- Who is the best wing prospect in the NBA draft? The Front Office examines three players who who could be picked in the lottery: Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Villanova’s Mikal Bridges.
We’ve entered the closing stretch of the pre-draft process. Now that the selection order has been finalized, teams will spend the next month finalizing their boards and gauging which players could be available when they’re on the clock. Front office judgments are not set in stone. General managers could become more enamored with or sour on certain players between now and the night of June 21. The Crossover’s Front Office continues to use hypothetical draft-night scenarios to spotlight similar prospects: If given the opportunity, which would you pick for your team? Our writers will choose sides and make their cases for each player.
In our first installment, we broke down Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Texas’s Mohamed Bamba. Today we’re turning to three wing prospects who could be picked in the lottery: Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Villanova’s Mikal Bridges.
Jake Fischer: Kevin Knox
In this Warriors-dominated era, the NBA has grown into more of a team-building exercise than an on-court competition. And as these playoffs demonstrated, the most malleable and effective rosters harbor a seemingly endless surplus of two-way wings. Mold those prospects under the watchful eye of a keen development staff, and you can foster fully-realized offense and defensive players. Think what Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have shown flashes of, with the eventual goal to build in the image of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. This year’s draft class features a multitude of intriguing wings, but only one truly possesses the all-around upside and frame to fit the ideal prototype: Kevin Knox.
Put up against Miles Bridges and Mikal Bridges, Knox is taller (6’7.75” w/o shoes), and younger than his counterparts, coupled with a virtually equal wingspan (6’11.75”) to that of Villanova’s swingman. Knox won’t turn 19 until August 11, making him ripe for an NBA coaching staff to get their hands on. Mikal Bridges will turn 21 two weeks after Knox’s birthday, whereas Miles is already midway through his 20th year. Knox boasts a significant advantage in biometric profile.
On the court, his size and sufficient athleticism alone make him a candidate to eventually guard positions 3-5. He also had a successful season as Kentucky’s leading scorer, posting 15.6 points per game while shooting 34.1% from deep and 77.4% from the line. The mechanics are there, culminating with a quick and high release. He used his length exceptionally well as a scorer, both laterally to side-step opponents in his driving lanes and when hanging in the air meeting helping bigs in the paint. He was effective in the post against smaller opponents and delivered most of his damage spotting up on the wings and elbow extended, either flashing his jumper or taking closeout defenders off the dribble. Knox also showcased a bit of playmaking ability. He only ran 48 pick-and-rolls as a Wildcat, according to Synergy Sports, but produced 0.979 points per possession in those settings.
Knox has provided scouts with enough of a preview in each facet of the game to where teams should be salivating over the chance to invest in him in the late lottery. Picking Knox is betting far more on upside than a presently realized skill set. But the dividends could prove highly lucrative, and a team could be selecting a potential All-Star at the back end of the lottery.
Jeremy Woo: Miles Bridges
There’s no way around the fact that of these three wings, Bridges has the clearest set of limitations: he’s best suited to play power forward, but has the physical dimensions of a shooting guard and struggled in his transition to playing primarily on the wing in college. Those are undeniably factors here. The earnest case for Bridges has to hinge primarily on the belief that he’ll be a much more natural fit within the NBA game, regardless of his role (if positions even matter anymore).
The primary thing working in Bridges’s favor is that he meets the NBA’s athletic mold in a way neither/nor Knox or Mikal Bridges does. He’s explosive off the floor and agile for someone his size, has already filled out his upper body and already has a solid enough build that he won’t be pushed around by many opponents. While he’s not an advanced ball-handler nor does he shoot consistently well on the move, Bridges stands out in transition and has proven he can hit jumpers with his feet set, the latter a particularly key ingredient to staying on the floor. Nobody will be asking him to take 30% of his team’s shots, as he did last season for the Spartans. His dribbling needs to get more creative, but he’ll also have more space to attack the rim. Remember that there were similar questions about Jaylen Brown following his poor one-and-done year at Cal, but his athleticism and improved jumper and focus helped turn him into a quality pro early in his career. Granted, those two are very different players, but it’s unlikely we’ve seen Bridges’s best basketball based on the spot-up heavy role he played with suboptimal spacing at Michigan State.
Team fit will matter heavily for Bridges, who is best off alongside one or two creative playmakers that can get him the ball in spots where he can use his first step as a mismatch and alleviate his load working in isolation. The NBA’s positional spectrum has blurred to a degree that favors players like him, where a few bankable traits coupled with some defensive flexibility overrule any long-held beliefs about what constitutes a forward or a center. Can Bridges space the floor as a set shooter? Probably (he’s a career 37.5% from three). Can he attack a closeout off a ball reversal? Probably. Will he rebound on the weak side? Yes. Will he be a factor in the transition game? Yes. He’s a good finisher around the basket and has developed some level of a pull-up jumper. His body type should allow him to defend threes, fours and even fives if the other team plays small. It’s an unorthodox mixture of skills, but it’s certainly enough to create real value in the right situation. Instead of harping on what he can’t do, think about what he does well, and how those skills are in demand.
The way Bridges played in college was often antithetical to his biggest strength (which is, literally, his strength). You’d expect him to play more bully-ball, but he often settled for jump shots when his dribble couldn’t get him into the paint. Defensively, he should have been more committed at times. But it’s easy to see an athlete like him flying around the court, making hustle plays and helping the team in smaller areas. If a team can get him to buy into those things, there could be a different, more valuable player here (think a Jae Crowder-y job or a P.J. Tucker small-ball role). Bridges might be a quick mental adjustment away from becoming a standout role player. Rather than wait on Knox to pan out or make a safe-but-unspectacular choice with Mikal Bridges, it’s worth considering the risk-reward proposition here.
Chris Johnson: Mikal Bridges
There are only so many minutes a team can hand out to players with major limitations on either end of the floor. Defensive sieves or space-crimping bystanders can be fatal weaknesses against certain opponents. The fuel powering NBA title contenders are two-way contributors who can dribble, pass, shoot and guard more than one position. These guys aren’t easy to find, but when they’re available—and especially when they’ve won two national championships—they shouldn’t be passed over unless the alternative is something really special. For the general managers eyeing these three wing prospects, Mikal Bridges stands above Miles Bridges and Knox because his 3-and-D package is more translatable to today’s league. It is difficult to foresee a scenario in which Bridges will not materially upgrade his team’s ability to both put the ball in the opposing team’s basket and prevent the opposing team from doing the same.
Bridges scored efficiently during all three of his seasons at Villanova, but in 2017-18 he hinted at a higher offensive ceiling. After serving as a complementary threat as a redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore, Bridges took on a bigger offensive workload, raising the percentage of his team’s plays that he used while on the floor from 15.3 to 23.2, according to Sports Reference. The usage hike didn’t overwhelm Bridges. He posted a higher offensive rating last season than he did in two previous seasons. Although Bridges won’t be tasked with carrying an offense at the next level, his comfort taking on more shot-creation responsibility suggests he’ll be more than a catch-and-shoot weapon at the next level. Bridges can use his long strides to puncture defenses with straight-line drives, and he’s a functional playmaker who took better care of the ball last season, slashing his turnover rate from 15.1% to 9.1%.
Whatever Bridges’s deficiencies as an off-the-bounce creator and distributor, his floor-spacing potential is plain. Bridges is a capable jump shooter both off the catch and off the dribble, and a high release point enables him to launch over contesting defenders. After sinking only 23 of his 77 attempts from distance as a redshirt freshman, Bridges hit at a 39.3% clip on 112 attempts as a redshirt sophomore and a 43.5% clip on 239 attempts as a redshirt junior. Bridges also sank 86.8% of his 190 total free throw attempts as a redshirt sophomore and redshirt junior, up from 78.7% on 75 attempts as a redshirt freshman, a good indicator for his potential as a long-range marksman.
Against most lineups, Bridges should be able to toggle between as many as four defensive assignments. He’s just the type of long, nimble stopper coaches want manning their switch-heavy schemes. Bridges stands 6’7’’, 204 pounds and reportedly had his wingspan measured at 7’2’’. He’s disciplined on the ball and active away from it, laterally quick enough to contain guards on the perimeter, and he should be able to hold up physically against the vast majority of wings he faces.
Bridges is on the older side of this class of projected first-rounders. It’s possible that he and Miles Bridges will be the only non-freshman collegians taken in the lottery. But however much Mikal Bridges’s age detracts from his developmental upside, he could well make up for it by making a bigger instant impact than other, younger prospects. It’s hard to think of a team Bridges wouldn’t make better right now.