- The Crossover breaks down Villanova's Mikal Bridges and how his game will translate to the NBA level.
The NBA has spoiled me. There is a decadence in watching Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, or Stephen Curry push beyond basketball's established limits, so much so that other products often come off bland by comparison. Once you've grown used to watching LeBron James work, it can be hard to muster enthusiasm for a group of 18- and 19-year-olds collectively learning how to play the game at more rudimentary levels. If that's elitism, I'll cop to it.
All of which puts me in a bubble come March, when the love for college basketball finds its fever pitch. Here we put that bubble to work. So much of the process surrounding the NBA draft stems from narrative; the arc of a player's story helps determine their draft stock, swaying rankings and decisions in ways we might not even fully realize. This is a scouting report completely divorced from that narrative—lacking in background, naturally, but separate from the talking points and evaluations that bounce around the draft prospect echo chamber.
Let's take a fresh look at ... Villanova's Mikal Bridges.
• The way Villanova defends really showcases Bridges at his best. I found myself waiting for games to return to that end of the floor, if only to watch him cycle from opponent to opponent without leaving the slightest gap in the coverage. Defensive switching has many forms and competencies. This is the most promising kind—the switch not as a last resort, but as a form of control. Bridges does so much to dictate where his opponents can go and, crucially, where they cannot.
• Another thing that makes Bridges perfect for this kind of system: Even in cases where the communication on switches isn't perfect, Bridges can recover instantly to fill the gap.
• Opposing players really do not like throwing passes when Bridges is around. You can see his power in their hesitation.
• One evaluative complication: Villanova switches so much that it's difficult to judge just how Bridges will do in the full swing of defensive rotation. It's clear that he can lock in and cover ground well. Just watch his balance on this closeout:
Yet guarding against the movement of the best NBA teams can test the focus and precision of a defender in more complicated ways. I like Bridges' odds to adapt, we just don't see him scramble as much as I'd like.
• Given his size and length, I would be shocked if Bridges didn't spend some meaningful time during his NBA career playing power forward. Between his general switchability, competitive rebounding when pitted against bigs, and stout work defending the post, it just makes too much sense. Bridges' ceiling could be determined by how effectively he fills that role in smaller, more versatile lineups.
• On the other end of the spectrum: One could imagine Bridges, a few years from now, changing the course of a playoff series when his coach assigns him to hound an opposing point guard.
• NBA coaches daydream about what this kind of length could do for their defense:
Whichever team drafts Bridges will get a player who, from Day One, is already accustomed to making multiple defensive efforts. A typical possession might feature him in matchups against three different opponents, denying each when they don't have the ball and smothring them when they do. It's remarkable how hopeless a possession can seem once it comes into contact with his matchup. Bridges doesn't play infallible defense, but he has a way of hanging in plays and erasing his mistakes.
• In the process of watching Bridges, I was struck by his occasional resemblance to the following NBA players: Khris Middleton, Otto Porter, Rashard Lewis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Harrison Barnes, Kent Bazemore, Danny Green, and Bradley Beal.
• Any player who can launch up a shot this quickly and from this high a release point is valuable to an NBA offense:
That form is efficient, it's adaptable, and it should work smoothly even against a closing defender. High marks for Bridges as a potential shooter in the NBA, where his ability to space the floor will be even more meaningful.
• The big question: How effective could he be as a secondary ball-handler? Bridges can do a little of everything against college competition, but in the pros he'll encounter more opponents his size (or bigger), and more athletes at his level (or better). There will be even less room for error when it comes to creating offense—something Bridges doesn't appear fully comfortable doing as it stands. His development as a creative complement could be the difference between life as a career role player and a fringe All-Star.
• Bridges strikes me as more of a vertical athlete than a horizontal one. With the way he gets up on dunks and layups, you'd expect his drives to have more burst than they do. There's some suggestion in his fundamentals that this could be improved; when his footwork is calculated and precise, he creates a lot more separation:
Otherwise, Bridges seems to clam up slightly when attacking the basket. He tends to pick up his dribble too early, likely because he feels his defender on his hip the entire way. Some work with NBA-level skill professionals (or a performance lab like P3) could get him the room he needs to drive more comfortably and the body control to better separate. A tighter, more confident handle could also work wonders. There's already a nice shiftiness to the way way Bridges moves, though that alone won't likely be enough at the next level.
The opportunity to work downhill will be there, particularly as he earns the respect of NBA defenses with his jumper. Making good on those chances will be a function of refinement.
• The limitations to Bridges' game are smoothed over by how reliably he keeps within the flow of an offense. His patience is appreciated—as is his implicit understand of how to value a possession. There isn't enough star pop to Bridges' game to warrant selection with a top pick, but his appeal is damn near universal.