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For the Phoenix Suns to make the leap into the contender category, first and foremost, they needed Deandre Ayton to become a reliable defensive anchor. That happened last year, and the Suns made it to the NBA Finals. But no one should forget that before the postseason began, Mikal Bridges was the more consistent of the Suns’ 2018 first-round picks, because Phoenix’s ascension wouldn’t have been possible without his stellar perimeter defense and hyper-efficient scoring on limited touches.
Now, the Suns will be counting on Bridges to make another leap in 2021-22, only this time, the heightened expectations may come without a contract extension attached.
The uncertainty of that situation is familiar to Suns fans, but still, the 25-year-old hasn’t let it hinder his development. When asked at training camp who looked like they had grown the most over the shortened offseason, Chris Paul didn’t hesitate.
“Mikal,” he said immediately. “‘Kal is like the life of the team, man. He’s uhh…how do I word this? He’s sneaky. That Mikal is something else, man. Don’t think he’s just some nice guy. But he’s a fun guy to be around and he works. He works, so you respect everything about him. I’m excited for him in this season.”
One thing is for certain: Bridges is poised to become the third option on a top-10 offense, and it could be a glimpse into his future as one of the best two-way players in the NBA.
A LOOK AT MIKAL BRIDGES SO FAR
The basic box scores wouldn’t indicate a player ready to make a star-caliber leap. Bridges averaged 13.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game last year, and his numbers dropped to 11.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists a night in the playoffs.
But he was the pinnacle of efficiency, shooting 54.3 percent from the floor, 42.5 percent from 3-point range and 84 percent from the foul line. He ranked in the 97th percentile in true shooting percentage (66.7 percent) and effective field goal percentage (64.3 percent), and according to Cleaning The Glass, he averaged a whopping 135.1 points per 100 shot attempts — comfortably in the 99th percentile.
Even in the playoffs, when people thought he “fell off,” Bridges still shot 48.4 percent from the floor, made 36.8 percent of his 3s and put up 119.4 points per 100 shot attempts, which ranked in the 72nd percentile. Combine that with a player whose absence on the NBA’s All-Defensive team was straight-up highway robbery, and you’ve got a two-way star in the making.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s one of the more likable players on the team either, with a sense of humor that shines through when he decides to crash media sessions in the background.
“The work ethic allows for him to continue to grow,” head coach Monty Williams said. “Just a tireless worker. He’s one of the guys that we have to kick out of the gym, and sometimes when you’re talking to the media, you gotta kick him out of the media session because you want him to get out of the way. And case in point, right there.
“But he just works his tail off, and so you know that those guys are going to continue to add to their games. Since we’ve gotten here, I knew what he could do from cutting and moving without the ball, but now he’s gotten so used to playing with the ball and we need him to. We want to put him in environments that allow for him to be the third option for us on any given night, and I think he’s capable of it.”
Bridges has been deadly off the ball for awhile now. According to The Bball Index, he was downright elite in multiple categories that don’t require him to create much, making him the perfect third, fourth or fifth option on a team littered with weapons like Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and tons of shooters:
- Points per possession: 1.24 (99th percentile)
- Transition PPP: 1.39 (100th percentile)
- Spot up PPP: 1.17 (97th percentile)
- Cut PPP: 1.49 (100th percentile)
- Off screen PPP: 1.19 (100th percentile)
Those marks are absurd. His growth in the midrange — where he went from shooting 31 percent on shots between 4-14 feet from the rim in 2019-20 to a staggering 51 percent last year — put him in elite company.
Bridges has said in the past he’s watched film on similarly lanky midrange assassins like Kevin Durant and Brandon Roy, and last year, he showed flashes of their ability to put the ball on the floor, pull-up before the defense collapsed, rise up over a defender and knock down the shot.
That emerging proficiency as a guy who can attack poor closeouts and create his own offense is critical to his growth into that third option Williams was talking about.
“I mean, it’s dope to hear from coach, you know, he knows I work hard and I just try to get better every year, Bridges said. “I appreciate him making me feel confident and making me to be able to play the stuff I work on in offseason. I appreciate it for everything he lets me do.”
The question is, is Bridges ready for the uptick in usage that comes with that type of greater responsibility? And how will it impact his ultra-efficiency?
MIKAL BRIDGES AS THE THIRD OPTION
The potential hurdle for Bridges is handling a larger workload. He was only in the 25th percentile in usage last year, and the NBA Finals provided a glimpse of what it might look like when defenses hone in on CP3 and Booker.
In the first two games of the Finals, both Phoenix wins, Bridges put up 20.5 points on 14 field goal attempts per game. In the four losses that followed, his production plummeted to 7.8 points on 5.3 shot attempts per game. When the Suns needed him most, he reverted to an old tendency he had as a rookie where he’d completely fade from view on offense. By the end of the Finals, Cam Johnson felt like more of a third option than Mikal Bridges did.
Bridges felt like his first playoff run was a learning experience that highlighted his strengths and weaknesses alike.
“Obviously they can pick on your weaknesses, depending on how you’re guarded,” he said. “The good thing about it is even when you lose, no matter how far you get, you’ll learn what you have to do and what you have to get better at. For me, that was definitely a helpful thing.”
So what does Bridges need to get better at?
“Really everything,” he said. “Just feeling more comfortable shooting. We’re definitely working on my handle more, just trying to get it tighter and more comfortable. And just trying like always to get stronger and stuff. So the same points every year, just trying to get a little bit better on each thing.”
A couple of key areas are worth highlighting. While Bridges was an elite 3-point shooter and deadly pulling up from the midrange, he didn’t always put his incredible finishing ability to good use. Despite ranking in the 99th percentile in shot quality at the rim and 95th percentile in finishing at the rim, he didn’t get there as often as he should have, per The Bball Index:
- Total shots at rim per 75 possessions: 39th percentile
- Percentage of shots at rim unassisted: 29th percentile
- Getting to rim rating: 1st percentile
- Drive foul drawn rate: 31st percentile
- Drive passout rate: 84th percentile
Those numbers indicate a player who rarely took the ball all the way to the hole when he put it on the floor, either preferring to pull up for a short jumper or kick it out to someone else on the perimeter. That’s not a bad thing for a guy who was elite in the midrange and for an offense that thrives on ball movement, but Bridges is too good a finisher to shy away from contact. Finishing in the first percentile in getting to the rim is baffling.
According to Cleaning The Glass, he ranked in the 58th percentile shooting fouls drawn percentage, and that number shrank even further to the 48th percentile in the postseason. Going to the basket more consistently, embracing contact and still managing his usual workload on the defensive end requires added strength, which is why Bridges focused on his weightlifting regimen over the summer.
“Guys like me, it’s hard to put on muscle,” he said. “As much as I could lift and eat, like some bodies, people are just different. So it’s tough for me, but I could feel getting stronger. It’s always been my thing, I know when I get stronger like with the weights of everything. Sometimes it might not show, like some people just blow up and it shows they got stronger. For me, you could tell in my numbers I got stronger, and now I feel stronger in general.”
In the preseason, with Booker missing three of the four games, Bridges said he got a taste of how much energy it takes to fill that role of coming off screens and running more offense while also defending the other team’s best player.
But the confidence Williams and his teammates are instilling in him to transition into a larger role on offense is the reason he focused on his ball-handling over the summer. Bridges was in the 93rd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last year on a limited number of possessions, but this might be the year he gets to spread his wings with more responsibility as a creator and scorer.
“Just self-wise is trying to get better every year like always, knowing what I need to add in to help the team,” Bridges said. “I feel like in the playoffs, especially the Finals, I was at my best in certain games just because of how they scout and then putting too much pressure on Book and C. Just working on my game, and coach and my teammates also give me the confidence to go out there to go playmake as well. It builds me up and I just keep trying to get better every day.”
Bridges still needs a new contract, and while something in the four-year, $90-100 million range sounds steep, there isn’t a single team in the NBA that he wouldn’t start on now. Some team is going to throw a max deal his way in restricted free agency if the Suns don’t take care of business with both him and Deandre Ayton, but for his part, Bridges wants to keep a good thing going.
“I just want to be here, man,” he said. “That’s the whole thing is, I just wanna be here. It’s up to those guys. So we’ll wait and see. We want to be here. That’s plain and simple, man. We love this team, love this organization and what it’s done for us, especially what it’s done for both of us, and I’d never take this for granted, man. They just turned me to a better person and player. So obviously we want to be here more than anything.”
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