Over the past few years, the NBA has embraced smallball. League coaches want to switch more on defense and get more spacing on offense, but a lack of truly versatile wings has hindered their ability to fully commit to the ongoing basketball revolution.
Most of the time, as humans grow taller, it's harder for them to retain both explosiveness and fluid body control. NBA wings need to do both and play with league-level perimeter skills in order to be effective. That's a tough needle to thread: veer too far on one side of the athleticism-skill pendulum, and a prospect risks falling into the dreaded "tweener" category.
When a player threads that needle, he can affect games on both sides of the ball. Guys like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, and Paul George have become stars after being selected outside of the top eight picks in the NBA draft. Meanwhile, even flawed wings can allow teams to play big and small. Veterans such as Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, and P.J. Tucker could fetch late first-round picks at this year's trade deadline, and smart executives focus on finding young, cost-efficient players of this ilk in the draft and in free agency.
In fact, two-way wings are the white whale of today's NBA, the player archetype every team is chasing. Which brings us to Michigan State forward Miles Bridges, a six-foot-six freshman forward whose athleticism and motor immediately jump off of the page—and whose size and skill deficiencies already have hindered his ability to be a lead player at the college level.
Bridges has a very real chance to win an All-Star Weekend dunk contest at some point in his career, and he might be an even better in-game dunker. He gets up, and he takes no prisoners. Check out this high school jam, which happened after Bridges was selected to play on Nike's EYBL team in the Bahamas. It's arguably the most vicious prep dunk I've seen on tape in the last two years:
Would you rather see how Bridges' athleticism looks against college players? Fair request. Some players look like men among boys in high school, but don't necessarily translate once they arrive on campus. This does not apply to Bridges:
Even Bridges' blocks—of which there are many, given his elite-for-a-wing 5.2 percent block rate—are of the jaw-dropping highlight variety:
Gravity does not seem to affect Bridges the same way it affects other humans. More than that, he plays with nonstop aggression. His default setting is attack mode—on the glass, on defense, in transition, or in the half court on offense. He never seems to get tired, and his fiery play energizes crowds.
Players like that often find ways to make an impact. Bridges is producing at historic levels for his age, as he is the only freshman in sports-reference.com's 25-year database to average 16 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and 1.5 blocks per game. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Michigan State ranks No. 246 out of 351 college teams in tempo.
As a combo forward with elite athleticism, it's easy to picture Bridges as the sort of NBA lineup connector that I described earlier. He could run in transition with your point guard, make smart passes and plays for others, switch on defense, and even force turnovers. In theory, you could play small with him at power forward, or bigger with him at small forward.
So why do I see him as a latter-lottery prospect?
Well, this is where we get into the difference between being versatile, which is good, and being a tweener, which is not quite good enough. Bridges' lack of defensive size and offensive skill—at least at this stage of his career—makes him dangerously close to the latter.
Standing six-foot-six with just under a six-foot-nine wingspan and an eight-foot-seven standing reach, Bridges doesn't really have prototypical size to be a NBA smallball power forward. Heck, according to the DraftExpress measurement database, his dimensions are below average for a league small forward. Ask Bridges to guard bigger NBA athletes, and he may struggle, despite his strength and well-developed physique.
More concerning is his offense. Bridges isn't much of a half-court ball handler. He's a straight-line driver who is most effective when his teammates are creating for him, either by allowing him to spot up, get out in transition, or cut off of the ball. When asked to create on his own, he's prone to turnovers, with a 20.6 turnover rate according to KenPom. Bridges gets to the free-throw line just 3.4 times per 40 minutes, a startlingly low number for a player with his physical gifts, and doesn't finish at an elite level at the rim in the half-court, either (per Synergy, he ranks in the 58th percentile among Division I players).
There are also questions about Bridges' jumper, a set shot that takes too long to load up, has a low release point, and features a somewhat inconsistent follow through due to slingshot-y mechanics:
Bridges has improved his stroke since high school, and has connected on 40.5 percent of his three-point attempts this season. He has confidence to take the shot, and that should help him continue to improve at the next level. Yet much like Justise Winslow in 2015 and Kris Dunn in 2016, college shooting percentages don't tell the full story—thanks, small sample size!—and Bridges' mechanics could hinder his efforts to extend his range to the NBA three-point line.
Coming into the college season, all of these things concerned me significantly. Yet even as Michigan State has disappointed, Bridges has been the team's best player, and I've actually become more of a believer in his ability to succeed in the NBA. As switching defenses become more and more popular around the league—and teams look to contain penetration and close out on shooters—Bridges' athleticism and strength should be assets, outweighing his size and skill question marks.
Obviously, if his jump shot is for real and he can improve his handle more, then watch out. Bridges will have star potential. Yet even if he doesn't become the best possible version of himself, he can still be a valuable role player. Athletic players who can pass and defend have value, because coaches can plug them into all sorts of lineups; wings who fit that profile have even more value, because they remain scarce.
Bridges may not have the physical tools of Jonathan Isaac, or the fluid offensive talent of Jayson Tatum—fellow prospects who could be selected in the NBA draft's top five—but his potential to complement his teammates while giving a coach more options makes him absolutely worthy of a lottery pick.
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