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Suns’ Mikal Bridges keeping his side of bargain, showing extra potential

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) in the first half during an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

If you’re going to give up an unprotected first-round pick, you better be sure about it.

This has backfired for countless NBA franchises, but it doesn’t look like it will for the Phoenix Suns when they traded an unprotected 2021 Miami Heat first-round pick and No. 16 in the 2018 NBA Draft to the Philadelphia 76ers for the draft rights to Mikal Bridges.

Bridges has lived up to his elite role player potential in year one.

“He’ll be in the league 15 years if he wants to be,” Suns guard Jamal Crawford said of Bridges after practice on Thursday. “He’s such a winner. He’s a winning piece.”

That’s also while Bridges has been adding extra bits of promise in other areas of the floor.

Crawford has seen that too.

“I didn’t see him do too much playmaking before — it was more catch-and-shoot or finishing plays but he can get out and make plays. Push out a couple times, make a pass, so I think playmaking he’s really grown,” he said.

Defensively, Bridges has been as advertised. The long arms translate. So do the next-level reactionary reads and being smart when he gambles.

Everyone on the planet knows J.J. Redick is getting a dribble handoff in this sequence below and instead of Bridges preparing to just run around a screen, watch how he gets right up on Redick in his stance before Redick even starts moving.

Redick has been dealing with this type of defense for over a decade since you hated him at Duke, so he fakes the initial cut a second early. Not only does Bridges not bite or overcommit, but he takes advantage of the space Redick takes from Wilson Chandler’s pass and strips the ball around Redick’s body.

That’s not normal.

Bridges is more quick than strong for his size, meaning he shifts more towards defending guards than bigs as a small forward.

We don’t see Russell Westbrook get a drive vacuumed up often, but Bridges gave us the rare highlight.

Bridges’ signature defensive play is, when as a help defender on a ball-handler, cutting off the space while at the same time going for the strip. The ball-handler goes from dribbling forward into open space to turning it over rapidly.

Like his rookie counterpart De’Anthony Melton, Bridges gets his hands on everything.

Since Dec. 1 when Bridges started playing serious mintues, he’s top-20 in the league in deflections per game at 3.0 and steals per game with 1.6.

Not bad for a first-year player, and when compared to other rookies across the league, he’s tied for the lead in steals per game with Melton and only trailing Melton in deflections per game.

In no surprise, this adds up to someone who really helps out the Suns defense.

When Bridges is on the court, the Suns have a 108.5 defensive rating, the second-best mark on the team of regular rotation players. When he’s off the court, the defensive rating skyrockets to 114.6, the worst off-court number of that group.

He’s well on his way to being the All-Defense caliber of a defender the Suns envisioned on draft night.

As for his shooting, the other most important part of his evaluation, it’s more of the same but with an asterisk.

Bridges occasionally tweaks the release on his shot, much to the chagrin of those such as myself who fell in love with his three-point stroke at Villanova.

He’s shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range on 3.7 attempts a game. That’s a fine number, but Bridges wasn’t drafted to be a fine shooter. He should, bare minimum, be a 37 percent and above guy on at least five attempts a game.

He will get there because rookies do this, but for the time being, shot form adjustments are hurting him.

When he has time, Bridges will go through the full motion of his revamped shot. That includes a motion in the buildup from his waist to the shooting pocket where he will cock the ball back.

The issue is he didn’t shoot it like that for the Wildcats and has shown with the Suns he’s more than capable of the lightning-fast release that was part of his appeal.

Seriously. Scroll up and watch the slingshot cannon release again and then come back here to how quickly he transitions from the catch against Toronto.

It’s even more apparent he’s fine when he takes his shot off the dribble.

Do you see a motion that resembles a medieval catapult launching large boulders here?

Even if he’s slowing the overall motion down a bit, one fluid go-through is the key.

Expect his percentages to rise dramatically in year two and beyond once he gets through this stage of whatever this is.

To the offensive end overall, Bridges makes enough threes and smart cuts to the basket to be a positive. Going back to the on-off court numbers again, the Suns’ offense actually gets 0.9 points worse per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor.

Bridges is shooting 58.8 percent at the rim, slightly above league average.

Dude can take a bump and finish.

Bridges has good touch and it shows in the range just outside the rim where he loves a good touch-shot fadeaway.

That’s where the excitement begins to percolate and we get into what Crawford mentioned on playmaking.

When Bridges had his role increase as a junior at Villanova, he more than fulfilled the potential he showed in his first two years of “3-and-D” expertise with a pinch of bucket-getting upside sprinkled on top.

There’s been a pinch or three in Phoenix too.

Focus on the entire sequence here. Not just the end result, but how Bridges gets there.

Strong forward dribble with his defender out of position, a hesitation dribble to see where his big is rolling to, recognizes the extra help comes to cover Quincy Acy so it’s a strong take into the big, who has sagged off him, and a good finish.

No hesitation at all attacking closeouts.

Mix in everything we’ve covered — good touch, strong finishes and floor sense to see opportunities — and he’s gonna start scoring a whole lot more as he gets comfortable.

And to cap us off, Bridges went from averaging just under an assist per game in his first 20 games to doubling that the past two months.

Bridges is a very smart player if you can’t tell already. Some smart players can’t pass, though. Impossible to comprehend or explain. But sometimes they just can’t.

Bridges can.

A strong go at the rim from the perimeter with one-to-two dribbles is all it takes to break down suboptimal defenses. But to maximize the play, the pass needs to be made.

Add up all the smart passes he can make when defenses figuratively and literally try to suffocate Devin Booker, and it makes Bridges an even better “fit” for Booker besides being a floor spacer.

Shot clock winding down and not a worry.

This is not to say Bridges will average six assists a game at some point in his career, but he’s a terrific cog for Igor Kokoskov’s offense and certainly not a player like T.J. Warren who has tunnel vision on steroids.

When push came to shove, the Suns gave up that Heat pick because Bridges is optimized for a situation like Phoenix. Put him next to two (future) stars and not only can he help those guys by spacing the floor, making intelligent plays on both ends and locking down defensively but it’s also a cushy role for Bridges to slowly evolve his own game.

If Deandre Ayton and Booker can reach their expected ceilings, Bridges will be right there alongside them as the crucial glue guy for the Suns’ long-term success.

ArizonaSports.com’s Kevin Zimmerman contributed to this story.

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