Mikal Bridges‘ performance in the scrimmage games in Orlando has turned a lot of heads. He averaged nearly 20 points per game over the three games while showing off his incredible defensive acumen. Now in his second season in the league, he has shown a quiet but steady improvement from his rookie campaign. But what makes Mikal Bridges such an intriguing prospect and how has his play been improving during his time in the NBA? Here are three key areas that make him such a valuable piece.
Great Finishing Around the Rim
Coming into the NBA, one of the main knocks on Bridges was his lack of strength. This held him back from being a great finisher around the basket in college. During his rookie season, he shot a very respectable 64 percent on shots at the rim but was not driving very often. Less than 30 percent of his shots were between zero and three feet while more than half were from behind the arc.
This season Bridges has made the leap from an average finisher to an elite one. After putting on some muscle in the offseason, he has been more confident and more willing to drive towards the basket. This has seen his shots at the rim take a 13 percent increase up to over 40 percent of his total shots. Even on higher volume, his field goal percentage next to the basket has skyrocketed to nearly 75 percent, which puts him among the ten best non-big men in finishing at the rim this season.
While Bridges has gotten stronger, his improved finishing at the rim is mainly due to a willingness to wait for his shot. Two examples from his 26 point scrimmage performance versus the Raptors encapsulate this. In the first, instead of charging right at the much larger Serge Ibaka, Bridges takes what he is given and knocks down the floater that Ibaka isn’t closing out on. In the second, Bridges floats through the contact, going up and under the defender for the reverse layup rather than putting up the shot right away.
A Blossoming Corner-Three Specialist
As an offensive player, Bridges spends the vast majority of his time off the ball. His usage rate is the lowest of any of the Sun’s regular players. More than 76 percent of his two-point field goals are assisted, only Cheick Diallo has a higher percentage, On three-pointers, he is the embodiment of a catch-and-shoot player, every one of his made shots from beyond the arc has been assisted.
During his sophomore campaign, Bridges has cut his three-point attempts nearly in half, from 3.8 to 2.4 per game. While he isn’t shooting as many long-range shots, this is mainly due to trimming out his more inefficient attempts. As an off-the-ball player, Bridges is turning himself into a corner three specialist. He’s made a massive improvement on his corner shots this season, up from 31 percent his rookie year to nearly 40 percent this season. He ranks 8th in corner three percentage among corner specialists (players who take more than 40 percent of their three-pointers from the corner). Now nearly 50 percent of his three-pointers come from the corner, which is 16th in the NBA.
By hanging in the corner, Bridges can open up lanes for his teammates and create scoring opportunities. In this example, he waits patiently for Ricky Rubio to draw his man over on the drive and is rewarded with a wide-open shot from the corner. He also is very capable of keeping defenders on their toes, and will gladly take advantage of players who expect him to sit idly in the corner. Take this play from earlier this season vs Milwaukee as an example. He feints towards the corner before quickly cutting behind his man for the easy basket.
Extremely Versatile Defense
One thing that has always been notable about Bridges’ game is his incredible potential as an elite defensive multitool. He is capable of guarding nearly every position on the court. This is due to his combination of above-average speed and agility which allows him to hang with smaller guards and his impressive 7-foot-1 wingspan which helps him to guard larger forwards even when he as a height disadvantage.
Because of his unique defensive frame. Phoenix use Bridges in a variety of defensive situations. He has spent his time evenly split between guarding forwards and guards this season and has even spent nearly 40 minutes guarding centers. His defense against smaller guards has been especially noteworthy. Guards are shooting less than 42 percent from the field against him and just 32 percent from deep.
His massive wingspan is especially advantageous when going for steals. It allows him to more easily steal the ball off the dribble or use his long arms to disrupt passing lanes such as here. He ranks in the top 10 in the league in total steals and top 15 in steal rate. Against undersized forwards, he can hold his own as a post defender as seen here versus the Warriors Eric Paschall. Another area where his wingspan comes in handy is chase-down blocks such as here and here. A combination of long arms and an impeccable sense of timing make him one of the better chase-down artists in the league.
The Suns have a very exciting prospect on their hands in Bridges. He is a great finisher at the rim, is an elite corner three specialist, and has the physical traits to be a top tier defender. While he still has work to do, mainly on the offensive end where he still has a propensity to take bad long-range shots, Bridges has the potential to be a key piece on Phoenix for years to come.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference
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