EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

‘Part of the middy committee’: Mikal Bridges makes leaps in the midrange

Nov 28, 2022, 8:32 AM | Updated: Dec 5, 2022, 4:10 pm
Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns shoots over Kyle Lowry #7 of the Miami Heat during the third ...
Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns shoots over Kyle Lowry #7 of the Miami Heat during the third quarter at FTX Arena on November 14, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
(Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — After the Phoenix Suns beat the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Finals, a game Mikal Bridges scored 27 points in, I asked Devin Booker about the scorer Bridges had become.

Booker spoke on how Bridges is not just a 3-and-D player and joked that Bridges stole one of his moves, a fading midrange jumper going to his left.

After his answer, I followed up: Was Bridges now under consideration as another high-level midrange player alongside Booker and Chris Paul?

Bridges, sitting next to Booker during this exchange, shot a look directly at the two-guard in anticipation to see if he was about to get the seal of approval (and to probably try to make Booker laugh, as he is prone to doing).

“We’ll talk next year,” Booker said with a laugh that got one out of Bridges, too.

We are now two years in the future, but it’s technically next calendar year in 2022. So I’ll use that as an excuse for my tardiness in asking Booker again on Saturday.

Bridges is in.

“He’s part of the middy committee!” Booker told Arizona Sports on Saturday. “That’s what we call it. The middy committee.”

So it is said, so it shall be written.

Game 2 of that Finals series was the great hope for Bridges becoming a lethal, reliable scorer. He knocked down a pair of corner 3s in the first quarter, and from there, took advantage of how Milwaukee chased him off the line.

Milwaukee dared him to dribble and become a playmaker from there. He obliged by smoking them with his excellent touch around 15 feet and in.

Doing that at the absolute peak of pro basketball’s competitiveness against the eventual NBA champions was encouraging to say the least.

The whole series, however, represents the growth Bridges still had to go through.

He wasn’t much of an offensive factor, averaging 9.0 points per game in the other five contests. In the other series Bridges was eliminated from the playoffs in, last year versus the Dallas Mavericks, Bridges posted 9.9 points a night across the seven games and never cracked 15. His impact offensively waned and he wasn’t able to insert himself to change that.

It’s a delicate dance of basketball discourse because Bridges puts in more legwork than anyone else in the NBA. Not only did he lead the league last year in minutes played, he paced it in total distance traveled on the court with 212.5 miles traveled, per NBA.com’s tracking data. For reference, only 10 players even hit 190, and he did that while defending the No. 1 perimeter option on every team.

Is it too much to ask of him, to be a scoring threat to the degree of flirting with 20 points per game?

I don’t think so, and that’s because of the skill he has.

When Paul went down in early November with what is being labeled on the injury report as right heel soreness, the No. 1 candidate to step up was Bridges. And even with Paul healthy to start the season, the Point God in 10 games was playing off the ball far more. His catch-and-shoot 3s per game have nearly doubled from 0.8 last year to 1.5 this campaign, and that has been through plenty of Paul hesitating to shoot and being implored to let it rip.

Bridges has answered the call in the nine games Paul missed. He has taken 13.9 shots a game, way up from his career average of 8.5.

Friday’s win over the Detroit Pistons was the largest example of this uptick.

Bridges started the game missing nine shots in a row, including a handful around his sweet spots where he’s usually money. Not only did Bridges refuse to fade when they weren’t going down, he got even more aggressive, almost like he was trying to shoot himself out of the funk.

Basketball is funny, because that is a huge problem for some teams when certain players do that. But when Bridges does, it is welcomed with open arms for an incredibly unselfish teammate.

The basketball gods rewarded him for his persistence. Bridges made his next five attempts to score 13 of his 15 points in the third quarter.

“Just staying ready,” Bridges said Friday of how he stuck with it. “My teammates found me and I was just being ready to play like I wasn’t 0-for-9. Just kept shooting the ball and being aggressive.”

Bridges is having a career year in the first season of his four-year, $90-million extension that is going to be a bargain.

Along with his defending prowess that will have him in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year again, Bridges is averaging personal bests with 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

It’s on the usual stellar efficiency, a true shooting percentage of 64.2% that ranks eighth among the league’s 92 15-point-per game scorers. Bridges’ 8.1% turnover percentage ranks seventh-lowest among that same group, per Stathead.

How is Mikal Bridges finding more in the midrange?

To go back to the move Booker teased Bridges about stealing from him — the fallaway jumper to his left over the right shoulder — that has become Bridges’ signature shot.

Bridges said it’s a shot he began developing a feel for around his third season, which makes sense because of how reliant it is on the positioning of the defense.

The numbers back up this timeline.

Last year in his fourth season, 29% of Bridges’ shots came between 5-14 feet, per Cleaning the Glass. That was one of the highest marks for a wing and a huge jump from the 17% a year prior. Even better, Bridges made an elite 56% of ’em.

This year, it’s 31% of his shot profile. And while the accuracy is slightly down to 46%, that’s still a really good number and a dip that is expected to come with his increased role.

That is where the bread is buttered, and having a go-to region of the floor that can serve as a safe haven to find a bucket has been crucial to Bridges’ growth as an offensive player.

Bridges scored 16 points without a 3-pointer while facing the Utah Jazz in Saturday’s victory. It was the sixth game of his career where Bridges reached at least 15 points without a 3-pointer.

And guess what? Five of them have come in this calendar year, when Booker told us to check in.

Six of Bridges’ seven field goals on Saturday were in the midrange, and they will go under the microscope to look at his midrange game over these nine games without Paul.

The genesis of this is Bridges’ acumen as a 3-point shooter, and it sure helps he’s hitting a blistering 46.9% from deep so far this season. As Booker said, Bridges will unfairly get labeled as a 3-and-D player, but those 3s are a big part of his responsibilities as an offensive player on the Suns.

It is rare for wings of Bridges’ build to be a prolific sniper and be able to make plays off the bounce when they are run off the line. That is where head coach Monty Williams’ 0.5 philosophy of making decisions in 0.5 seconds or less is a requirement for all off-ball players.

That’s what the Jazz want to force, as Bridges said after the game that Utah typically doesn’t allow many 3s.

“Knowing that too, just gotta find it, get shots up in a different way,” Bridges said Saturday after he did just that.

His sensational cutting and such generates that operating room, rolling out the red carpet for his feel for shots there to further develop.

Williams wisely started to draw up sets for Bridges to get the ball in those situations outside of improvisational ones. Every scouting report has the Suns’ elbow actions in it, with Bridges double-highlighted to keep him from slithering around the top of the key and foul line.

Take note of the second bucket and how Bridges spins back. That’s the move!

“Gets over that right shoulder, doesn’t matter if there’s a hand in his face or not,” Booker told Arizona Sports. “I know the feeling where it just feels like an open shot. If you miss, it’s not because of the defender.”

“That’s a tough shot to guard,” Bridges said Friday, noting how Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanovic also uses it. “All the length in the world I got, it’s tough. Especially if you get a little bump and you create a little space with a high release, it’s tough.”

I’m glad he brought up the bump.

It’s a pretty old-school shot by trade, accepting the space in an area where many players decades ago scored the majority of their points. With that in mind, I asked Williams if it reminds him of anyone specifically.

His response was the best type of comparison, one you wouldn’t think of because of how physically different the player is.

“Probably Glenn Robinson,” Williams said Friday. “That’s a guy that had a high release, could turn around off his right shoulder and it’s hard to block. Little bit bigger than Mikal but that’s not saying much.”

Robinson, who went by Big Dog in his playing career, is one of those ’90s bucket-getters who would eat defenders alive from the triple-threat position. Whether it was deeper toward the basket or inside the 3-point line, Robinson’s blend of agility and strength on power dribbles from there would find him enough real estate.

He’d also work a lot in the post, where he would get to that type of shot Bridges relies on. From there, you’ll see what Williams is talking about with the release point and length correlations. This first bucket, in fact, is similar to some of the off-ball movement Bridges zooms through around the elbows to get the shot off.

“Big Dog! OK, I like that,” Booker told Arizona Sports. “Different player but I see what you’re saying with the fallaway.”

Robinson was listed at 240 pounds, a weight Bridges will never come close to touching in his career.

“I don’t got that! I don’t got the size!” Bridges said.

But he does have that same smooth fallaway touch.

“The end result is still there,” Booker astutely put it.

Here’s more of that spin from Bridges, including his best Big Dog impression with some bully ball work in the post. He’s getting more comfortable spinning off the other shoulder, too, and listen to the “wow” from the Miami Heat commentary team after the last bucket.

“The guy is very tough with midrange turnarounds.”

Indeed.

“He’s getting it,” Booker said when asked if it just comes down to more of a scoring mindset for Bridges. “Game by game, he’s just more comfortable, and that’s the nature of this game. That’s the part of experience and it’s a beautiful thing to watch him keep growing and growing.”

Speaking of that, we covered the escalation from 0.5 to elbow sets to the spin.

Now, it’s about getting a ball screen (or not even needing it) and creating that middy from almost nothing. Those jumpers will truly make Bridges a member of the middy committee.

When we start seeing Bridges ooze with confidence, that’s when the train has really left the station and we’re off.

Like this pretty runner off the glass.

Or this gorgeous up-and-under layup that would make 10-year-old Bridges proud of the way he embodied Tracy McGrady, his favorite player growing up.

Sometimes for certain guys, it’s just about realizing how good they are.

Is he there?

“Yeah. I think he’s there,” Booker said Friday. “He knows how good he is and he’s going to continue to get better.”

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