Suns coach: ‘Vulnerable’ conversation with Mikal Bridges launched wing

Apr 16, 2021, 2:41 PM | Updated: 3:29 pm

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) scores over Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, lef...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) scores over Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Mikal Bridges has become a mainstay for the Phoenix Suns, who with the second-best record in the NBA continue their push for playoff positioning by relying on three starters under 25 years old.

He’s second in minutes per game this year as his mid-range game has complemented his three-point shooting and his perimeter defense has risen to elite status.

At the foundation of his growth and success, though, is the trust he’s built with second-year Suns coach Monty Williams.

Because if you remember back to Bridges’ 2019-20 season, he didn’t start it as one of the new head coach’s most trusted players.

Bridges only started 32 of 73 games last season. In the first 18 games of the year, the swingman only played 20 or more minutes eight times.

On Friday, more than a year after a key moment in the player-coach relationship, Williams admitted that Bridges’ turn came after the two shared an honest conversation with one another while on the road in Memphis.

“He wasn’t quite as consistent as we wanted to earlier in the year,” Williams said. “He and I had a pretty vulnerable conversation about what I expected but also about how I could help him. To his credit, he embraced everything I asked of him, and I had to look at myself and see how I could help him.

“That conversation in Memphis, in my opinion, was a starting point for him to grow more as a player but also for me to look at some things I was doing that weren’t helping him. I’ve just seen him mature. He’s always been a great kid, a great person, but when I saw him take that conversation the right way, kind of knew he had a chance to grow, he had the capacity to grow as a player and a person.”

Bridges paid Williams back soon after that conversation, and the trust he gained showed in his minutes played.

His minutes jumped from 18.4 per game in October to 20.3 in November, 24.7 in December, 29.9 in January, 33.5 in February and 40.3 in four March games before the pandemic paused the season leading into the Disney World bubble.

The carryover into this season has been apparent. Bridges is averaging 12.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, all career highs.

He’s shooting a 53% overall and 41% from three, which are career bests as well. And while his mid-range attacking has raised his offensive ceiling, he perhaps can be most proud of Williams leaning on him to defend the best opposing perimeter player.

Bridges said he’s learned how to stay out of foul trouble since taking on that role. He averaged just under 3.0 fouls per 36 minutes in his first two seasons, but that’s dipped to 1.8 per 36 through Phoenix’s 40-15 start this year.

Altogether, it’s made the Villanova product irreplaceable, even on nights when his shot isn’t falling.

Bridges on Friday remembered his honest talk with Williams that launched him into becoming an undeniably key piece to the Suns’ first postseason run in over a decade.

“Whole thing turned around (after that talk),” Bridges said Friday. “I thought I deserved to play more and he told me, like, I wasn’t working hard enough. Ever since then, made me realize that I got to work hard and keep working, keep working to get back on track.

“Ever since that day, just kept going forward.”

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