25-under-25, Phoenix Suns

25-under-25: Mikal Bridges at No. 20

The “role player” label is too good for Mikal Bridges, who’s on the verge of breaking out into a special two-way player with the Phoenix Suns.

The Phoenix Suns are finally relevant again, and all eyes are turning to their foundational stars: Devin Booker, who’s toiled away for years with lackluster teammates, deprived of the credit he deserves as a winning player; Chris Paul, who’s still hunting that elusive first title and has now made the Suns a playoff-caliber team; and Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick with something to prove as Luka Doncic and Trae Young hog the spotlight of that 2018 draft class.

But the blossoming star everyone seems to be forgetting, outside the confines of Phoenix and NBA Draft Twitter, is third-year wing Mikal Bridges.

Everyone remembers Booker’s game-winning fadeaway against the LA Clippers in the bubble. Only the privileged few remember it was Bridges’ deflection that made that unforgettable moment possible.

That play was quintessential Mikal Bridges: sneaky good, flying under the radar and contributing to winning, mostly on the defensive end. At this point, you wouldn’t be wrong to classify him as a good role player — he’s still young, has yet to average even 10 points per game in a season, and to this point, nothing he does really leaps off the stat sheet.

This is where the eye test, advanced metrics and the nuance in between all come into play. Bridges isn’t a certified two-way star, but he’s on his way to making a special kind of unexpected leap that pushes Phoenix into the true upper tier of playoff teams.

Last year, Bridges’ averages — 9.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 28 minutes per game on .510/.361/.844 shooting splits — hardly screamed “game-changer.” Dive a little deeper, however, and his impact was impossible to ignore.

Bridges addressed the troubling hitch that appeared in his perimeter shot as a rookie, and his true-shooting percentage shot up to 62 percent because of it. He averaged 2.8 deflections a game and ranked ninth in the entire league in total deflections (203), which is even more encouraging for a Phoenix defense that now welcomes another member of that top 10 deflectors, Chris Paul (third), to its starting five.

In fact, if it weren’t for the Suns ranking a paltry 17th in defensive rating, he would’ve received All-Defensive Team consideration for the way he smothered star wings, guards and even larger forwards all season.

What did Mikal Bridges show in the NBA bubble?

In the bubble, those lockdown performances converged with a more offensively aggressive Mikal Bridges to create a tantalizing glimpse of what the Suns might be getting out of the Villanova product in Year 3.

Eight games is an admittedly small sample size, but the legitimate breakthrough moment extended far beyond just Devin Booker — Cameron Johnson, Monty Williams and Suns culture in general stepped into the national spotlight as well. And while Bridges’ growth once again flew under the radar with everything else going on, it certainly wasn’t hard to see.

In Orlando, he bumped up his numbers to 12.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks in 33.7 minutes per game — hardly superstar numbers, but very encouraging for his upward trajectory. While his field-goal percentage slightly dipped to 48.1 percent, he was lights-out from 3, knocking down 40 percent of his attempts. The best part? He nearly doubled his output from long range, increasing his attempts from 2.4 per game before the hiatus to 4.4 per game in the bubble.

That offensive aggression, mixed with his trademark, multi-positional defense, translated to his plus-minus figures too. In 65 games before the bubble, Bridges was a plus-0.7, with the Suns outscoring opponents by a total of 46 points in his 1,773 minutes on the floor. In eight bubble games, he was a whopping plus-8.9, as the Suns outscored opponents by 71 points in his 270 minutes of action.

Plus-minus numbers usually look a lot better when you’re going 8-0, but Bridges was an active contributor to their success on both ends, even if it didn’t always show up in the box score. Bottling up the likes of Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard on one and punishing poor rotations with 3-pointers and streaking forays to the basket on the other, Bridges moved further away from just being a lockdown wing and closer to becoming a true, two-way stud.

Booker and Ayton are two offensively gifted cornerstones to build around, but Bridges is the (Gorilla) glue that holds it all together — not just for his defense that extends across multiple positions and covers for some of their shortcomings, but also for his ability to make defenses pay for devoting too much attention to Booker’s all-around scoring prowess, Ayton’s gravity as a rim-runner and now, CP3’s mastery with the rock. That comes in many forms, whether it’s as an improving 3-point shooter or a sorely underrated cutter who will feast on the platters Phoenix’s array of gifted passers will provide.

Even if the numbers don’t wind up reflecting it in 2020-21, Mikal Bridges is poised for a breakout year as the Suns’ best defender, a reliable marksman and an all-around intelligent player who’s starting to get a lot more comfortable. He’ll still be a role player to the outside world, but he’ll most likely transcend that label on a winning team as something more special. It’s only fitting, then, that this is the year he’s finally cracked the 25-under-25 list.

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