Sports

There's More to Mikal Bridges Than Meets the Eye

The Phoenix Suns rookie is seen by most as a finished 3-and-D product. But sooner or later, his ambition and talent may erase that label from the conversation.
Photo by Mike Lawrie - Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Mikal Bridges is the most crystallized lottery pick in his draft class, which is one reason why his entrance into the NBA was more unsettling than expected. “My agent said anything can happen,” Bridges tells me. “That was true.”

Nothing is certain in professional sports, but whichever team picked Bridges just about knew what it would get: a wing who’ll be 22 years old on opening night, who won two national championships at Villanova with a skill-set that’s immediately suitable for the NBA's modern backdrop.

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Bridges didn’t know the Philadelphia 76ers—a team in search of swift production at his own position and owned by a company that also employs his mother, Tyneeha Rivers, as Vice President of Human Resources—planned to take him with the tenth pick until they were on the clock. The moment Commissioner Adam Silver read his name from the Barclays Center podium, Rivers, who was seated to her son's left, jumped from her seat, screamed, and shook a pair of jubilant fists over her head. Minutes later, she was interviewed on live television. This was a literal dream come true on multiple levels for everyone involved; from on-court fit to off-court familiarity, it was perfect.

“It’s amazing. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m so excited he’s coming home to be a part of our Sixers family. It’s amazing,” she sang through jittery exhilaration. “Go Sixers!” Not even 20 minutes later, the overwhelming joy was partially replaced by confusion. Bridges—who didn’t have his cell phone with him—fielded questions at a press conference after the trade that sent him to the Phoenix Suns popped up on Twitter.

“I didn’t understand,” Bridges says. “I heard ‘trade’ when I was walking and they were mumbling and I asked what they were talking about and they told me later. But I was just more wanting to see how my mom was because she was so excited for me to be back home. [I’m a] big mama’s boy.”

It took a few minutes to process the news. Unlike Philadelphia, Charlotte, New York, or Cleveland, Phoenix was never on Bridges’s radar. He didn’t interview with their front office or workout for their coaches. But according to Bridges, the Suns spoke to Villanova head coach Jay Wright hours before the trade, and were confident enough with the information they gathered from him and other sources to surrender their own 16th pick and an unprotected first-round pick owned by the Miami Heat in 2021.

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The initial daydream that was filled with no-look passes from Ben Simmons and a chance to defend in front of a brick wall like Joel Embiid quickly shifted to all the possibilities provided by Phoenix’s unmarked canvas and lesser expectations. “A lot of people think I was gonna be upset because I’m not home. But they don’t get the point that I was drafted that night. So it’s what people think, but I was really excited. As soon as I got traded I thought about the pieces they have and how bad they wanted me.”

Bridges had already formed a close relationship with Phoenix’s first overall pick Deandre Ayton after the two spent time together in Los Angeles at the College Basketball Awards back in April, and he remembers competing against Devin Booker at various camps during high school. Right now, the Suns depth chart is filled with positional overlap, between Bridges, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, and incoming $15 million man Trevor Ariza. But compared to the Sixers, where action is almost always initiated by Simmons or Embiid, the opportunity for Bridges to cultivate more areas of his expanding game may prove useful in Phoenix.

For now, he’s most appealing when there’s nothing to think about. Whenever a pass glides towards his chest and smacks into his hands, he stares at the rim, bends his knees, and uncoils a picturesque jump shot that begins just southwest of his belly button and ends a couple feet above his forehead. Topped off by a brisk release that’s unbothered by just about every defender who’s asked to stop it, his form was molded by thousands of attempts at Villanova, where the coaching staff encouraged him to center a shot pocket that originally began way out on the left side of his body.

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Today’s culmination is graceful, effortless, consistent, and the primary reason he’s a lanky, cherished jewel in the minds of executives throughout the NBA. Whether he’s sprinting off a down screen or standing still on the perimeter, Bridges has already mastered a skill that will raise his floor and insure his place on an NBA roster for at least a decade.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot of confidence in myself, and I feel like every time I catch and shoot, it’s going in,” he tells me. “No matter if there’s a person in front of me.” Bridges finished college as a 40 percent shooter from deep, but got better every season. Last year, on his way to winning the Julius Erving Award, he launched six threes per game and made 43.5 percent of them. I ask if he thinks he can be one of the ten best shooters in the world. “There’s a lot of great shooters in the NBA. You can say top ten, but I just know I have confidence in myself where every time I catch it, I’m gonna make it.”

Here’s a designed play from his Summer League debut, a set that takes advantage of everything Bridges can already do at the NBA level. He slips a ball screen and then comes off Ayton’s pick for an open three. Everything is tight and the timing is perfect. It’s the type of sequence that we’ll see throughout his career, twitchy misdirection that burns a defense already worried about his teammates.

Bridges, whose pre-draft allure rested on his ability to seamlessly slide in as a 3-and-D contributor, knows what he is and why he was drafted, even though untapped potential may bubble just below the surface. “If I work on live ball screen stuff but they just want me to catch and shoot and be a defender I’m gonna do that,” he says. “I’m gonna still be working on my game, but whatever they want me to do I’ll do.”

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There lies the challenge for a rebuilding team that needs to figure out if he’s more useful maxed out in a specific role, or operating with some slack, able to develop different segments of his game that would otherwise lay dormant. There’s plenty of time to find an answer, but figuring out how he can have the most impact will be worth debating right away.

“I don’t think it’d be intelligent to talk about being anything more than who you are at the highest level you can be. And I think that’ll be his mindset,” says La Salle head coach Ashley Howard, who recruited Bridges to Villanova and then coached him for four seasons. “He’ll continue to add things to his game, but I don’t think that’s smart until he’s proven that he can be that reliable guy day in and day out."

Howard was an assistant coach at Xavier when he first saw Bridges play. Then a slender standout at Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Bridges’s cousin sent Howard a highlight tape. “He was the tallest guy on his high school team so he was forced to do everything. He was the best player,” Howard says. “He would handle the ball, he rebounded, blocked shots. He was really good at moving without the ball, cutting to the basket, and had a really good knack for making a lot of—just like the way he is now—easy, simple, fundamental basketball plays.”

At his first recruitment meeting after Villanova hired him, Howard told the coaching staff his thoughts on Bridges’s upside, and how he was someone the program needed to have on its radar. They watched him flash even more potential in AAU that spring and offered him a scholarship soon after.

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"I’ve got a lot of confidence in myself, and I feel like every time I catch and shoot, it’s going in.”

Instead of thriving as a one-and-done prospect, Bridges red-shirted his freshman year and spent countless hours in practice and before games working out with Howard. The NBA, let alone being a top-ten pick, was still a pipe dream, but Howard did everything he could to build Bridges up into what he is today. “I would talk trash to him,” he says. “I would create drills that I knew were next to impossible and just challenge him. He would never quit, but it would just drive him to the point where he knew what I was doing and it was a grind for him. He kept battling to the point where he’d win the drills, and then I’d have to try and create new drills to force him to have greater challenges.”

The journey from those workouts—that often ended with Bridges still angry at Howard until the next one began—to Phoenix is compelling and delightful. But where he goes from here is a bit of a paradox. Bridges’s age makes his evolution feel closer to completion than it probably is—he’s two months older than Booker, who’s already spent three seasons in the NBA and just signed a five-year, $158 million contract—which makes him less shiny than the nine teenagers selected before him. But the way he improved throughout college, going from a skinny redshirt freshman to the Big East’s leader in PER and True Shooting percentage, hints at a career that could surprise a lot of people.

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Three years ago, he didn't start once and averaged 6.4 points per game. Only 29.9 percent of his threes went in and his 14.5 usage rate was fourth-lowest on Villanova. Last year, he started every game, upped his scoring to 17.7 points per game and only trailed (Wooden Award winner) Jalen Brunson in usage rate.

In a day and age when having a fluid wing who can protect the rim, deflect a ton of passes, and credibly space the floor is at a premium, every NBA team wants Bridges's attributes. Sitting in the stands at Las Vegas Summer League, one writer likened him to J.J. Redick…if J.J. Redick could guard three positions. Another wondered if he could be Corey Brewer with an outside shot. At worst, he may be a more consistent Robert Covington. “Uncompromising Otto Porter/Khris Middleton” is not impossible. Neither is him getting buried in Wesley Johnson Cemetery.

Most likely, though, a shot so accurate even when under duress—"He’s a really good shooter," Howard says—mixed with the physical dimensions of a vicious help and individual defender (he's 6’7” with Draymond Green’s wingspan) epitomizes what’s most valuable in a league that requires versatility from virtually anyone who wants to play more than 32 minutes a night. Less than a quarter of all players who saw the floor that often stood 6’10” or taller last season. (Two years ago, nobody in the country defended Josh Hart—arguably college basketball’s best player at the time—better than Bridges could during practice. That’s when some of his coaches realized they might have a first-round pick on their hands.)

If he's a complementary piece then he'll have to excel with duties that are both expected and nothing to be ashamed of, in a job that blends nicely with his subdued disposition. “I think Mikal’s development was shocking because he doesn’t have the personality of a guy that’s outwardly the most confident or swagged out, right? He just shows up and goes to work everyday. Works, puts his time in. Works, puts his time in,” Howard says. “Once Josh Hart left, Mikal just kind of said ‘OK, my turn’ and then took his game up another level.”

But the blueprint for something more is there. “I don’t know what ball player doesn’t want to have more responsibilities,” Bridges tells me. “As I get older and just keep working on my game, I’m just trying to be like Kawhi and Paul George. You know, they started off more catch-and-shoot, and then when they got bigger roles they’d start playmaking.”

That’s an exciting thought. Bridges snugly fits into the NBA’s present and future. He also may top out as a role player, which makes Phoenix's decision to give up all they did for that type of service a bit divisive. But what's done is done, and if they just added a decade of Wesley Matthews-esque service to their organization then that's indisputably a very good thing. If they somehow landed a budding All-Star, all the better.

Either way, Bridges should check off multiple boxes. Whether he ends up being more than what's currently advertised or exactly what most expect, the Suns may suddenly have the NBA’s premier young core because Bridges is the type of player who elevates teammates on both sides of the ball.

"You’ve just got to keep getting better and be that player they want you to be. Embrace that role," Bridges says. "I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be."