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Mikal Bridges: A Star Emerging

One of the most fulfilling aspects of watching sports is the underdog, the oft-forgotten, the one that is underestimated who somehow prevails and overcomes all odds to achieve the unimaginable. The other is the opportunist. The one who has been working tirelessly in the shadows, receiving little-to-no acclaim for their efforts and meticulously preparing themselves for the moment they can take advantage of being in the spotlight. The NBA, at a glance, is a world of opportunists and underdogs, as one player’s role diminishes, another’s grows, and as one player gets traded, another takes their place and with it, the added opportunity that comes. 

The Most Improved Player Award at its foundation is a trophy that recognizes both the opportunist and the underdog. The Utah Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen seems to be the runaway favorite to win the award this season, taking his emboldened role with the Jazz and seemingly blossoming into a perennial all-star player. But if you look at how Markkanen prepared for that moment, through his failures in his time in Chicago and his experimentation in Cleveland – you wouldn’t be surprised that he’s gotten to this point. In fact, preparation and development is an essential parts of Markkanen’s journey, because without it he, in all likelihood, wouldn’t be both mentally and physically prepared for the opportunity that was presented to him in Utah. 

It’s the old adage that Roman Philosopher Seneca said hundreds of years ago that has now turned into a motivational phrase for TikTok Financiers and those weird YouTube Ads with a guy driving a Lamborghini telling you that “luck is when preparation meets opportunity”. The saying is true, what those people are selling to you… is not. 

Anyways, Markkanen’s case is not rare. In fact, we’re seeing a similar phenomenon with Brooklyn Nets forward Mikal Bridges, who, in his short amount of time in Bedstuy, has shown that he has all the makings of being a star in the league. 

Again… if you’re a Suns fan, or have watched Bridges with a close eye in his first 4.5 seasons in Phoenix, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, it was more of an inevitability. 

The Villanova product came into the league as a long, quick wing who surely was going to fit into the prototype of a 3-n-D forward. He did just that in his first few seasons in Phoenix, developing into one of the premiere wing defenders in the league and also developing into a potent knockdown shooter. 

But in his last 2 seasons in Phoenix, Bridges took leaps as a scorer, at first playing off of Chris Paul and Devin Booker and taking the opportunities as they came, and then, when Booker or Paul missed time, Bridges would be given free rein to “experiment”.

The Suns’ egalitarian, motion style of offense is a massive component of all of this. They’re constantly running these elbow actions that involve multiple screeners, they move the ball out of those actions with intention and despite the play designs being set up mostly for Booker, Paul, or Deandre Ayton to take the shots, they actively demanded Bridges, Cam Johnson, and other wings to put the ball on the floor, make a decision and at times, even take the open shots themselves.  It helped that Bridges was a Villanova product, a program that prides itself on creating unselfish, team-first players. Now all he had to do was apply the skills he had learned in college to the Suns’ unselfish brand of basketball.

The Suns have been top 5 in assists per game every season since Monty Williams took over. That’s not by mistake, it’s by design. They like to move the ball and get everyone involved and the result of that is a natural pipeline in development. 

This season, with Booker and Paul both missing over 20 games with injuries, Bridges was asked to take on an even larger role and he did, averaging a then career-high in points per game at just over 17, taking just under 14 shots a game, and handling the ball more frequently. His usage percentage jumped from 15% in the 2021-2022 season, to just under 20% through his 56 games in Phoenix this season. It still wasn’t a large role, but it was enough for Bridges to feel tested and use those games without Booker or Paul as a playground of sorts to see what he can and can’t do as the primary guy. 

And then he was traded to Brooklyn for Kevin Durant. 

Recalling what Seneca, those TikTok Financiers, and that weird Youtube ad said “Luck is preparation meets opportunity” and Bridges was about to get really lucky. 

Having a Kevin Durant-sized hole on your team is more than enough for someone to come in and make the most out of their added responsibilities. Bridges, after tirelessly working in the shadows, perfecting his craft, and being given ample opportunity to experiment while in Phoenix… was ready for those responsibilities. 

In his first 9 games in a Nets uniform, Bridges is averaging 26.1 points per game, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal, and doing so while shooting 53% from the field, 50% from behind the arc, and 91% from the free-throw line. He has a true shooting percentage of 67% on a career-high 28% usage. He had a career-high 45 points against the Miami Heat before the All-Star break and followed that up just last week by dropping 38 points on the Boston Celtics. 

Read all those numbers back to yourself. 

The way that Bridges is getting to those shots is both remarkably similar and remarkably different than when he was in Phoenix. 

In his first 4 full seasons with the Suns, 76% of his two-pointers and 98% of his three-pointers were assisted. This season, with the injuries to Booker and Paul, those numbers went down to 60.5% and 97%, respectively. And now with Brooklyn, only 49.2% of his two’s are assisted, and 86.4% of his threes. He’s nearly doubled his pull-up frequency, attempting almost 8 pull-up jumpers a game. In his first 4 seasons, he averaged just under 2.5 drives per game. This season, overall, he’s driving the ball over 7.5 times a night and in his first 9 games in Brooklyn, is averaging over 10 drives per game. He’s doubled his free-throw attempts and nearly doubled his free-throw rate as well. 

The biggest difference has to be in the uptick in pull-up shooting and shot creation. What’s similar to his time in Phoenix is the way Brooklyn is setting him up for those shots.

Watch this first play from a game earlier this season where he dropped 31 points on the Timberwolves. An elbow curl action to get him cutting to the basket and he finishes the jumper through contact. 

They run almost the exact same play for him in Brooklyn… same result! 

In fact, this elbow action has become the foundation for the Nets’ offense around Bridges, simply because it gives him so many options to play within a setting that is familiar and comfortable to him. 

In this play, he rejects the curl, instead moves into a high pick-n-roll with Claxton, snakes it, and pulls up for the jumper. 

Same curl action here but instead of cutting to the basket, Bridges pops out and moves into a side PnR with Claxton and gets into another mid-range jumper. Very Booker-esque. (He actually did it twice in a row) 

The great thing is that he’s still an excellent off-ball mover (bred from his time in Phoenix where the off-ball movement was a must)… so he’s still an excellent cutter and can still hit these mid-range shots on the go. 

The Nets love to run this dribble hand-off with Claxton and Bridges in pseudo-transition that leads to these pull-up opportunities for Mikal. 

Watch how Bridges’ movement puts the Celtics’ defense in a precarious position here and he’s able to capitalize off of it. 

Small sample size theater and all that but the numbers are so staggering and the film aligns with the uptick in numbers, so we can only come to one conclusion: Bridges is ready to take that next leap in his career. And it wouldn’t be possible without the foundational skills that he developed in his time in Phoenix. 

Bridges’ off-the-dribble game had been in a slow cooker for the first 4.5 seasons in Phoenix. His off-the-ball game has been crafted, honed in, and mastered because of the amount of time he’s played next to stars. And now, by being given an arena to show off his skills, Bridges is putting it all together with a unique blend of both on-ball creation and off-ball wizardry. 

Mikal Bridges, the opportunist, made sure that his preparation did not go wasted when the opportunity presented itself. 

And now, Brooklyn has an emerging star because of it.