Mikal Bridges

Forget age: Why the Bulls should draft sharpshooter Mikal Bridges

mikalbridgesvillanovawhy.png
USA TODAY

Forget age: Why the Bulls should draft sharpshooter Mikal Bridges

You won’t find Mikal Bridges in the top 5 of any NBA mock draft. Despite an All-American season in which he averaged 17.7 points and was the second best player on a 36-win Villanova team, Bridges is left out of the conversation when names like Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic and Marvin Bagley are mentioned. Bridges was the most efficient player on the most efficient offense in the country and might actually be a better defender than he is a shooter. And yet, one still has to specify which “Bridges” he or she is talking about when discussing the top wings in this draft class.

It’s because Bridges is – are you sitting down? – all of 21 years old and will be – take a deep breath before continuing – 22 years old on his rookie Opening Night. Bridges played three seasons at Villanova but that redshirted as a freshman, so he’ll enter the June 21 draft nearly three years older than Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson. He’s even a week older than current Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who spent two seasons at Louisville.

Forget age. It’s true there are players with more potential and upside than Bridges simply because they’re 19 years old and their skill sets have not yet been honed in. Players like Ayton, Bagley and Jackson are getting by on athleticism and skill, and when an NBA team molds them their ceilings will rise. Pardon the cliches, but it's true. But Bridges has already been molded. Teams know what he’ll be. And that is a sharpshooter, a lengthy, smart defender and someone who could become the biggest steal of the 2018 NBA Draft.

This is how good Bridges was in 2018: His 1.217 points per possession ranked in the 99th percentile nationally. He was the only player in the top 50 with at least 500 possessions used (576). That made Bridges the most efficient high-usage player in the country, and he did so on the second most efficient offense of the last decade. True, Bridges was bound to look good in that well-oiled machine of a Villanova offense, but he – along with Jalen Brunson – was the reason it hummed as it did each night.

It shouldn’t be surprising – if you watched any Villanova – that Bridges’ hottest play type came on spot-up shooting. His 1.337 points per possession ranked in the 98th percentile, thanks in large part to his 43.5% 3-point field goal percentage on 239 attempts. He’s the absolute sharpest shooter in the class, with Ray Allen-like form and a quick release. His worst area from beyond the arc was on the right wing at a paltry 39.7%. Let that sink in. He was 19 of 37 (51.3%) from the corners, 46.3% from the top of the key and 42.4% from the left wing. He was unstoppable everywhere.

That he’s able to attack off the dribble only complements his shooting further and contributed to his All-American campaign. Bridges even showed off some sneaky smoothness in pick-and-roll scenarios, ranking in the 90th percentile with 60 points on 61 possessions (0.984). His isolation numbers even ranked in the 74th percentile, but with just a 27-possession sample size it’s tough to say whether he’ll be able to create on his own. He may not have to giving his shooting acumen. He has the athleticism to finish, averaging 1.433 PPP around the rim (93rd percentile) and averaging 3.4 free throws per game. He shot 63.3% around the rim. Pick a statistic, any statistic: Bridges is an elite offensive player.

Bridges will step into an NBA offense and be a No. 3 scorer. His ceiling is higher than that but he’s Day 1-ready. He has clear NBA 3-point range, is comfortable handling the ball in pick-and-roll action and does so efficiently, having shot .514/.435/.851. Three players in the country reached those shooting thresholds, and Bridges had a higher usage than both. He’s an offensive juggernaut.

So here's where it really gets good: Bridges projects as a plus defender. He wasn't measured at the Combine but based on reports we'll put Bridges at 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He has a thinner frame built more in the mold of a Klay Thompson and less a Robert Covington, but there's room to grow there. It's hard to picture him guarding any small-ball 4s, but he'll be incredibly versatile defending both wing positions.

In his final year with the Wildcats, Bridges ranked in the 91st percentile defensively. He was a terror in pick-and-roll action, allowing 0.59 PPP (84th percentile) and had an impressive 3.5% block rate for someone who played the vast majority of his minutes on the perimeter. He was one of two players in the country to average 2.5 3-pointers, 1 block and 1 steal per game, and one of five players to amass 60 steals and 40 blocks (Bridges had 61 and 43, respectively).

His length allowed him to close out well on shooters, too. While it's tough to determine a player's worth defending jump shots - so much depends on, well, whether the player they're guarding is a good shooter - Bridges ranked in the 86th percentile defending jump shots, and the 90th percentile closing out on spot-up jumpers. Again, Villanova had a swarming defense full of length, strength and smart players. But Bridges ranking near the top of the country speaks volumes.

We mentioned Thompson earlier, and we'll do so again. Bridges has a chance to be a special role player the same way Thompson has been in Golden State. No, we don't expect Bridges to average 2.9 3-pointers on 42.2% shooting from deep in his first seven NBA seasons. But Thompson can be that key cog in an offense, someone who can get hot in an instant and turn a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead in the matter of minutes. He won't facilitate an offense but has the ability to play off the dribble and in pick-and-roll action. And, like Thompson, he's an underrated defender because of how good he is as a shooter.

There's obvious risk in taking a four-year college player in the top-7. The last taken were Buddy Hield, Kris Dunn, Damian Lillard, Wesley Johnson, Epke Udoh, Shelden Williams and Brandon Roy. A mixed bag of results, and not much can be drawn from it. But so, too, is the draft. 

The Bulls, you may have heard, need shooters. In part because they dealt Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline, in part because they didn't have shooters, the Bulls ranked 21st in 3-point percentage despite making the 10th most triples and attempting the sixth most. Fred Hoiberg has a plan, and he's beginning to see it through as better shooters cycle through. Adding Bridges to that group would do wonders for Hoiberg's offense on the wing.

He fills a need, too, which at this point is an added bonus. As impressive as David Nwaba was, and the sneaky-good season Denzel Valentine put together, the Bulls are desperate for help on the wing. Tony Snell and Doug McDermott were first-round failures and the Bulls haven't been able to find a suitable replacement. Bridges can be that player.

Substance, best fit, development, best pick? Observations from the workouts of Wendell Carter Jr. and Mikal Bridges

Substance, best fit, development, best pick? Observations from the workouts of Wendell Carter Jr. and Mikal Bridges

Substance, not flash: Wendell Carter Jr. is not the quote machine Mohamed Bamba is, nor is he outwardly charismatic in his approach to the media. But what Carter projects, both with his production and approach, is a sense of stability and dependability.

Whether it was playing at Duke with top-three projected pick Marvin Bagley III, hot-headed Grayson Allen or fellow freshman Gary Trent Jr. and being forced to blend his versatile talents into a winning setting or it just being his nature, he spoke about his intangibles being able to help the Bulls if they draft him.

That’s talk reserved for veterans who’ve been around or young players who’ve been humbled early by the reality of the NBA. Carter Jr. seems to grasp the knowledge that he’ll have a long career by focusing on the things teams appreciate rather than the stat sheet.

“I’m a great rebounder. I take a lot of pride in rebounding,” Carter Jr said. “I don’t like for people to out-rebound me. I just fight.”

Nine games of 12-plus rebounds serves as evidence for his ruggedness, and although college stats can be skewed, rebounding is the one trait that usually translates from college to the NBA. Carter Jr. also mentioned the possibility of Bulls center Robin Lopez serving as a mentor to help him adjust to the league.

“I’m a great teammate, and that comes to being a great cheerleader on the bench or setting a great pick for one of my teammates to get open,” Carter Jr. said. “I think I’m good at all the intangibles, the little things that a lot of fans might not recognize but a lot of coaches do.”

When looking at this current Bulls roster, they should be evaluating personalities and individual needs—as in having to cater to certain players for whatever reason. Kris Dunn is growing, but he’ll need the reinforcement of confidence from the coaching staff. Zach LaVine will need the ball, and opportunity to display he’s worth whatever he signs for this offseason. Lauri Markkanen isn’t high maintenance at the moment, but as he matures and grows into his own, he’ll develop needs of his own.

High-maintenance players aren’t bad; it’s just a reality in today’s NBA. Teams need to have the right staff and right group of players so there won’t be too much conflict off the court while going through the growing pains young teams tend to do.

Carter repeatedly mentioned doing the little things, things that can endear him to teammates and coaches alike, things that help turn middling teams into contenders.

“I take a lot of pride in that. A lot of players don’t look at that,” Carter Jr. said. “They want to score 50, 60 points a game and make all the flashy plays. I just want to win. To win, you got to do the small things.”

If you’re drafting for need…: Villanova’s Mikal Bridges fits the bill. An athletic small forward who can defend, he’s been on Bulls fans draft boards for months now. Add to it a NCAA Tourney run that put him in forefront of everyone’s minds, he feels like a perfect fit—if the Bulls are selecting for fit.

“How they run the floor, especially with Kris and Zach, fast with the ball, get out in transition, I play well in transition,” Bridges said. “A young group, learning to defend as a team. Defensive role, playing anybody 1-4, transition threes, doing whatever I have to do.”

Bridges knows it, too, coming to Chicago for his second workout after a weekend session with Charlotte.

“Most definitely, this is one team that I feel like I fit perfectly in, just a lot of young guys, how they run transition, how they defend,” Bridges said. “So I feel like I fit perfectly and I take it day-by-day, just keep getting better every day, prepare for workouts and see what happens on June 21.”

The Bulls employed David Nwaba and Denzel Valentine at the small forward spot this season, with Nwaba a defender and energy player while Valentine improved as an outside shooter.

Bridges, who looks like a better athlete on film than he’s given credit for, believes he defend everything from point guard to power forward in small-ball situations. He believes in his intangibles as well as Carter Jr.

“I play hard and gritty, but that aggressiveness, it's that Villanova culture,” Bridges said. “That's what Coach (Jay) Wright got me to be that type of person, be that dog and killer on the court and when the ball hits the floor, whoever I'm going against, always think I'm going to be better than that person, always outwork that person and just having that mentality for sure.”

For his sake, those intangibles better serve him right, considering he didn’t shoot the long ball as well as he’d hoped in his workout by his own admission.

Development to get here: While Bridges isn’t a four-year senior, he will be 22 before his rookie season begins. One has to wonder how much growth he’ll make but on the plus side, Bridges’ development was marked after a redshirt freshman year.

His body filled out and he admitted he wasn’t ready to play early. He seemed to take the coaching positively and if it happens at this level, he won’t be a rookie crowing about a lack of immediate playing time.

“Freshman year I was a little too weak, I wasn't really ready,” Bridges said. “I got stronger in the weight room. Just filling my body out. In that redshirt year I had a lot of tough guys to guard, so I had to learn how to play defense really well.”

It was there where he began developing an identity of a defensive stopper, not truly becoming a scorer until his junior year where he topped double-figures for the first time.

“Started using my length, lifting a lot, it gets my legs stronger so I could slide quicker and all that stuff,” Bridges said. “Each year, especially my sophomore year, my first year playing, I got the role of being that good defender off the bench and kept progressing ever since.”

He hopes that progression continues into the pros, as he brought up Paul George and Kawhi Leonard as examples of players who didn’t have strong rookie seasons but emerged shortly thereafter. George and Leonard both went after the top 10 in their respective drafts.

“They weren't guys coming in like phenoms like LeBron just coming in and dominating,” Bridges said. “They worked their way up and seeing how they got better every year, I see myself doing that, as I got better every year in college. And keep affecting on my game and try to be the best player I can be by the end of my time.”

Versatility: Carter Jr. knows he’s a better fit for this game than the old-school NBA, and while his body develops he can rely on his versatility to hang with big men.

The switch-heavy NBA Finals are proof of that.

“The biggest thing is there’s not a lot of traditional big men anymore,” Carter Jr. said. “There’s a lot of switching going on. As you watch these playoffs, these Finals, they’re switching almost every ball screen. The ability for a big man to stay in front of a guard and force them to take contested twos, that’s very important. And then being able to shoot, stretch the floor, is very important for a big man.”

There actually isn’t much question about whether he can move his feet quick enough to stay with guards or wings on the perimeter. The Bulls had him go through post drills or shooting drills, presumably to see how he could fit next to Lauri Markkanen.

He shot 41 percent from 3-point range, but only took 46 attempts in his lone college season. He felt he showed in the workout that he’s competent from there.

“(I showed) How good of a shooter I am, that I push through fatigue,” Carter Jr. said. “It was my first workout so nerves were going and I got tired real quick. But I showed that’s not going to affect my game much.”

Says here Carter Jr. should be the best selection for the Bulls, a mix of talent, fit and personality.

Vincent Goodwill's post-Lottery mock draft: How will the first 14 picks play out?

Vincent Goodwill's post-Lottery mock draft: How will the first 14 picks play out?

1. Phoenix Suns — Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona: Best player in the draft, even if at a weird position.

2. Sacramento Kings — Luka Doncic, G/F, Slovenia: International man of mystery has been playing pro ball overseas for years. Perhaps he translates to position-less basketball.

3. Atlanta Hawks — Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke: Obvious pick, but here’s where the fun begins.

4. Memphis Grizzlies — Jaren Jackson, F, Michigan State: Some scouts believe long-term, he’ll be the best player in the draft. Big time upside, versatility.

5. Dallas Mavericks — Michael Porter, F, Missouri: If — and it’s a big if — the medicals check out, the Mavericks can take a chance on the talented wing. If.

6. Orlando Magic — Trae Young, G, Oklahoma: Who knows if Collin Sexton is a better player, but Young brings star power to a franchise in need of it.

7. Chicago Bulls — Mo Bamba, PF/C, Texas: Some scouts see Bamba with better defensive instincts than Ayton. Tempted to reach for a wing, though.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers — Wendell Carter, F/C, Duke: Talented inside scorer overshadowed by more heralded teammate. Sound familiar to this particular franchise?

9. New York Knicks — Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State: Tough and talented swingman who can score from variety of places, attributes Knicks need.

10. Philadelphia 76ers — Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova: Swingman in their own backyard too much to pass up for up-and-coming 76ers.

11. Charlotte Hornets — Collin Sexton, G, Alabama: Quick, aggressive and still growing into future position. Hornets need a jolt and possible replacement if Kemba Walker departs via trade.

12. Los Angeles Clippers — Robert Williams, F, Texas A&M: Intriguing athletic big man with plenty of upside. But expect the Clippers to dangle this pick and the next one.

13. Los Angeles Clippers — Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky: Versatile forward with ability to hit a shot and get a shot. Not as common as it seems.

14. Denver Nuggets — Lonnie Walker, G, Miami: Can he play right away on a team with playoff aspirations? Could be a project of sorts given his age, but plenty of gifts that could develop.