Publish date:
Player(s)

How Mikal Bridges Became the Suns' Ultimate Weapon

Teams crave the versatility of a player like Bridges. Here is how the forward has become the do-everything-man for Phoenix.

Mikal Bridges has one of the NBA’s most grueling jobs. He spends the entirety of each game harassing the opponent’s primary threat, then somehow musters enough energy to hunt for his own opportunities on the other end. Several players around the league are tasked with a similar role, but none inhabit it more intuitively than Bridges. Six weeks into his third season, every good team in the league wishes it could clone him.

A good example of why came during a recent Suns win against the Warriors. Bridges spent the evening picking Steph Curry up full court, tracing the two-time MVP’s flight path on the weak side, battling over ball screens and yelling at teammates to step up and/or switch whenever he needed help. In two words: mission impossible.

“On one play, [Curry] came off a screen. I think [Deandre Ayton] was up, and I was up, and he kinda just side-stepped and shot it. And I was like ‘What?’ I looked and it was wet,” Bridges recalls during a Zoom interview from his hotel room. “I was like, ‘He just shot that?’ Cashed it, though. It was early in the first quarter, so I was saying to myself, ‘Oh my god; it’s about to be one of them nights.’”

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry goes up for a layup against Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges

Bridges played the entire first quarter that night for the first time this season—because Curry never sits before the game is 12 minutes old. “You can’t relax because he doesn’t stop moving. If you relax there’ll be a quick pin in or something where he’s gonna run off a pin down. You just don’t know. So the whole 24, pick him up, he kicks it, he goes off ball—that’s when he’s even more dangerous—so you’ve gotta see where he’s at,” Bridges sighs. “Doing that for 12 minutes straight and trying to do stuff on the other end. It was stressful, man.”

But even in combat against a level of mental and physical exhaustion that’s designed to break the best-conditioned athletes in the world, Bridges bounced back, dropping a game-high 17 points in the second half after scoring just three in the first two quarters. It wasn’t a breakout performance—more like an illustration of how much Bridges matters to a team that, thanks to Chris Paul, hasn’t had higher expectations in over a decade.

(After that game, Paul told Bridges they’d study his own battles against Curry, including their seven-game duel in the 2014 playoffs. “I was telling C.P. I was short on some threes just because of the energy I was giving up on the other end,” Bridges says. “He said he’d show me some stuff on film.”)

Every offensive star eventually gets where he wants to go, regardless of who’s guarding them. But resistance matters. Some defenders are cracks in a sidewalk. Others are speed bumps. Bridges is an obstacle course, a persistent nuisance in bright yellow KD 12’s (a signature shoe he’s worn in every game this season—“It don’t even match but it just pops because it’s there, you know what I’m saying?”—after retiring a light blue version of the same model last year) with a 7’ 1” wingspan and sweeping stride. Pick up your dribble around him and a 200-pound mosquito magically appears.

Bridges is thin but durable, nimble and unremitting, suited to bother Luka Dončić one night and Damian Lillard the next. “I watch a lot of basketball,” Bridges says when I ask how he mentally prepares for so many different superstars. “There’s different pick-up points for different players. Kawhi you don’t have to guard right over half court like you have to with Dame and Steph. You just gotta know your opponent, lock into the film, their tendencies, and get ready, man.”

Tireless versatility goes a long way; Bridges is eligible for a contract extension this summer and his prototypical usefulness in an NBA that covets pretty much everything he brings to the table will make it interesting to see just how high the Suns are willing to go in contract negotiations, knowing Deandre Ayton will likely command the max. (This far out, a four-year deal between $70 million and $80 million seems appropriate, but if he gets to restricted free agency the price could go higher.)

SI Recommends

Until then, in addition to how he factors into Phoenix’s ability to get stops (right now Bridges ranks 16th in defensive real plus-minus), it’s his refined three-point shot that’s elevated him (and the Suns) into a higher bracket. Bridges made 34.5% of 3.3 three-point attempts per game in his first two seasons. Not bad, but also not a number that forced his man to know exactly where he was at all times, or even feel like running him off the line was worth the energy. This year, in a spike that reflects what happened when he was a junior at Villanova, Bridges’s three-point shooting is up to 41.6% on more than 5.3 tries per game.

Despite a 4-for-21 slump in his last five games, Bridges is still one of just five players averaging at least 13 points per game with a usage rate below 17. The other four are OG Anunoby, Joe Harris, Duncan Robinson and Seth Curry. These numerical parameters are admittedly wonky, but they help illustrate a particularly valuable type—one who doesn’t get 30 chances to make a play each night but still stretches the defense while knowing how to respond when opponents want to take away his outside looks.

“Once you start hitting shots, everything opens up. It’s kinda like when you guard players like Steph and Dame, their threes are so lethal you wonder how they get to the rim so easily. It’s like, dude, they’re running you off the three-point line so now you have other options,” Bridges says. “I’m definitely not at [Curry or Lillard’s] point, obviously, but they're so deadly from three it’s like you want to take away the three, and then you worry so much about the three they'd rather you drive, and then everything else opens up for you.”

Suns head coach Monty Williams cites Bridges's ability to enhance Phoenix’s 0.5 offense with consistent spacing, purposeful cuts and a willingness to get off the ball. A few weeks after Williams called Bridges “a flagship for our player development program,” I ask him what area of the 24-year-old’s game has most improved since last season.

“I would probably say ... his shooting, but also playing in Villanova’s system really helped him with us because they play the kind of basketball I like to coach: fundamentally sound, attacking the paint, jump stops,” Williams says. “I went to a Villanova practice a few years ago. I’d never seen that many jump stops in any practice in my life. And it was the first time I saw Mikal in person, actually. He’s a young player. He’s still developing, but that’s what stands out to me—how quickly he’s picked up some of the nuances of our offense.”

There are countless possessions when Bridges makes a quick decision that 1) can’t be quantified, and 2) eventually leads to a good thing. Plays like the one seen below are both thankless and critical.

He’s connective tissue off the court, too, during a season when integrating new personalities and temperaments can be more challenging than molding the correct on-court fit. “I force them to talk to me,” Bridges laughs when asked about how he’s building chemistry with new teammates. “I’m an outgoing person.”

More specific to his in-game responsibilities, on a team with Paul, Ayton, and especially Devin Booker, Bridges has to end more plays than he starts. Situation always matters, and in this one he’s done a fine job accentuating multiple areas that his teammates are already awesome at while simultaneously concealing their blemishes. Even if Bridges’s assist rate is lower than DeAndre Jordan's or Bismack Biyombo's, that doesn’t mean he’ll never become someone who can read the floor engineering a high pick-and-roll. His duty is limited by necessity, but gradually expanding.

And with two critical elements—defensive versatility and accurate, high-volume three-point shooting—already etched into his basketball identity, it’s easy to see how Bridges's evolution over the next few years can align with Phoenix’s needs. Until then, the Suns couldn’t be more pleased with what they have—a smart, selfless, indispensable contributor who impacts winning on both ends. If they make legitimate noise in this year’s playoffs, Bridges will stand out as a huge reason why. Just ask whoever he’s guarding.