Leading up to the 2018 NBA Draft, Mikal Bridges was lauded as a high-floor, low-ceiling 3-and-D wing who could step into a role and contribute immediately. When the Philadelphia 76ers — a team eyeing the NBA Finals — selected him with the No. 10 pick, all of it made sense. He went to Villanova, his mom worked for the organization, the Sixers needed shooting and wing depth, and Bridges was a win-now player.
Before the night was over, that feel-good story was erased as Philadelphia shipped Bridges to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Zhaire Smith and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick. Even then, Bridges felt like a natural fit in Phoenix as a knockdown shooter who excelled off the ball — the perfect archetype next to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, two high-usage franchise cornerstones.
Despite a seemingly improved roster, the Suns, currently at 2-8, are the basement dwellers of the West, struggling to signify progress during their rebuild, and barring a complete turn of fortune, will miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season. Bridges, though, has been one of the few bright spots and it’s time Phoenix made him a starter — relegating either Trevor Ariza or Ryan Anderson to reserve duties — to learn more about the ceiling of its Booker-Bridges-Ayton core amid another lost year.
“I love being on the floor with him,” Booker told reporters postgame on Nov. 4. “He does everything it takes to win. He spaces the floor. He defends. He’s long and lanky. He has really good instincts that not a lot of people have.”
Small sample sizes are the forbidden fruit of analytics but in 24 minutes together, that trio has yielded a plus-40.4 net rating. At the very least, it’s worth exploring further, even if the gaudy number trickles down. Individually, Bridges holds the best on-off net rating split (plus-27.5) of any Sun and has produced a nifty .472/.414/.818 slash line, living up to his projected role as an efficient scorer and shooter.
Given the small sample size, it might be fair to pump the brakes on the Bridges hype if Anderson and Ariza were fulfilling their roles — the former as a stretch-4 and the latter as a 3-and-D wing with championship pedigree — but neither is. Anderson is canning just 24.1 percent of his 3-pointers and while Ariza has been significantly better beyond the arc (35.6 percent), he sports a 52.6 true shooting percentage (his worst since 2011-12) and is playing unusually uninspired defense (DPIPM of minus-0.89 ranks 385th league-wide).
If his recent playing time is any indication, Bridges is in line to see 20-plus minutes a night moving forward (he’s averaging 18.2 on the year), having tallied at least 24 minutes in four of the past six games and at least 21 in five of the last six.
Alongside Booker and Ayton, he’ll benefit from their captivating auras and zip to the rim:
He’ll relocate to vacancies along the perimeter and bury open triples:
In transition — where he ranks in the 92nd percentile, albeit on just 18 possessions — he’ll fill the lane and finish at the rim (69 percent, 76th percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass) or snipe from deep:
With his size and fluidity, Bridges can also function as a screener in actions before flowing into off-movement jumpers or simply stretch the court for Ayton post-ups or Booker drives. Harnessing a 7-foot-1 wingspan and speedy, towering release, Bridges usually has little trouble finding space to shoot.
The value of low-usage, impact players around stars can’t be overstated. They empower offensive focal points to excel by providing equity away from the ball and selectively choose when to strike — most notably when defenses overcommit against ball-dominant studs. Bridges’ original team out East is a prime example of their necessity as Philadelphia craves more shooters and talented off-ball players to surround Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Klay Thompson, while a star in his own right, is a hand-in-glove fit next to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green for the Golden State Warriors.
Led by Booker and Ayton, the Suns have potentially found their third banana in Bridges. However, salivating over hypothetical fits is generally reserved for the offseason.
All Bridges has done during his brief NBA career is flash the game of a high-end role player capable of sliding into a complementary gig next to stars. In two years, neither Ariza nor Anderson will likely be donning the Suns purple and orange but Bridges, Booker and Ayton will. It’s time to lay the foundation for a true rebirth in Phoenix and it begins with inserting another rookie into the starting five.