DimeMag

Mikal Bridges Gives The Suns Exactly What They Need, And He’s Only Getting Better

Mikal Bridges is spindly. Seventy-eight inches tall, 85 inches across from finger tip to finger tip, 209 pounds heavy. While not the bulkiest dude in the league, the length overshadows this hurdle, guaranteeing it’s one he can clear and is not tripped up by as he carves out an NBA career. Approaching the conclusion of his second season with the Phoenix Suns, Bridges has solidified himself as a complementary player next to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, providing necessary skills alongside the franchise cornerstones.

Bridges’ length permeates throughout the entirety of his game, particularly on defense. The 23-year-old is soon to be a mainstay in All-Defensive team discussions for the foreseeable future. While he’s probably a small, yet existent, rung below that caliber at the moment, he should garner some consideration from voters for his 2019-20 campaign. Tasked with an array of responsibilities all season, he’s quite superb already.

Among 49 players (min. 500 minutes) classified as “Wing Stoppers” by Basketball Index, Bridges spent the sixth-most time defending All-NBA assignments at 12.3 percent. These duties ranged across positions, too. Against the Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Mavericks, for example, he’s defended LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, and Kristaps Porzingis. He is comfortable guarding anyone, 1-4, as evidenced by the fact that 8.6 percent of his minutes come against centers and the rest come against individuals who play the other four positions, according to Basketball Index. The crux of this versatility is his length, which helps compensate for a lack of functional strength and swift foot speed.

Bridges weaponizes his 7’1 wingspan to smother opponents and it increases his margin of error. If someone scoots a step by him or leverages their strength advantage to generate space, he’s still equipped to alter shots or combat drives because his reach is widespread. He can contest shots from a rearview and his sublime body control enables him to contort himself in a distinct manner to avoid fouls while maintaining a presence in the play. Applying his quick hands like pinball flippers, he strips ball-handlers and overwhelms them on the perimeter to spur turnovers. Merge that with his shot alteration capabilities and Bridges is a staunch on-ball defender, even though bigger wings (think Luka and LeBron) can pose issues.

The best form of defense is deterrence, whether it be snuffing out an entire action, dissuading shots, or forcing takeaways. If an offense can’t dictate the possession and has to adjust its approach because of the opposition, that’s usually a win for the defense. This is where Bridges shines, and it might be the most valuable portion of his defensive impact, a lofty sentiment given his on-ball exploits. His best component of deterrence is thwarting dribble hand-offs. With sprawling arms, Bridges is a menace blowing up this action. His screen navigation permits him to warp around picks in a jiffy and remain tethered to players.

Bridges is positionally sound and cognizant of team defense requirements, predominantly as the weak-side helper in pick-and-rolls or at the nail on drives. He has a proclivity for darting in to snare passes or prompting teams to redirect plays outside the jurisdiction of his limbs. Many of his steals stem from intelligent reads and rotations, but other times, it’s as though people simply underestimate his combination of length and reactionary speed (1.9 steals per 36 minutes for his career).

When they do properly price these traits into the equation, he moonlights as a shutdown cornerback, closing off a segment of the court or denying his assignment a chance to organize the possession as they prefer. You have to be especially precise delivering passes near his orbit. And don’t try aimless entry passes around him, because he gobbles those up which means you can’t easily exploit him in the post, which contributes to his versatility. He’s a risk-taking maven, prepared to wisely gamble without amassing voluminous foul rates (2.9 fouls per 36 minutes in two seasons). Steals and swats headline Bridges’ defensive highlight reels, but equally important are the instances in which his length and positioning subtly reroute offensive sets. Both are essential to fostering the defensive impact he does.

The eye test operates in concordance with the numbers, too. Bridges’ positional versatility, frequency of All-NBA matchups, and blend of on- and off-ball prowess are reinforced by Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus. Not only does he undertake strenuous assignments up and down the lineup sheet, he performs well in them. He ranks sixth in DPIPM (plus-1.72) among 49 “Wing Stoppers.” Across all archetypes outside of centers — DPIPM can skew heavily in their favor and blurs how well perimeter players fare compared to their contemporaries — he is 26th overall this season.

Fewer than two seasons into his career, Bridges has established himself as a starting-caliber player on a team eyeing the playoffs. His defense is sterling, but sustained offensive development is the tipping point of his long-term standing league-wide and why he could emerge as a top-30ish guy at his peak.

Coming out of Villanova, he was rightfully billed as a high-level shooting prospect, having netted 40 percent of his 428 long balls in three seasons. But sometime during the pre-draft process, he developed a hitch in his mechanics, which were subdued for a period before prominently resurfacing midway through his rookie year. He shot just 33.5 percent from deep last season and was hesitant to let it fly too often, failing to provide the floor-spacing Phoenix expected and desired. For one reason or another, Bridges didn’t trust his jumper enough and there seemed to be some confidence eroded. While he’s not returned to the ilk of his collegiate tenure, the hitch, primarily evident on wide open shots, seems to have mostly dissipated in recent months.

No longer does he pause at the start of his windup, extend the ball out and shoot. The other hitch, one more difficult to notice, occurred when he’d situate the ball at his left hip and swing it around to the top of his head. Neither is prevalent anymore and since Dec. 1, he’s shooting 38.3 percent (62-for-162) from deep, returning to his previous two-motion approach. Contrast clips from his rookie year and pre-hiatus second season with his jumper in Orlando. You’ll notice a more fluid release (programming note: the first play is slowed to emphasize the elongated path the ball travels).

The next step of Bridges’ renaissance is becoming a more proficient and frequent threat above the break. Phoenix loves to station him in the corners, but it’s limited his credibility and impact in other spots around the arc. Through two years, he’s converted 35.1 percent of his corner threes and 33.9 percent of his above-the-break triples. Corner threes compose 47.6 percent of his total attempts, while above-the-break looks compose 52.4 percent of them. Both seasons, he’s ranked higher than the 70th percentile in corner three frequency among wings and lower than the 50th percentile in non-corner three frequency, according to Cleaning the Glass (CTG). Even during his stretch from Dec. 1 onward this year, he’s still only knocked down 33.3 percent of his long balls outside of the corners. Being effective from the corners has utility, but those zones constitute a small fraction of the three-point line. To emerge as the floor-spacer his offensive ceiling includes, he must expand his volume and success rate above the break.

The reason Bridges routinely inhabits those corners is because of his cutting expertise. He is truly one of the NBA’s premier cutters, ranking in the 89th percentile on cuts this season and 84th percentile last season. In addition to striking at the proper times, what makes him so effective in this role is his finishing; this also manifests on the break, where he whizzes through creases of the defense for early offense scores (93rd percentile in transition efficiency, according to Synergy). He’s shooting 72 percent at the rim this year (93rd percentile, per CTG) and his length/contortion empower him to score around size from distinct angles. Considering the low-usage nature of his responsibilities on that end and the gravitational pull Booker’s three-level scoring elicits, rostering someone who understands how to manufacture offense without the ball is a snug fit for the Suns.

If Bridges continues this upward trajectory as a shooter, the ancillary gears of his offense will be amplified. Not only is he an instinctive cutter, he’s well-versed in the relocation game, aware of when to migrate around the perimeter to broaden or construct passing outlets for open threes. If defenders have to close out aggressively more often, he’s suited to attack off the catch, eat up space with bounding strides and exercise his finishing craft or interior passing chops. Timid, slightly imperfect closeouts also present opportunities for him because of the way he envelops real estate and can reach the basket in one dribble. Phoenix’s offensive scheme excels at tilting defenses via motion and screening. Bridges is suited to exploit these advantages with his cutting, finishing, and off-ball activity.

While the majority of his offense is derived off the ball, Bridges touts a bit of on-ball potential, too. Envision him operating the occasional ball-screen action, creating from a hand-off or leveraging his elevated release point over small defenders to fashion some pull-up shooting equity. Through nearly two seasons, he’s registered 91 off-the-dribble shots in the half-court, placing him in the 62nd (2019-20) and 57th (2018-19) percentiles. The efficiency is largely trivial, though. More salient are the developmental reps he receives to secure these scenarios as part of his skill package if/when the Suns aim to employ them down the line. Soon enough, this type of stuff is likely going to be in his arsenal, completing the transition from flashes to repertoire and implementing greater variance into Phoenix’s possession-by-possession approach.

Still, it’s doubtful Bridges ever functions on the ball with regularity. He needs the three-point ball to re-emerge full-time, especially above the break, which remains in flux. But the first chapter of salvaging his jumper is eliminating the array of hiccups that plagued his form and he’s close to accomplishing that goal. As he further distances himself from those hitches and becomes increasingly comfortable as a shooter again, the efficiency will return. Then, the 3-and-D moniker will be more fitting, though it fails to reference his cutting, finishing, and modicum of pull-up shooting.

At that point, Bridges is going to carry significant value because his defensive impact is already mirrored by a select amount of wings around the league. Disposed to accept wide-ranging star assignments, he’s hounding on the ball and remains disciplined, astute, and oriented toward havoc off the ball. Every franchise requires complementary pillars to fortify their bedrocks. Phoenix houses its offensive engine, Booker, and is banking on Ayton prolonging his defensive growth to anchor the interior. Bridges is an apt supporting cast member. He finds avenues to offensive merit, despite intermittent touches and an on-the-mend jumper, and has been a genuine difference-maker defensively since his October 2018 debut.

A 23-year-old averaging 10.9 points per 36 minutes for his career isn’t traditionally thought to warrant excitement about their long-term peak. This is an exception. Mikal Bridges is good. Spindly. Seventy-eight inches tall, 85 inches across from finger tip to finger tip, 209 pounds heavy. Soon, he’ll be all of this, only “good” won’t suffice at that point. Bridges will become remarkably good at what he does, cementing himself as a crucial piece to the Suns’ puzzle going forward.

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