James Jones: Mikal Bridges has been ‘phenomenal’ lately for Suns
When you draft a basketball prospect because of their prowess as a shooter and defender, if one of those skills falters, the prospect rarely works out.
So when Mikal Bridges, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, had his jumper looking like this in year two, concern mounted.
Add in the fact that it’s not going in (29.7%) and he’s not shooting many (1.6 per game) and he’s essentially not even a shooter anymore.
So it speaks volumes to Bridges’ ability to change games in other places on the court that he’s been one of the Phoenix Suns’ most important players this season.
“The last 10 games he’s been phenomenal,” general manager James Jones said Tuesday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo.
Early in the season, Bridges was adjusting, aka he was passing up open three-pointers. It got to the point where Bridges wasn’t doing anything offensively at all, thus making him a liability and having his minutes decreased.
He played only 20.3 minutes per game in November after averaging 29.5 as a rookie. Head coach Monty Williams would consistently reiterate about Bridges that he needed to find a way to get open buckets, whether that was in transition or off cuts.
To no surprise given the gamer mentality of a player like Bridges, he figured it out.
He’s now taking 57% of shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, up a whopping 23% from last year and in the tip-top 97th percentile amongst wings.
Per the NBA’s tracking data, among the 98 players who get the ball off cuts at least once per game, Bridges shoots 80.6% on those looks, the sixth-best efficiency of that group.
This will frequently be on the backdoor, and because of Ricky Rubio’s vision in addition to his willingness to move, he’s getting free points quite a bit.
Bridges is excellent in regards to timing his cuts.
Watch here as he goes the second Rubio turns the corner into space. That half-second is when Rubio is going to have the maximum amount of defensive attention, so away he goes.
In one of the wrinkles that made watching Bridges last year forecast a breakout year two, he’s a surprisingly great finisher despite weighing under 210 pounds. He’s shooting 67% at the rim this season, over 10% above the league average.
Sometimes the cut is a matter of filling the lane in an unconventional way then scoring through contact. Again, monitor Bridges starting this play as the fourth-closest Suns player to the basket and how he sprints into space.
That’s just hard work.
And occasionally, we see that off-the-dribble potential pop where his good touch is showcased.
While it’s only on 17 attempts, Bridges is shooting 47% from the short-mid-range area, an excellent number for a wing he should look to build off and create more offense for himself in that area.
Add all that up and you’ve got Bridges back in a crucial role, playing above 25 minutes a night in his last eight games and taking playing time from rookie Cam Johnson.
The direct connection to helping the Suns win is still there despite the change in his game. Bridges has a 2.7 net rating, the fourth-best on the team, and his 104.4 defensive rating is third-best.
In the Suns’ new closing lineup, Bridges takes over at power forward, where Williams’ willingness to be outside the box benefits an unorthodox player like Bridges. Even in those lineups, Williams will still have Bridges defend ball-handlers if the matchup suits it.
Defensively, Bridges has been better than ever. Williams has credited that to having an extra year of experience, where Bridges’ timing and flow are going to be better, even if he has an innate feel for defense.
Bridges displayed last year that he can heavily impact games when he barely gets to double digits scoring, and in the case of Sunday’s win over the Charlotte Hornets, he made the play to seal the win.
Teams are still learning how long his arms are.
And Bridges is straight-up humiliating some guys now. Check out the look on his face here after he swallows up Keita Bates-Diop’s drive.
That’s a man that knows he just devoured someone’s soul.
Bridges still needs to figure out his jumper. When he’s closing games, teams will start to cheat off him to deny Devin Booker any room to operate as the ball-handler, and ditto with doubling Deandre Ayton inside. Teams are still in the process of recalibrating and not quite cheating off Bridges entirely, but they’ll get there, especially when the Suns are more of a threat. It’s happened a few times in close games already.
All that can’t be saved every time by a back-cut, so the development on his jumper is still key.
For now, though, he’s providing the Suns a positive contribution that is unique, and that’s worth something.