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Mikal Bridges' growth as playmaker during injury-riddled stretch raises Suns' ceiling

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
January 24, 2023

Whenever Mikal Bridges is asked about a high-scoring night, a career-best season or almost any other type of on-court success, his response typically starts with a go-to phrase: “Just being aggressive.”

As one of the more cliche phrases in the NBA, Bridges’ trademark answer is usually accompanied by giving credit to his coaches and teammates for trusting him, and it doesn’t always make for the most colorful or revealing quote.

But in this particular case, Bridges’ favorite response is actually just blunt honesty: Staying aggressive has long been his biggest obstacle to a true breakthrough, and the Phoenix Suns need him to be aggressive now more than ever.

Fortunately, he’s been up to the task over the last few weeks.

Mikal Bridges’ make-or-break stretch

To be fair, it wasn’t the smoothest transition. Bridges and Deandre Ayton both struggled early in the season to step into the void as Phoenix’s No. 2 option. When Devin Booker went down, their inconsistency became even harder to ignore. Over a 19-game stretch from Dec. 1 through Jan. 6, Bridges shot just 38.2 percent from the floor and the Suns went 5-14.

Struggling with his shot, dealing with a hyperextended knee and battling fatigue during a prolonged skid had Bridges sounding more dejected during postgame interviews than he had in years. He was going through it, and expectations changed.

But in that Jan. 6 loss to the Heat, Chris Paul’s hip injury may have turned a potential breaking point into something more transformative. In the eight games since, during which the Suns have missed Paul for all but one game, Landry Shamet for all but two, and Booker and Cam Payne for every single one, Bridges has been forced to shoulder the largest load of his career. And he’s come out of it looking like a legitimate two-way force who can raise Phoenix’s ceiling.

“I just try to go out there, be aggressive and hold it down for those guys,” Bridges said. “A little tiring. I told Book, ‘Can’t wait for you to come back,’ but I’m enjoying it, man. Personally, it’s helping me get better being in situations, and it’s all the summer work and all the preseason [work] to this day. It’s kind of tough when you have guys like C and Book, ’cause they’re so talented. And I’ll get my chances, but with them out, it kind of lets me work on things.”

Over the last seven games, Bridges is averaging 21.7 points, 5.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals in 37.3 minutes per game — sizable leaps from the career-high 16.3 points and career-high 3.5 assists a night he was averaging for the season.

He’s also posted a 21.9 percent usage rate over that stretch (up from his career-high 18.1 percent usage rate for the season), as well as a 22.5 assist percentage (up from his career-high 13.7 assist percentage for the season). Bridges ranks in the 95th percentile in assist percentage among all players at his position over the last eight games, per Cleaning The Glass.

In truth, a lot of Bridges’ assists over the last few weeks have just been smart, fundamentally sound reads. A decent portion stem from running pick-and-rolls with Ayton or another Suns big, waiting for them to seal the mismatch when their opponent switches, and feeding the big with an easy lob over the top:

Bridges isn’t a flashy playmaker on par with the Point God or Booker, but making the smart, simple passes speaks to the Suns’ mentality in trying to survive without their two leading playmakers.

“They don’t need to play like Chris to be effective,” Williams said. “But I think they’ve done a really good job of living in simple and using ball movement and body movement over making reads.”

Of course, Bridges has been able to build on his playmaking in more nuanced, advanced ways. Take some of these skip feeds over the top of the defense, where he zips the ball to open shooters in the corners, reading the defense as they overcompensate for the Suns’ bigs in the middle:

The Suns have long been advocates of trusting the work, but getting more reps in different actions — and having more game film to study as a result — certainly helps.

Phoenix has done their part to find creative ways to tap into different facets of Bridges’ expanding skill-set as a playmaker too. They’ve put him in Booker’s usual spot in different sets all season, having him come off pindown screens before receiving a dribble handoff near the top of the key.

With Bridges coming off what amounts to a staggered pair of screens, defenders are at an immediate disadvantage. That helps him get downhill and locate open shooters:

According to The BBall Index, Bridges ranks in the NBA’s 74th percentile in a stat called box creation, which is an estimate of open shots carved out for teammates by drawing defensive attention.

That’s become more of an asset over the last few weeks with Booker and Paul out. The Suns have been able to leverage the extra attention Bridges is receiving by getting him the ball in the extended post and letting him go to work. His court vision to find the weak-side corner shooter when the help defense shades over is encouraging:

As a driver and slasher, Bridges is more than capable of putting the ball down from the wing, sucking in the defense and targeting his snipers on the perimeter. Some of these drives to the middle of the lane or going baseline are the definition of Williams’ “paint-to-great” philosophy for how the Suns want to generate shots:

“Just trying to get in the paint, good things happen,” Bridges explained. “I learned that from coach [Jay] Wright at Villanova. Touching the paint, everything else opens up, so it’s kind of my mindset a little bit. Just get in the paint and you have a lot options.”

As Bridges alluded to, getting to the paint doesn’t always result in a 3-pointer; he’s got the basketball I.Q. to scope out cutters (usually Torrey Craig) on his drives too. Bridges ranks in the 66th percentile in high-value assists per 75 possessions, which targets assists that generate free throws, shots at the rim and 3s.

“Whether he’s off-ball, on-ball, the ball finds him, comes to him, and he’s making plays,” Cam Johnson said. “I think that’s just his growth, and he worked on that all summer. To see it coming into play, making plays in games, continuing to defend at a high level, his potential from there is unlimited in what he can become. And I think it just sparks positive growth throughout the whole team.”

His biggest area of growth, of course, comes as a pick-and-roll playmaker. According to The BBall Index, Bridges ranks in the 84th percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.

He’s gotten really good about coming off screens, getting into the lane to force the help defense to collapse, and then spraying it out to the open shooter, either in his line of sight or even in the opposite direction of where momentum carries him:

“The environments that he’s been able to play in in pick-and-roll and end-of-game situations, taking those big shots, has to grow his confidence,” Williams said. “So I’m happy for him.”

When Bridges tied his career-high of 9 assists last week against the Brooklyn Nets, Williams and the rest of the team once again joked about how rare it was for him to record that many assists. But as much as the Suns enjoy teasing him, they’re also cognizant of how much this expanding area of his game could raise their ceiling come playoff time.

“’Kal’s been amazing, as y’all already know,” Paul said after his first game back on Sunday. “But the way he’s played, with all of us guys out, I think it’s gonna help us in the long run, ’cause he’s so much more comfortable handling the ball, making plays. I just told him in the locker room, it was fun getting off the ball and watching him create.”

The return of a ball-dominant, Hall-of-Fame distributor like CP3 will put a dent in Bridges’ usage, as will Booker’s eventual return. But for his part, Bridges said everyone has been in his ear about not taking his foot off the gas when it comes to asserting himself on offense.

“It’s just only gonna make the team better,” Bridges explained. “In the playoffs, how they blitz or take Book and C out, it comes down to the other guys making plays with me, Cam [Johnson] and everybody else. So yeah, that’s what we need, and he’s giving us the confidence to go out there and just play.”

In Paul’s first game back, Bridges notched 24 points and 4 assists. There was a lull in the second half where Phoenix’s offense went stagnant, ball-watching as CP3 dominated the rock. Paul said he felt it and called a play the Suns had been running without him to get the ball moving again.

It’ll take that kind of conscious effort on everyone’s part to empower Bridges and Johnson to create more often with the ball in their hands, but Paul said he’s finally seeing what he needed to on that front.

“It’s only gonna get better,” Paul said. “I gotta get used to it. [Bridges] ain’t been like that the whole time I’ve been here, but it’s something that I know he put in a lot of work with over the summer. Cam Johnson too. Cam got a rebound today and he waved me off, and I love it. I’ve been waiting for him to tell me that.”

It will be a trial-and-error process. The Suns haven’t had a stable starting lineup or bench rotation pretty much all season, and with key pieces like Booker and Payne trickling back in over the next few weeks, plenty of readjusting will be required.

“When Book gets back, I think that’s gonna be obviously something that we get used to, right?” Paul said. “It’s probably not gonna be perfect right from the get-go, but having that many guys handling the ball and creating plays, I think can really help us.”

The scoring component

It’d be one thing if Mikal Bridges had simply refashioned his game into a pass-first, Rajon Rondo kind of stat line, but the 26-year-old wing has also stepped up as a more legitimate scoring threat too.

Bridges has scored at least 20 points in each of the last five games, which marks the longest such stretch of his career. He’s posted 23.8 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting over that span, including 42.9 percent from 3-point range. Extend it to the last eight games, and he’s still averaging more than 20 points on .496/.429/.867 shooting splits.

The fact that he’s been able to do so with Booker, Payne, Shamet, Paul and Ayton missing all or most of that stretch is remarkable.

“Just dealing with reading defenses and being the guy that teams are trying to stop, like, that’s not been his role at all since he’s been in the NBA, but recently, he’s had to take on that role,” Williams said. “That’s a different ride to the arena when you know teams are trying to take you out. I’m sure he’s had to process all of that, and I think he’s done well.”

As mentioned before, the Suns have tried to make life easier by getting him going downhill with dribble handoffs. Bridges can then read the floor and pull up for his patented midrange jumper:

Over the last eight games, a whopping 55 percent of Bridges’ shots have come from the midrange, which ranks in the 100th percentile at his position, per Cleaning The Glass. Thankfully, he’s drilling 47 percent of them, which is a notable improvement from his 40 percent clip on the season.

Most of these buckets have come from simply dribbling around a screen and pulling up over the contest.

“Mikal is just finding different ways to grow his game,” Williams said. “A lot of it was in pick-and-roll and attacking the paint, and the fact that he was taking those shots when it mattered is something that he and I have talked about — living with the consequences of whatever it is.”

But Bridges has also made more advanced reads in pick-and-rolls to get to his spots.

Just watch as he naturally navigates his way into the midrange by rejecting the screen when he has room, repositioning himself off the dribble to get a better angle on the screen, or showcasing his improved handle in traffic before elevating on a few tough looks:

After a month-long stretch where he struggled with his efficiency, getting back to his usual levels of “automatic” from the midrange shouldn’t go unnoticed.

“I just know the young man works his tail off, and the harder you work, the probability is probably a lot higher that you’re going to come out of those slumps,” Williams said. “He’s an intentional worker, he’s always been that way. I told him, ‘You have to stay this aggressive when we get whole.’ I don’t want him deferring to anybody, ’cause it’s gonna make everybody better.”

That message from his head coach only boosted Bridges’ confidence, which manifests itself in absurd step-backs like these:

“To have your coach on your side and have so much trust and confidence in you, it just means the world,” he said. “Knowing Monty, he means that from his heart, so that’s what I just appreciate is for him letting me just be who I am.”

Of course, it’s not just the midrange where Bridges has had success. Over the last few weeks, he’s overcome fatigue and embraced contact, averaging 4.3 free-throw attempts in the last seven games and more than doubling his non-shooting foul percentage from 1.2 to 2.7 percent over his last eight.

Whether it’s been rim attacks after facing up in the post, floaters in the lane, or even using physicality to create separation on his middy, Bridges has struck back against defenses trying to rough him up.

“We’ve talked about being more physical on offense to get open to get the ball,” Williams said. “There were times earlier this year, and recently, where teams just tried to take him out with physicality, and in the last game, we saw him take the physicality to the defense so he could get open. And that’s something I think he has to continue to grow in.”

With Paul and Johnson getting healthy, and Booker soon to follow, the key for Bridges will be — to borrow his trademark phrase — just staying aggressive. All three alleviate the pressure for Bridges to produce, but the enhanced floor-spacing they provide can’t go to waste if he starts deferring again.

For the last two years, the Suns have needed a certified third guy behind their star backcourt. The proof will be in the pudding, but this is the most promising stretch yet that suggests Mikal Bridges may finally be ready to fill that role.

“It’s what we want him to do,” Williams said. “When we do get Book back, I think teams are gonna have to decide. Normally they put the best defender on Book and the next one on Chris, and so I’m hopeful that Mikal can take advantage of those situations.”

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