CRONKITE SPORTS

Mikal Bridges’ day begins with one thing in mind: domination

Nov 7, 2018, 1:33 PM
Mikal Bridges throws a pass during shootaround with Suns coach Igor Kokoškov looking on in the dis...
Mikal Bridges throws a pass during shootaround with Suns coach Igor Kokoškov looking on in the distance. The team is optimistic about the young player's future. (Photo by Zachary Pekale/Cronkite News)
(Photo by Zachary Pekale/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Though Mikal Bridges no longer dons the traditional navy and white colors of Villanova, a sentiment of former coach Jay Wright continues to motivate the rookie.

Dominate the day.

Selected No. 10 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Bridges was briefly a feel-good story after being taken by his hometown Philadelphia 76ers, who also employ his mother as a vice president in the team’s human resources department. As the draft unfolded, however, his rights were traded to Phoenix faster than that feel-good story could even be written.

In Phoenix, his role was uncertain with Josh Jackson entering his second year and scoring whiz T.J. Warren at the wing position. Court time was expected to be at a premium.

But in four of the five games leading up to a loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Bridges had logged 20-plus minutes, scoring in double figures twice. Against Memphis, a win that snapped Phoenix’s seven-game losing streak, his 14 points were third-most on the team and coach Igor Kokoškov opted to keep him on the floor down the stretch.

While Bridges waited for an opportunity, one of his teammates was confident about an inevitable breakthrough.

“I knew his time was coming,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “He’s been performing every day in practice. Since day one, I knew he was a player.

“To be a rookie in that position and come in and perform — in a crunch-time game — says a lot about his will to win.”

In some cases, the adjustment to the NBA takes a long time for rookies. A rise in physicality and an uptick in pace of play often comes with growing pains. A lack of maturity in some young players results in short careers. And some players are drafted on potential that is never realized.

But Bridges was more of a polished prospect after three years at Villanova. Part of what impressed the Suns was his confidence and poise. It is reflected in his focus on the hardwood as well as his composure off it.

At Villanova, he learned to dial in for games by disconnecting. Wright and his staff confiscated phones as players entered an arena before games, giving them nothing to think about other than basketball.

“We’re there, what, three and a half hours before the game even starts, and it’s just all of us being locked in,” Bridges said.

Phoenix remains at the bottom of the Western Conference standings with a 2-8 record after the loss to the Nets. To some, the inclusion of Bridges in the lineup could be viewed as Kokoškov looking for a spark plug. The reality is the move fits the team’s offensive scheme.

At 6-foot-7 with a wingspan reaching beyond 7 feet, Bridges’ length translates to versatility on both ends of the floor.

He’s able to shoot over most defenders with comfortable 3-point range. At Villanova, his role often was to move without the ball, a necessity in the Phoenix system.

Defensively, he possesses lateral quickness on the perimeter complemented by an ability to disrupt passing lanes and alter shots with his length.

Far from a finished product, Bridges continues to work. In the meantime, Kokoškov believes the impact of his rookie is far more than in his numbers.

“He’s going to miss some shots, make some shots, he’s going to make some mistakes and that’s normal for a young player,” Kokoškov said. “That stability he gives to our group is something that everybody can feel.”

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Mikal Bridges’ day begins with one thing in mind: domination