How Mikal Bridges Went From Supporting Player To Star
The Brooklyn Nets dropped both Games 1 and 2 of their series with the Philadelphia 76ers on the road, and they face a tough climb to come back and make this a competitive series — let alone advance to the second round. The Nets were heavy underdogs coming into the matchup, so their 2-0 deficit is not all that surprising. But one bright spot for Brooklyn is that, despite his team losing both games, Nets wing Mikal Bridges has showcased the holistic development of his game, carrying over to the postseason much of what he did upon arriving in Brooklyn in the Kevin Durant trade.
If you’ve been paying attention to the NBA over the past few months, you have almost surely heard all about Bridges’s explosion in volume, but the numbers are wild enough that they need to be repeated.
After setting a career high with a 15 percent usage rate last season with Phoenix, Bridges saw that figure rise to 19.2 percent during his 56 games with the Suns prior to the trade (and to 24.6 percent across his final 12 games as a Sun), but it exploded to 30.3 percent with the Nets. Prior to this season, Bridges had actually never attempted more than 18 shots in a single game.1 Across his 27 regular-season games with Brooklyn, Bridges averaged 18.6 field-goal attempts per game.
Even more impressive than the added volume, though, was Bridges’s apparent ability to handle it while maintaining his strong efficiency. Among the 57 non-rookies during the 3-point era2 who have attempted at least 18 shots a night in their first 27 games with a new team, Bridges’s 60.7 true shooting percentage was tied for the third-best mark. And among the top-10 such players, only Adrian Dantley in his first season with the Utah Jazz had made a larger jump in field-goal attempts per game from his previous team to his new one. The others had mostly already proved they could handle the higher volume.
Bridges showed he could still be efficient as a volume scorer
Highest true shooting percentages among non-rookies who attempted at least 18 shots per game in their first 27 games with a new team, 1980-present
Incredibly, just about all of Bridges’s added volume came in the form of self-created shot attempts.
During his time in Phoenix, Bridges was rarely tasked with creating for himself. Being that he played on the same team as Chris Paul and Devin Booker, plus a former No. 1 overall pick in Deandre Ayton, and that he was never a high-volume player even in college at Villanova, it made sense that Bridges was largely asked to be a play-finisher during his time with the Suns. That began to change during the span where Booker and Paul missed time with injuries this season, but even that doesn’t compare to the work he was tasked with upon arriving in Brooklyn — the first stretch of his career in which fewer than half of his shots came off of a potential assist (according to Second Spectrum).
Bridges made his own opportunities in Brooklyn
Rates of assisted and unassisted field-goal attempts and self-created shooting fouls (SCSF) per game for Mikal Bridges by season of his NBA career
As you can see, Bridges averaged almost exactly the same number of assisted (or potentially assisted) field-goal attempts per game in Brooklyn as he did in Phoenix earlier this season, and in each of the previous two. What changed was the volume of unassisted field-goal attempts, which accounted for 4.9 of the additional 5 shots per game he attempted as a Net. And it wasn’t just the shots — Bridges’s creation responsibility extended to the ability to get himself to the free-throw line. During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons combined, Bridges drew 62 self-created shooting fouls,3 according to Second Spectrum. In just 27 regular-season games with Brooklyn, he drew 63 such shooting fouls. As a result, Bridges’s free-throw rate exploded, and the rates at which he used possessions and drew fouls were in line with those achieved exclusively by star scorers in recent seasons.
With the ball in his hands more often, Bridges has thrived as a creator. His pick-and-roll volume had already spiked early this season in Phoenix, then it more than doubled upon his arrival in Brooklyn. Still, when either he or a teammate one pass away finished the play (with a shot, turnover or foul drawn), Bridges maintained sterling efficiency. His isolation volume had already more than doubled in Phoenix, and it more than tripled again when he got to the Nets. Yet he achieved a level of efficiency on par with players such as Jalen Brunson and Trae Young.
Bridges has the ball in his hands a lot more now
Volume and efficiency for Mikal Bridges on direct* pick and rolls and isolation plays by season of his NBA career
|Year||Team||Per 100||Pts/Direct||Per 100||Pts/Direct|
Bridges is still developing his repertoire as a passer. His assists per game actually dipped a bit in Brooklyn from where it was in Phoenix earlier this season, although that figure on its own is at least somewhat misleading. The shots he created for his Brooklyn teammates, according to Second Spectrum, were the highest-value looks he’s created in his career to date. They carried an expected effective field-goal percentage of 53.0; his fellow Nets just missed a lot of the same shots his Suns teammates had made.4 Playmaking development can often be the last thing to come along when a player scales up his usage (and some big scorers just never actually become high-level creators for others), so it’s promising that Bridges has shown the ability to create quality shots for his teammates, even if not necessarily at all that high a volume just yet.
Beyond all of this, though, perhaps the best sign regarding Bridges’s evolution is that he leveled up like this while (a) being guarded by better defenders; and (b) maintaining his defensive role against opposing teams’ best (or second-best) offensive players.
“He’s probably going to be guarded by the No. 1 or No. 2 defender,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn noted earlier this season, while explaining the new burden Bridges had to shoulder. “So, we played Chicago, [Alex] Caruso’s guarding him, Pat Williams is guarding him. Where, when he was with Phoenix, Coby White might have been guarding him — not as distinguished a defender compared to those other two.”
That was borne out by the numbers. Using Second Spectrum matchup data and BBall-Index’s D-LEBRON, we can see that Bridges spent the significant majority of his career being guarded by relatively weaker defenders. Upon arriving in Brooklyn, though, that changed:
Opponents have been throwing tougher defenders at Bridges
Average defender quality* and share of possessions spent guarded by different defender types, according to BBall-Index’s classification system, for Mikal Bridges by season
|Year||Team||Defender Quality*||Point of Attack||Wing Stopper||All Others|
And it wasn’t just the quality of defenders that increased, but also the type of defender. In previous seasons, opposing teams would have their best perimeter defenders guard Paul and/or Booker, while defending Bridges with whomever was left over or who needed to be hidden on a less-threatening offensive player. Looking at BBall-Index’s metrics, you can see that Bridges faced players classified in defensive-minded roles5 significantly more often when he got to the Nets. In other words, teams were more likely to defend Bridges with their version of Bridges, whereas before he might have been defended by, as Vaughn said, the Coby White types.
We’ve seen this so far during the series against Philadelphia, where the significant majority of his possessions have come against De’Anthony Melton and Tobias Harris. If he were still playing alongside Paul and Booker, Bridges would be much more likely to be guarded by James Harden or Tyrese Maxey. That type of thing likely won’t happen all that often anymore. Even with the more difficult matchups, though, Bridges still dropped 30 points on just 18 shots in Game 1. (He did get off just two shots after halftime, because when you score 23 points in the first half, the opposing team does tend to focus even more on denying your opportunities.) Bridges again saw Harris and Melton check him (along with Jalen McDaniels) for the majority of Game 2, and the Sixers also sent a second defender his way quite often. He was limited to 21 points as a result, but he managed to pick up seven assists — and could have had more had the Nets not shot so poorly. (Bridges had 14 potential assists.)
At the same time, Bridges is not, say, camping out on P.J. Tucker in the corner so he can conserve his energy for the offensive end of the floor. Bridges was not on Harden (the toughest perimeter matchup) all that often in Game 1, but he was in Game 2; and when he hasn’t been on the Sixers’ lead creator, he has spent most of his time guarding Maxey or Harris. That’s roughly in line with how Brooklyn used him after the trade, when he actually was tasked with the toughest half-court defensive matchups (according to BBall-Index’s O-LEBRON) of his career.
Bridges’s breakout is still in its nascent stages, and it remains to be seen how he handles the burdens of two-way stardom over the longer term. The difference between a good player and a great one is the consistency with which they produce at a star level, and the difference between a great player and a superstar is their ability to succeed even under disadvantageous circumstances. Bridges has shown he can reach star heights, in a way that came as a surprise even to the team that made him the centerpiece of the Durant trade. The question now is whether he can maintain this level of play, and do so while remaining one of the league’s best defenders and arguably its most durable player. Whether the Nets ultimately come back or fall flat in this series, Bridges has proved that the requisite skill set is there. The key moving forward is accessing the right parts of it on a consistent basis.
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