The last few years have provided endless discussion about which player should be the first, second and third options on the Phoenix Suns. Devin Booker put the debate over first option to bed last year, establishing himself as the alpha. CP3 settled comfortably into the second spot, leaving the fanbase to argue over Deandre Ayton or Mikal Bridges for the designation of third fiddle.

These conversations may seem pointless, but heading into the season, with Paul being 37 and taking an intentional step backward, there were legitimate questions about whether Ayton or Bridges should step up as the second option.

Games like Wednesday serve as a reminder that an aggressive Mikal Bridges can end that debate rather quickly.

Facing the Minnesota Timberwolves without Paul and the injured Cam Johnson, the Suns needed to attack the Twin Towers frontcourt of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert without turning Torrey Craig into too much of a jump shooter. The answer to that equation turned out to be Bridges, who finished with a season-high 31 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 1 block.

This, of course, comes just one game after it became apparent the Suns needed more out of him and DA for as long as Johnson remains sidelined. Bridges answered the call, taking a career-high 20 field goal attempts and making 12 of them, all while getting to the line five times.

This Bridges performance served as a microcosm of his importance to Phoenix on both ends of the floor. It also spoke to his offseason goal on what he wanted to improve.

“Just everything,” Bridges said before the season began. “Like I say every year, always trying to get better. Everything I do with shooting, dribbling, passing, finishing. Each year I just gotta be better than the next year.”

It’s cliche for a player to answer “everything” when asked about what they’ve worked to improve over the offseason, but games like Wednesday could be a launching point to making those words ring true.

Bridges credited his coaches for encouraging him all summer to be more aggressive this year. As he continued to expand his game by taking on more playmaking reps as an initiator on offense, his teammates saw the growth in his game weeks ago.

“I think he’s just improved all around,” Cam Johnson said. “Ball-handling, shooting, being able to create, getting stronger in the weight room.”

That hasn’t always transferred to the court, with Bridges putting up 12, 11 and 15 points (seven of which came in garbage time) over the Suns’ first three games with Johnson hurt. The defense, of course, is always there, as he proved again as an absolute terror in Minnesota’s passing lanes:

But Wednesday was a step in the right direction on offense too, showcasing the potential his superstar teammate knew was there all along.

“I could see it,” Booker said. “I always go in with an open mind, and people that know how to play the game and care about the game, everything else comes after. He knows what he’s doing out there, he loves the game, he watches basketball, and if you’re smart, you pick up on things like that quick, and you find little niches to go out there and be effective. He has every intangible to be a great two-way player.”

Consistency is the first step, but what are the tangibles that could help Bridges emerge as the Suns’ undisputed second option? The first stems from his improved handle, which makes him incredibly tricky to stop when defenders try to recover out to him on the wing:

In all of these clips, Bridges either attacks a poor closeout off the bounce or catches the ball already going downhill to finish at the basket. He’s deadly as a driver in these positions, leading to an absurd points percentage of 98.1 on his drives so far this season. That’s the second-best mark among all NBA players with at least 40 drives this year.

Using him more as a primary playmaker has produced okay results, with Bridges’ assists only jumping from 2.3 per game last year to 2.9 per game this year. His greatest strength is still as an off-ball threat, ranking in the 88th percentile as a spot-up shooter and the 81st percentile as a cutter. So when the Suns deploy him that way, as more of a scorer like Wednesday night, his improved handle and confidence with the ball produces easy, reliable offense.

“I feel like I could drive back and pass more,” Bridges said. “Sometimes I feel like, a couple years just kind of not having ball as much, I [felt] like every time I touch it, I might [have to] shoot it. And this year and just how it’s been going, it just feels good where I’m aggressive, where I touch it maybe a little bit more and I don’t have to maybe get in the paint and shoot every single time.”

Feeling more comfortable with the ball and less pressured to shoot is a good thing, but with Phoenix now missing Johnson’s 15 points and seven 3-point attempts per game, they need Bridges to get up shots. The 26-year-old said as early as preseason that playing off his catch-and-shoot looks lays the groundwork for everything else.

“I feel like for me personally, that’s when I’m my best — when I can shoot the ball and they fear that and I can drive and do everything else,” he said.”

Bridges, who’s canned 46.4 percent of his 3-pointers so far, is only attempting 2.5 on a nightly basis. That’s well below what he’s averaged the last two years, and it’s one of the biggest gripes about using him in more of a Draymond Green, playmaking role.

“I think one thing that’s happened with us, we’ve played a lot of teams who are switching,” coach Monty Williams explained when asked about Bridges’ low number of attempts. “And there are times when he’s in the screen, and so he’s diving, so he’s not always at the 3-point line. That may be it. Outside of that, I don’t have a great answer for it, but it is surprising that he doesn’t have more.”

In any case, thanks to Bridges’ reputation as an efficient spot-up shooter, defenders are usually frantic trying to prevent him from getting enough space to hoist up 3s. Against a porous defense like Minnesota, the Suns used that to their advantage, finding Bridges off curls, already on the move, to put interior defenders on their heels. With his length and well-developed pull-up game, this is a shot Bridges can get at almost any time.

Even when they didn’t fall, the result was usually a high-quality midrange look or an assist to a big in the paint after drawing another mismatch:

“We want to try to grow that environment as best we can,” Williams said after the first Timberwolves matchup. “We feel like he can make plays, and I haven’t given him the freedom to do it in the past few years. But we feel like he’s more than capable.”

Williams has praised Bridges’ balance of slashing, shooting and playmaking before, but the second Wolves meeting illuminated just how dangerous that confidence can be. When Mikal Bridges starts doing this off the dribble, opponents around the league should be mortified:

Through 11 games, Bridges is averaging 16.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per game on 59.1 percent shooting from the floor, 46.4 percent shooting from deep and 88.6 percent shooting from the foul line. And while it might seem like convenient timing to highlight Bridges’ case as the second option right after Ayton struggled with 9 points and 6 rebounds on 4-of-10 shooting, it’s not anything new.

Because aside from how he’s currently averaging more points and assists than DA, he’s also more capable of knocking down 3s, he’s getting to the free-throw line more often (3.2 attempts per game to DA’s 2.1) and he’s even shooting a better percentage from the field (59.1 percent to Ayton’s 55.3).

It’s unlikely that last one will hold given that Ayton is a 7-footer who scores most of his points around the basket, but one guy needs to be set up to score. The other is learning how to create more of his own offense. One is a play finisher, while the other is a playmaker.

So until Ayton learns how to handle the ball, draw fouls or create his own shot like the other elite centers at his position, that different skill-set makes Bridges the more logical long-term choice for the Suns’ second option. It’s only starting to materialize, and he needs to be far more consistent moving forward — especially once Paul and then Johnson return — but Bridges and his infectious brand of basketball have been touted as a vital part of Phoenix’s present and future for a while now.

“His spirit is somewhat of the lifeblood of our team,” Williams said. “He brings the same attitude, focus and intention and attention every single day, and it’s an amazing thing to watch. I’ve not been around many guys with that kind of work ethic, focus and care for the program and for his teammates. He’s a special dude.”


Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.