Phoenix Suns X-Factor: Mikal Bridges

The Phoenix Suns prioritized continuity over any sweeping changes this summer. They traded for Landry Shamet and signed JaVale McGee to invigorate the bench, but their aim is that another year together helps bridge the gap between Finals participant and Finals champion. Beyond continuity, focus rests on the Suns’ quartet of 25-and-under players to take further strides as they enter the heart of their careers.

Among that quartet is Mikal Bridges, who parlayed a second-half breakout in 2019-20 into a season of dazzling two-way contributions. Yet in the playoffs, inconsistency began to re-emerge. After notching double-digit points through nine of his first 11 games, he scored seven or fewer in six of the ensuing 11 games. He passed up open threes, attacked without a plan, and surrendered advantages he’s designed to capitalize on in Phoenix’s offense.

The Finals helped summarize this dichotomy. Thrice, he scored 13 or more, including 27 in a Game 2 victory; thrice, he scored seven or fewer. As the Suns’ charge faltered, with Chris Paul increasingly unable to bend the defense as he preferred, Bridges’ chances to puncture openings on the floor declined.

Entering year four, there’s clearly an emphasis for Bridges to expand the flashes of creation and ball-handling he’s periodically displayed into something the Suns can draw up in the play book. A lack of perimeter juice beyond Paul and Booker in the starting five factored into the team’s demise. Bridges incorporating some secondary ball-screen and pull-up shooting equity into an arsenal largely revolving around spot-ups, cuts and attacking closeouts is a path to patching up that hole.

Bridges is probably already capable of commandeering some second-side actions in spurts. But reliability across varying contexts means tightening up his handle and adding more core strength. Defenders can crowd his handle or knock him off his spots when he slices in from the wings and that leads to suboptimal results. More reps is another simple pathway to growth. Effectively running pick-and-rolls in the NBA is challenging and nuanced.

Set up the screen before it arrives. Drive deep enough into the defense to spur rotations and create advantages without wandering yourself into precarious positions. Understand which passing reads often arise, while also being cognizant of any defensive counters that present different openings. Read the defense on the fly. If the pull-up is a weapon, balance the threat of its mere existence with the actual possibility of launching off the bounce. Fluency in all of these aspects can, to some lengths, be achieved through experience. And the team evidently wants Bridges to blossom with the ball in his hands.

Internal development spurring team-wide strides is the tagline for Phoenix this year. Everyone will learn from the Finals appearance. In order to build upon it, they must. The playoffs routinely open the eyes of young guys. The Suns are hoping Bridges is next to encounter that concept — and they’ll need it.