EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson make emotional return to Phoenix while showing value in Brooklyn

Dec 13, 2023, 2:45 PM

Cam Johnson (L) #6 and Mikal Bridges #5 of the 2023 USA Basketball Men’s National Team are interv...

Cam Johnson (L) #6 and Mikal Bridges #5 of the 2023 USA Basketball Men’s National Team are interviewed at a practice session during the team's training camp at the Mendenhall Center at UNLV as the team gets ready for the FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup on August 06, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — It is an emotional Wednesday for the Phoenix Suns.

The Brooklyn Nets are in town for the first time since Phoenix acquired Kevin Durant in exchange for a package that included the beloved Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, two players drafted and developed by the Suns across a stretch where they played a huge role in turning the organization around.

Johnson, who will get emotional occasionally when speaking, had that in his voice when really diving into what his time with the Suns meant for the first time publicly since the trade in February. Speaking about the support from the fanbase got him there.

“These fans were amazing. … The development of the city caring for this team was just amazing to see,” Johnson said. “I think a big part of that mutual love is the fact that we were able to sort of in a way grow something together.

“That love is very mutual. I love the fans here. When I’m back in town, they treat me as if I never left. And that’s something you just can’t take for granted because nobody can really take that away from you.”

Bridges and Johnson, two human beings that were genuinely cared for within the organization and by those employees they would see on a day-to-day basis, will be greeted by dozens of those people who will be equally thrilled to see them. Johnson acknowledged there’s a game and that’s the main thing but he also said he’s going to make sure to take the time to have those moments with those who are important to him back in Phoenix.

“I wouldn’t say weird,” Johnson said about being back. “It’s a cool feeling. I feel grateful to be in a spot to where I can leave and be so appreciative. And it’s really a blessing when you think about it to have people that you miss like this, to have people you grew an actual connection with, that it impacts you when you leave.”

Bridges felt OK at shootaround with his return to the Footprint Center until he got on the court and went into the opposing locker room. Then it really started to settle in. He expects that feeling to intensify the night of the game.

It will be odd on the court, too. This is not the Suns team he and Johnson grew with. Monty Williams was fired. Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul were also traded. Only Devin Booker remains from the 2021 NBA Finals squad. The deal was just nine months ago and so much has changed.

“It’s not normal to be so close like that as a team, especially in the NBA,” Bridges said. “It was really special and that’s stuff I take with me when I left.”

“It’s crazy. Feels like a whole different team out there,” he added.

As the two have often discussed, The Twins have had each other through the whole process of adapting and pressing on through their NBA journeys together. The offseason was a much-needed break to allow them to breathe and, you know, move their lives across the country amongst other things.

“Absolutely. Those first two-and-a-half months were crazy,” Johnson said. “I’m sure Mikal will say the same thing. The time to settle in, the time to actually find a place in Brooklyn and figure out what’s going up there in that city. It helped a lot. And just getting to know the people better. I love the people that we work with in Brooklyn.”

Now that they are firmly in the trenches, Bridges and Johnson are helping do what they did in Phoenix, establishing a winning culture for a Nets franchise that has been rapidly all over the place since getting moved to Brooklyn in 2012.

“A ton,” Johnson said when asked how much of that is going on. “I think that’s a big part of this, is everybody has their own unique perspective. … It’s a building process. We’re in there talking things out every day trying to figure this thing out and we’ll be better for it.”

Bridges got specific with what he wants to bring over.

“Being dialed in and really detailed. … Try to help guys who don’t know really how to win but we got guys as well that got traded here who’ve been on winning teams,” Bridges said. “Just trying to bring that culture here, and also just having fun. Always having that, but also knowing that we get serious at the same time. Just finding that good mix.”

The Nets are 12-10, a good team in the Eastern Conference, higher than where most projected them as a slightly below .500 group finding its footing through some roster transitions still underway.

A lot of that has had to do with the player Bridges is now.

The timing of the trade was interesting for a bunch of different reasons but one that went understandably under-discussed was how through a multitude of injuries, Bridges’ offensive role elevated to new heights. And after a start that was not pretty, he really found some confidence to turn the flashes of his scoring potential into beams.

A few weeks after the trade, Bridges told The Old Man & The Three podcast Suns coaches were on him, constantly telling him to be the same guy when Booker and Paul got back from injury.

What he showed over that month was the most promising stretch of his career. Phoenix was acquiring Kevin freaking Durant, so that strong development was rightfully cast aside and sent elsewhere to continue expanding.

It has, to say the least.

Bridges has been in a unique situation. As soon as he got to Brooklyn, everything that was on the precipice in regards to his scoring role on the Suns didn’t just rise to the surface, it exploded through it to smash that sucker to smithereens.

He scored a career-high 45 points in his third Nets game and went on to average 26.1 a night across 27 games, gushing with the confidence everyone in Phoenix’s organization wanted him to play with every night offensively. His tremendous touch in the midrange areas that certified his status as a member of the middy committee combined with his improved handle and driving ability birthed a 25-point-per-game scorer, just like that.

Bridges was “the guy” for Brooklyn, who stumbled upon a franchise player ready to blossom into that at the exact moment Phoenix traded him. All he needed was that freedom, which would have taken at least another year or two to develop with the Suns given the amount Paul and Booker were in control of the offense.

But then the Nets came back this season with a healthy Ben Simmons, a playmaker best suited on the ball that brings little value off of it. And then there was the other breakout Net, 22-year-old Cam Thomas, posting 23.2 points a game this year as our next great heat-check microwave scorer. Both guys should be featured, but in doing so, it put Bridges right around where his offensive role was last season with the Suns. So, he staggered a bit out of the gates after his second-half burst.

Simmons, however, got hurt. So did Thomas. And impressively, Bridges is right back to it. He’s at 25.0 points a contest in his last eight, even with Thomas back for the previous five.

“Just staying aggressive and finding when to be on ball and off ball, because as much as I improved on the ball, I still off ball can play a cut, catch-and-shoot, all that stuff,” Bridges said of finding the sweet spot in his usage. “Just finding that fine line in our offense kind of changing a little bit.”

If you watched Bridges long enough in the Valley, it is a noticeable difference in mentality. Look at him go.

For the optimists on Bridges’ scoring potential, the hyper efficiency from him at all three levels in a more limited capacity has translated with more usage. Where Bridges has been shooting from in terms of volume hasn’t changed much, and he encouragingly this year is up to 31% of his shots at the rim after that percentage dropped a bit on the ball last season. He’s always been a tremendous finisher and that isn’t changing.

The natural follow-up to more shots at the basket is free throws. And yes, Bridges has taken huge strides there, too. He’s not quite up to the 6.6 attempts a game from his Brooklyn fixtures last season but 4.9 this year is still on the right track. In 17 of Bridges’ 49 games for Brooklyn, he’s put up at least eight free tosses, something he did only eight times in his 365 outings for Phoenix.

“I think I’ve been going to the rim a lot more than I have all my life,” Bridges joked, referencing how his previous “3-and-D” type role has been a thing since even high school. “Literally. … Yeah man, finally getting some calls. Kind of excited. I think sometimes refs don’t see a big star out there so [they] kind of relax a bit. And I’m like, ‘Listen, man. We get fouled too. I’m pretty smart, I know how to get fouled.’

Bridges has been a great case study to monitor when it comes to how much great players have to keep stored up for their offensive workloads on the defensive end. He’s one of the best there in the league but hasn’t been the same guy for Brooklyn. He said it himself.

“I feel like I haven’t been as best as I was in Phoenix,” Bridges told Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks. “It’s tough, there’s more stuff going on offensively. … Last year I felt like there was a big drop honestly, but now I feel good. … I think handling it a little more offensively just takes it away a little bit. And I could just feel it sometimes, but this year I’ve been way better.”

He expanded on the learning process of that on Wednesday.

“Definitely the weight and having the ball more, my body wasn’t used to it,” Bridges said. “I was just really kind of tired and losing focus a little bit, and once you lose focus as a top defender, you can’t lose focus because guys will score in a heartbeat. … But I’ve been better this year, can definitely be way better but just trending the right way, just trying to condition myself to be able to do it on both ends.”

The Nets on paper have a premier defensive roster. Simmons at his peak was back-to-back First Team All-Defense, Bridges has a nod there, too, center Nic Claxton will be getting his accolades soon enough, guard Dennis Smith Jr. is an emerging perimeter nuisance and veterans Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale have long been established as dependable there. If they are a great team in the near future, it will be on that end, so Bridges finding a better balance like he has this year is crucial.

In a brief attempt to not sell Johnson short, he has more or less been who we know him for on the court. He’s a winning player in every way. Those guys will look better the better the team is, so there are going to be some inconsistencies on .500 teams like Brooklyn, but he’s still a huge part of what the Nets do.

It’s not quite the brand-new role with tons of new responsibility like Bridges has, and Johnson getting more opportunities is a similar situation to Bridges where it’s a crowded room to try and spread his wings. He’s doing slightly more on the ball, with his assists and turnovers both elevating in the ways you’d expect. The production and efficiency are all solidly trekking up. But of course, when you really watch just him solely on the court, that’s when you truly see his impact on countless possessions a night.

He’s a very balanced, good all-around basketball player.

If anything, both Bridges and Johnson are unquestionably validating how they were a worthwhile return in a trade for one of the 10 greatest players of all time who is still playing to that caliber in the present.

Based on how we got to know The Twins, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Empire of the Suns

Kevin Durant faces a Thunder double-team...

Kevin Zimmerman

It’s on the Suns’ players to clean up their turnover rate

Kevin Durant, Jusuf Nurkic, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal all have their individual turnover problems to grapple with for the Phoenix Suns.

2 hours ago

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against Grayson Allen #8 o...

Kellan Olson

Suns’ latest comeback flurry at home falls short vs. Thunder

You don't need to be a meteorologist to see a troubling forecast ahead for the Phoenix Suns.

12 hours ago

(Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)...

Kellan Olson

Amar’e Stoudemire’s long-awaited Suns night comes with Ring of Honor nod

There is a lot different about the Phoenix Suns franchise that Amar'e Stoudemire was a part of for the first eight years of his NBA career.

2 days ago

Devin Booker #1 (L) and Royce O'Neale #00 of the Phoenix Suns react after an apparent injury during...

Kellan Olson

Concerning Devin Booker injury overshadows Suns’ slow start, loss to Rockets

Every loss from here on for the Suns should come with the "hard-fought" qualifier in front of it given how close they are to a play-in fate.

2 days ago

Bradley Beal #3 of the Phoenix Suns adjusts his mask before the game against the Sacramento Kings a...

Kellan Olson

Bradley Beal in good spot for Suns return after caution with hamstring injury

It's hard to think of anyone in the NBA this season that would have wanted to rush back from an injury more than Suns guard Bradley Beal.

2 days ago

Devin Booker #1 and head coach Frank Vogel of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA ga...

Kellan Olson

Suns’ gauntlet of high-end opponents begins at stretch run of tight West race

Thirteen of the Phoenix Suns' remaining 23 games are against the best of the best in the NBA and will show us who they really are.

3 days ago

Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson make emotional return to Phoenix while showing value in Brooklyn