okogie screen from game 5, it closely resembles some of those Bridges plays. He slips — instead of setting — the screen and in the split second the defense is reacting, Booker finds him near the nail where he’s able to dump it off to Ayton for an easy finish.
Ivica Zubac followed Okogie up to the screen because he had already switched assignments, but sometimes Okogie ends up with the center matched up against him just because he’s the guy to play off of among the Suns’ loaded lineup. In those cases, he just brings the center up with him straight-up.
In the later example, Mason Plumlee is the one following Okogie up, and because Booker takes such a steep angle getting downhill, Plumlee is left out of position and has to foul the Booker shot attempt.
Based on just one package — the Okogie screens — the Suns get an unexpected way out that solves multiple coverages. Even in situations where it’s not a spread pick-and-roll like in these two examples, Okogie can station himself at the nail to help bust zones. There was one instance where he found himself wide open for a free throw-line jumper because the Clippers’ defense was scrambling to replace their help in a zone, leaving the middle wide open.
It doesn’t just work with Booker as a ballhandler either, and I get particularly excited over the prospect of utilizing these screens with Kevin Durant as the ballhandler. In matchups where a defense is playing straight-up, you’re bringing someone to the table that Durant has an ultimate size advantage over.
If you think back to the 2021 four-game sweep over the Denver Nuggets, the Suns feasted off of matchup hunting, picking out “pigeons” for the stars to expose. Especially in lineups where it’s the Four around Okogie, he could end up being instrumental in this series in facilitating those matchups.
When factoring in Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and the perimeter creation prowess that a Denver team presents, don’t be shocked if Okogie starts to get the nod in starting lineups, so those 32-minute outings could be a lot more frequent than the 16-minute ones in this upcoming round 2, starting on Saturday.