Expectations are the damndest thing. In relation to draft position, Mikal Bridges was never expected to live up to the production of Deandre Ayton, his fellow 2018 NBA draftee who was selected nine spots earlier as the No. 1 overall pick. But in relation to skill-set, it was only a few months ago that Bridges’ ability to handle the rock hinted at a higher offensive ceiling in a pace-and-space league compared to Ayton, an elite play finisher who still had to rely on others to create most of his opportunities.
Now, after an extended stretch of disappointment where the Phoenix Suns badly needed someone to step up as a legitimate No. 1 option in place of an injured Devin Booker sidelined and a 37-year-old Chris Paul, the pendulum has swung in the other direction.
Bridges may not be on a max contract, but his struggles over the last month have swayed the court of public opinion once more. As a top-10 pick, All-Defensive selection, Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and supposed cornerstone of what Phoenix has built, Bridges hasn’t been able to provide everything the Suns need.
This begs the question: What should Phoenix realistically expect from Mikal Bridges?
Mikal Bridges: Growth
The ironic thing is, by most measures, the 26-year-old wing is having his best season yet. He’s averaging 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 0.9 blocks per game, all of which are career highs. He’s shooting a respectable 45.4 percent from the floor, 39.4 percent from 3 on a career-high 4.6 attempts, and a career-high 88.5 percent from the free-throw line.
As a shooter, he’s as proficient as ever, knocking down 40.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, drilling 47 percent of his corner 3s and ranking in the 90th percentile in points per possession on spot-up looks — all this, despite being in the 17th percentile in “openness rating,” per The Bball Index.
Unlike in seasons past, Bridges trusts the work he’s put in to launch some of those contested 3s…with the help of his absurdly long limbs and high release point, of course.
As a defender, the advanced metrics aren’t as sterling as last year. But they’re still extremely good, which is impressive for a guy who ranks in the 97th percentile in matchup difficulty on that end.
By most measures, Bridges is technically living up to the offseason mentality he spoke about a few weeks back.
“That’s what I preach every year, just try to come in every year and just get a little bit better,” he explained. “You don’t gotta jump up crazy numbers. Some people do go five points to 20 points, but just knowing you’re going out there and just getting better, even sometimes when the numbers don’t show it, just the feel. So I think just working hard and just try to get a little bit better in every single category.”
Doing so despite taking on more ball-handling and playmaking duties speaks to a more steady, gradual type of growth than the linear leap many were hoping for.
Bridges is sporting a career-high 17.4 percent usage rate, and a career-high 24.7 percent of his made field goals have been unassisted — up from 18.1 percent last year and 15.4 percent the year before. He’s taking almost one whole pull-up jumper more than he did last year, and his patented leaning jump shot as he drives across the lane is something Booker identified in his game all the way back in college.
“I watched him a lot when he was at Villanova, and it’s just an uncontested shot for him when he’s in there,” Booker said. “Even if the defender’s on him, he just needs that much of space, and I think he’s realized that. Every year you come in here, I feel like it slows down for people and it gets easier if you’re a student of the game.”
If you remember the last miss against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a lot of these elbow makes should look familiar:
“I just feel like it’s a tough shot to guard,” Bridges said. “All the length in the world I got, it’s tough. You get a little bump and create a little space with a high release, it’s tough.”
Bridges’ turnaround jumper has become another reliable weapon. According to NBA.com’s admittedly imperfect data, he’s shooting 11-for-23 on all turnaround shots this season. It’s a shot Bridges realized could work for him when he first got to the league, and he’s spent so much time perfecting it that his head coach compared him to another midrange savant in Glenn Robinson.
“A little bit bigger than Mikal, but that’s not saying much,” Williams joked. “But [Robinson] was a guy that had a really high release, could go off his right shoulder and could get to a spot like Mikal does. So Big Dog was a tough, tough cover, and yeah, they probably shoot it at the same frequency too, ’cause Mikal gets up a lot of shots now.”
Jokes aside, Williams said he’s seen the development of that shot over the years. In the past, it was a quick and sporadic option to resort to; now it has a smoother, more patient feel.
“He can put the ball down like two or three times and see the defense and then settle himself and then get to that shot,” Williams said. “I think that just comes with playing time, allowing the floor to space a bit and just trusting the work. That’s a shot that he can rely on, especially with smaller guys. We hope to be able to just use that as a go-to play when Chris and Book get double-teamed and taken out sometimes, to be able to give the ball to Mikal.”
It’s not just his own individual shot creation that’s improved, however. Bridges has taken on more playmaking duties this year, and although no one will mistake him for a point forward, his 11.7 assist percentage is a career high, ranking in the 70th percentile at his position.
Once again, the Suns have joked about Bridges’ growth in this department, but it’s worth noting that The Bball Index places him in the 86th percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
In fact, his playmaking is rock solid across the board:
Whether it’s being a more frequent participant in the pick-and-roll, finding Ayton for lobs over the top, or driving and kicking, Bridges knows where the ball needs to move.
He’s not an elite facilitator by any stretch, but he makes smart passes, finds the open man and is showing a growing comfort making plays with the ball in his hands:
Mikal Bridges: Decay
Unfortunately, as much as Bridges has grown in a few areas this season, his winter woes mirror that of the Suns. Since the start of December, he’s still averaged 15.2 points per game, but with Booker and a large number of key contributors sidelined, that’s more criticism than praise.
His efficiency has plummeted over that stretch, with Bridges shooting 38.9 percent overall. He’s still making 37.7 percent of his 3s, but even that’s well below his usual lofty standards.
Put simply, the Suns needed someone to step up with Book out. Instead, Mikal Bridges is proving pretty definitively that he’s just not a No. 2 scoring option.
That’s okay, full stop.
When Phoenix is fully healthy and everyone’s in their designated roles, it’s not a big deal. But since the pecking order has been warped by injuries, Bridges’ off nights have become more frequent and far more glaring. It doesn’t take a mathematician to parse how his performance impacts the Suns:
- Bridges in wins: 20 GP, 17.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.2 APG, 53.1 FG%, 44.3 3P%, +12.3
- Bridges in losses: 19 GP, 13.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.9 APG, 37.9 FG%, 34.8 3P%, -9.7
Those are massive swings in the scoring, shooting and point differential columns. From his teammates’ jokes about how many shots he’s getting up, to being surprised when first plays are called for him, to flat-out admitting he’s not used to seeing so many offensive clips of himself in film sessions, it’s clear his expanding roles have required an adjustment process.
“I’ve really never had that many offensive clips to where I’m in ball screens and having to read and react,” he said. “So I think that’s probably the biggest thing is there’s more offensive clips to where I can kind of see more, you know? People guard me a little bit different than they did last year and years before, so it’s kind of something new.”
For those looking for more concrete reasoning behind Bridges’ struggles, aside from being trapped in a prism of expectations, the 6-foot-6 forward has struggled from the midrange, and both his volume and efficiency at the rim leave something to be desired.
Bridges has always been an effective finisher, but with more ball-handling and playmaking duties heaped onto his normal defensive assignments, something had to give.
League leaders among Wing Stoppers in our Matchup Difficulty metric (min 500 minutes):
1. Dorian Finney-Smith
2. Herb Jones
3. Deni Avdija
4. Patrick Williams
5. Mikal Bridges
These players guard the best of the best whenever available.
Explainer Video 🔊⬇️ pic.twitter.com/0uCZ7pMq18
— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) December 28, 2022
Per Cleaning The Glass, Bridges is taking a career-low 27 percent of his shots around the rim, which ranks in the 42nd percentile at his position. Even worse, he’s only shooting 67 percent on those bunnies.
His transition scoring has dried up (28th percentile), he’s a non-factor when it comes to rim shot creation (15th percentile) and his off-ball cuts per game have almost dried up entirely (second percentile). In lieu of getting to the rim, Bridges has turned to the middies that have been so kind to him for the better part of the last three years.
Although he’s made those pull-up and turnaround jumpers his own, Bridges’ percentages have tailed off over the last month. He’s making just 41.7 percent of his pull-up 2s, which is down from last year’s 50 percent mark, per NBA.com. Despite taking a career-high 39 percent of his looks from the midrange, he’s only making 38 percent of them — a significant drop from 51 and 49 percent over the last two years.
When Bridges started 0-for-9 against the Detroit Pistons in late November, Williams reiterated the Suns’ credo that may offer some insight as to why everyone trusts him to keep shooting.
“We have a saying, ‘reps remove doubt,'” Williams said. “When you work as hard as he does, there’s no reason to doubt the next shot. I’m just glad he kept taking ’em. I think earlier in his career, if he would’ve had a night like that, he would’ve been a bit shy. And we just don’t encourage that. We have a ‘let it fly’ mentality. It’s too hard in this league to get open looks, and when you don’t take those shots, it breaks rhythm.”
Bridges hasn’t been able to sustain much of a rhythm lately regardless, and perhaps the most glaring example of these growing pains has been his performance in the clutch. No one would mistake him for Khris Middleton, a similar player archetype and certified killer down the stretch, but there have been multiple instances where he’s come up short in crunch-time.
For starters, there was Wednesday’s miss on a potential game-tying bucket in Phoenix’s loss to the Cavs:
There were also a few crucial late-game turnovers, like the pair he had against the Denver Nuggets on Christmas:
Or the travel (later reversed in the Last 2 Minutes report) in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that stemmed from Booker being double-teamed:
After that game, Williams and Booker were resolute about trusting Bridges in those situations.
“He’s supposed to catch it and make a play, and that just didn’t happen,” Booker said. “But they double-team me, and I’m gonna give it to him every time — and whoever’s in that position, whoever’s open on this team. That’s what it comes down to: trusting your teammates, and every possession, I’m gonna do that.”
With Bridges moving up a rung or two in the pecking order and the Suns coming back down to earth in crunch-time, the numbers haven’t been kind.
In 39 “clutch” games last year, Bridges scored 52 points on 21-of-32 shooting (65.5 percent). He was a +107 overall for a team that boasted a ridiculous 32-7 record in those games. In 16 clutch games this year, Bridges has just 17 points on 5-of-18 shooting (27.8 percent). He’s a -32 overall, and the Suns are 5-11 in those games.
They’ve gone from one of the best records in NBA history in crunch-time to the worst in the league this season, and Bridges’ struggles are part of the reason why.
However, as frustrating as Phoenix’s current 5-13 skid is, and as plausible as it’s suddenly become that they could miss the playoffs, the hard lessons he’s learning now could pay dividends once he returns to a more comfortable role. More importantly, it might be time to stop miscasting Bridges as something that he’s not.
"I told him I was proud that he took that shot. We've been talking about the ability to come off and receive the ball and take the shot and deal with the consequences either way."
Monty Williams after Mikal Bridges takes and misses final shot in #Suns 90-88 loss at #Cavs. https://t.co/t7ESj2I07Y
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 5, 2023
What do realistic expectations look like now?
The Suns needed more from Bridges and Ayton long before Booker went down, and that’s especially evident now. In DA’s case, it’s a matter of grappling with skill-set, consistency and motor. For Bridges, it’s largely been labeled as a consistency and mindset issue. While there’s truth to that, it also may come down to fatigue.
In his five years in the NBA, Bridges has yet to miss a single game, giving him the league’s longest active iron man streak at 348 games. So far this season, Bridges is second in the entire league in minutes played, trailing Anthony Edwards. He leads the NBA in distance traveled, eclipsing Edwards by a whopping three miles, and he’s been the only consistent Sun logging heavy minutes night in and night out:
We're only halfway through the season, and already Mikal Bridges has logged 400 minutes more than any other Sun. It's not even CLOSE.
Why moments like last night's don't faze me, his fatigue is honestly excusable.
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) January 5, 2023
As demoralizing as this stretch has been, it’s easy to see how fatigue may be playing a bigger role than anyone cares to admit.
“I just try to take care of my body as much as I can,” Bridges said. “That’s the biggest thing for everybody in the league. You’re gonna be tired, you’re gonna be playing a lot, it’s just finding ways always to take care, even on the days if you don’t want to move.”
It’s the reason drawing up a potential game-tying look for Bridges on a night where he was 3-for-14 wasn’t the boneheaded call it was made out to be. When else is one of the Suns’ two healthy foundational pieces going to get opportunities like this? When else will they get to fight through fatigue and try to use their go-to moves with the game on the line?
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. Bridges missed like he’d been doing all night, the Suns lost, and gloom quickly set in for a team (and fanbase) that badly needed a win. But for all the conversations that constantly pit Ayton and Bridges against each other in terms of performance and who deserves what amount of criticism, perhaps it’s time to adjust expectations accordingly.
Neither one is a true No. 2 option, but Bridges was never drafted or paid to be that guy. He’s not untouchable or free from scrutiny by any means, but like DA, he’s a very good player who’s still expanding his game. The growth just isn’t as fast, exponential or consistent as expected, and that’s a lot harder to stomach when the Suns are floundering without two starters.