“How Can Mikal Bridges Make The Leap?”

By Matt Esposito

Today’s inquiry comes to you live from the desert, as @AZSportsZone of SB Nation makes me build a bridge and get over it. What am I lamenting? That a certain Suns wing doesn’t play the majority of his games on East Coast Time. But, without further ado, I bring to you our question: What does Mikal Bridges need to do to make the leap?

Let’s start with a profile. Bridges spends the majority of his time (78%) at small forward but can guard multiple positions. His 7-foot-1 wingspan is outstanding when considering he stands just shy of 6-foot-7. Bridges has bounced in and out of Phoenix’s starting lineup but whenever he’s on the court he provides a major defensive boost. To boot, he is quite literally one of the most efficient scorers at his position, although he is not considered a main offensive option by any stretch.

To start, let’s explore how Bridges is used defensively and how the Suns should maximize his potential on that end of the court. Mikal is tasked with covering more stars than a TMZ reporter. This season he picked the pocket of everybody from Kawhi Leonard to Damian Lillard and had some terrific possessions defending James Harden during iso situations. His combination of motor, length and Villanova hoops education will lift him into All-Defensive team conversations sooner rather than later.

How can the Suns unlock Bridges and ensure he gets into that elite defensive stratosphere? Phoenix should focus on surrounding him with players that allow him to capitalize on his remarkable physical traits.

As a small forward, when Bridges runs the floor during small ball lineups the Suns find tremendous success. This hints that Bridges excels when he either has a behemoth of a paint deterrent behind him (DeAndre Ayton) or a savvy center to direct the defense (Aron Baynes). Additionally, Phoenix’s switchability during these rotations unleashes Bridges to do what he does best.

The chart above divulges more nuances. During these targeted lineups Bridges has the confidence to defend bigs, switch onto quicker guards, or gamble for steals during isolation. Regardless, there is a lot of orange – the good color – when Bridges plays with multipositional defenders. The eye test supports this too.

A good writer knows when to let the film write for them. A possession versus the Orlando Magic highlights how Bridges thrives playing alongside this specific group of personnel. Notice the movement among Suns defenders. Mikal gets stuck onto All-Star 7-footer Nikola Vucevic and his length stymies him rather easily.

Versus the Grizzlies, a screen forced Bridges to defend lightning bolt Ja Morant. You can’t play defense better than what Bridges did here.

The greatest benefit of playing with switchable defenders, however, is the freedom and trust it gives Bridges to defend shot-creators on the perimeter. This 5-out set against Houston is a prime example. Most defenses would be reduced to prayer emojis in this scenario versus Harden. Amazingly, Bridges gambles for a steal and strips Harden clean. Part of this is owed to Bridges’ fundamentals and length yet, this play never happens if Bridges doesn’t trust the personnel behind him.

Need more evidence? Despite Nikola Jokic being a savant at backdoor passes, Bridges still risks defending Jamal Murray far away from the hoop in what essentially becomes another 5-out set. By now, you know the drill.

Mikal’s ascension is dependent upon the Sun’s utilization of him in rotations that take advantage of his defensive ability. He would be better served as a consistent starter among Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre and DeAndre Ayton. The formula for Bridges is clear: small ball + big man anchor = success. Now, what should he be doing offensively to take the next step forward?

“Compliment – Criticize – Compliment” is what they tell new teachers do to for students. It applies here. Bridges is one of the most efficient scorers as his position. According to Cleaning the Glass he ranks in the 91st percentile for effective field goal percentage which is largely due to being in the 94th percentile for at-rim finishing. With his long strides, athleticism and IQ, it only made sense to throw together a 0:45 second clip of his backdoor cuts.

Yet, more CTG stats make his areas for improvement apparent. I’ll let the chart do the explaining; this time keep an eye out for the blue colors.

Bridge’s rookie and second years

Due to nailing 42 percent of his triples (4.6 3PA) over his last two seasons in college, many didn’t question Bridges’ ability to stretch the floor at the pro level. Yet, the former Wildcat admittedly developed a hitch during his rookie season. Since then, he has been trying to smoothen out his release.

It seems as though Bridges is gradually nearing a return to his former shooting self. Although he is still in the bottom half for his position at corner 3s, he is making progress. However, he still struggles with above-the-break triples.

The hitch is starting to be written out of his muscle memory code but these things take time. Sometimes its so bad that it looks like his hand fumbles with the ball before the shot.

This angle shows the hitch even more clearly.

Lately, however, there have been glimpses of hope. The high release we all fell in love with is starting to be rewired. Shots like this could be a sign of brighter days ahead.

Bridges’ 3-point attempt rate shrunk from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign, hinting that faith in his perimeter shot fell as well. This is a fixable problem though, and Suns fans should expect it to be remedied.

Asking Mikal to become a facilitator or shot-creator may be unreasonable as of now. Plus, Phoenix doesn’t need him in that role. Instead, to unlock Bridges’ next level, they must run him more in small lineups. If his 3-point shot continues its revival, then this will be easier to justify.

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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