Mikal Bridges’ breakthrough on his jumper had him reemerge on Suns
Now more than ever, it feels impossible to quantify time and how long ago something was.
So do you remember when Mikal Bridges didn’t break 20 minutes in 11 of his first 18 games this season, reaching 30 only once?
Yes, one of the Phoenix Suns’ most important players who is averaging 32.7 minutes a night over his last 32 games was struggling for playing time.
Bridges appeared to have hit some type of mental block offensively, as he really needed transition to make any type of impact.
His strange decline from a sharpshooter at Villanova to a below-average NBA three-point shooter continued to open the year, and it got to the point where he was done camping out in the corner. Instead, he was cutting or taking a line to the basket.
Here’s Bridges for the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament, getting space for either a driving lane or a shot.
The baseline is wide-open, but he rises and fires, and please make a mental note of the replay showing that great catch-and-shoot form.
A similar situation earlier this season below.
He’s thinking drive all the way.
That’s a credit to him adjusting, of course, but is also indicative of how far the stock of his jumper had fallen, a critical aspect of his projection as a prototypical 3-and-D wing.
As his offensive game continues to evolve (more on that later), Bridges needs to hit perimeter shots to log serious playing time.
He wasn’t, so he also wasn’t playing much.
Head coach Monty Williams had a talk with Bridges on the road a half-dozen games into the season to make sure he was still on the right path.
“I feel like that gave him some confidence, kind of gave him a bit of a template that he could follow,” the coach said Saturday, noting he was rather tough on Bridges early on.
“He helped me progress my game confidence-wise,” Bridges said.
The breakthrough wouldn’t come for a while, though, especially with his jumper.
Bridges developed a hitch that continues to rear its ugly head from time to time, and through tireless work with assistant coach Darko Rajakovic, they are working it out of his system.
“He just put in a ton of work with Darko,” Williams said. “He went through the ups and downs of being a second-year player with expectations.”
Williams said the work included Rajakovic and the 23-year-old watching his Villanova tape to get Bridges “to see it.”
Through things like Bridges’ foot and hand placement before he even gets the ball, progress continued.
“He had a bit of a hitch that had to be worked out,” Williams said. “He’s done a really good job, and they just got in a ton of reps.”
“It helped me out throughout the whole season,” Bridges said of the process.
“Trying to change a shot mid-season, you have to be confident with it as well.”
Eventually, Bridges had one of those games he could build off and he didn’t look back.
He scored a career-high 26 points in Boston on Jan. 18, shooting 6-of-8 from deep.
This specific make from the corner looks awfully familiar, eh?
Watch those other five hits from deep too and you’ll see that’s the shooter the Suns traded up for on draft night in 2018, even with that little 1-2 motion in some of those.
From this game on, Bridges is shooting 39.6% from three-point range on 3.8 attempts a game. Prior to that game, he was at 29.4% on 1.7 attempts.
Those numbers, and the increased confidence that came with it, was all he needed.
Bridges was even better defensively after that, and will be getting All-Defense love once the moons align on the national media’s attention turning enough to Phoenix.
A thread if you want more:
Bridges usually has the toughest cover whenever he’s on the floor, and that includes point guards, an under-discussed yet important part of his value to give someone like Ricky Rubio some stretches off the nuisance of being on the primary ball-handler.
Rubio can keep those old legs fresh while Bridges chases around All-Stars like Damian Lillard.
Bridges is an elite finisher, particularly in transition. He’s shooting 72% at the rim, one of the highest marks in the league.
With that number aided a bit by great passers like Rubio and Devin Booker knowing to get him the ball there and to find him on cuts, Bridges is also awesome at finishing with those looooong arms.
That’s how you get a high-value role player.
“I believe he has every intangible and talent and quality to be a glue guy in that starting lineup,” Williams said of Bridges.
“Mikal has an edge to him. I think guys respect the heck out of him because he competes every day.”
And in what was part of the excitement in watching Bridges at the collegiate level, there’s a pinch of upside with his off-the-dribble scoring.
That touch at the rim and on the jumper extends to the mid-range area when he’s really feeling himself.
That showing in his rookie year was what led many to predict a breakout second season for Bridges, but he first needed to regain his footing.
It appears he has.