EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns wing Mikal Bridges cracks John Hollinger’s list of most underrated

May 7, 2021, 7:55 AM

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) drives past Oklahoma City Thunder forward Aleksej Pokusevsk...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) drives past Oklahoma City Thunder forward Aleksej Pokusevski (17) and center Isaiah Roby (22) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 2, 2021, in Phoenix. Phoenix won 140-103. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

An overtime shellacking of the Cleveland Cavaliers this past Tuesday ended with Mikal Bridges posting this stat line for the Phoenix Suns: 22 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks on 60% shooting.

The numbers aren’t always so stunning with Bridges, who makes his presence most felt on the defensive end, but they’re starting to pop more often for the third-year wing.

Even when they’re not, Bridges has become one of the most important parts for a team fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference.

The Athletic’s John Hollinger, a former front office executive for the Memphis Grizzlies, listed Bridges as the ninth-most underrated NBA player.

A reluctant shooter who would often pass up shots a year ago, he’s upped his scoring rate this season from 15.5 points per 100 all the way to 21.2. He’s done this without losing efficiency; in fact, he’s shooting a sizzling 64.3 percent inside the arc — mostly because he’s very good at getting out in transition for layups and dunks.

All that has transformed Bridges in this third season from a nice role player to a real weapon, one of the highest-performing role players in the league and perhaps a top-50 player overall.

Lately, Bridges has been hunting and creating his own shots with more aggression.

While his one- or two-dribble drives have complemented his three-point shooting (42%), head coach Monty Williams has seemingly increased Bridges’ touches coming off curl screens or pindowns.

In other words, the Suns are starting to utilize him like they more often utilize leading scorer Devin Booker.

Bridges has increased his volume of shot-taking — he’s attempting three more shots per 100 possessions from a year ago.

Those looks are also coming at a higher rate in which he’s open this season, and Bridges’ confidence appears high enough that, lately, he’s starting to take step-back jumpers if he’s catching the ball on the weakside with his defender slightly off-balance.

The Suns will take a more aggressive Bridges considering he’s averaging a career-high 13.4 points on 54% accuracy overall.

Of course, Bridges’ value and importance starts with his defense, which is not only good in its own right but puts his teammates in more optimal positions.

He often takes the opponent’s best perimeter offensive player, allowing Devin Booker to save energy at the other wing spot while point guard Chris Paul is able to play off the ball, where he can act as a free safety to jump passing lanes or sneak over on help defense to disrupt things.

That doesn’t show up in the stat sheet either, and it’s yet another reason why those in tune with the league, like Hollinger, might be able to appreciate Bridges more than a casual NBA observer.

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