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FILM STUDY: the potential of Mikal Bridges

There’s much to dissect about Mikal Bridges game, if we are to get to the bottom of the question on everyone’s minds: “Is he really this good? Like, primary option, 25-points-per-game good?” We’ve moved past the potential fluke stage of just accepting Bridges is on a temporary heater, which he is, but that’s obviously not all this is. He can do more with the basketball in his hands than we had previously thought during his seasons excelling as a three-and-D wing, but just that, in Phoenix. I mean, he’s averaging over 26 points a game over his first 15 in a Nets uniform (including that Milwaukee game where he only played the first quarter); even his teammates have the same reactions as you and I.

“I don’t think anybody knew that Mikal was this amazing offensively, just being completely real.” - said Spencer Dinwiddie (who else?)

But first, we need to appreciate the little things that Bridges has mastered. He may not possess singular traits as a wing-sized scorer, like the handles of Paul George, the strength of Kawhi Leonard, or the height of Kevin Durant, but there is no fat around the edges of his game. His floor as a scorer in a Brooklyn offense that is more dependent on him for buckets than even his Villanova Wildcats were, much less his Phoenix Suns, is considerable.

“Brooklyn Bridges” is a fantastic off-ball mover, whether cutting backdoor or relocating around the arc, sometimes doing both on the same possession:

Just because Dorian Finney-Smith doesn’t see him on the back-cut doesn’t mean his chance is over. If there is more ideal real estate to get an open shot, Bridges will find it.

It’s not just about movement when he’s off the ball, though; he reads defenders and reacts to their positioning before the ball is in his hands. Sound on:

Bridges’ on-ball offense is a different matter. I don’t mean that negatively, of course; rather, what he does with dozens of pick-and-rolls or isolations is going to be the answer to “just how good is he, really?” No matter how efficient he is off the ball thanks to his movements and quick-thinking, that won’t define his success as a primary option.

He is most comfortable taking the shots most defenses prefer to give up: pull-up twos. Nets fans were spoiled silly when watching Kevin Durant operate in the mid-range area; being seven feet tall means KD can shoot over anybody at any time. Bridges, like everybody else, doesn’t quite have that advantage, but being 6’7” with long-even-by-NBA-standards arms (7’1” wingspan) and a high release means he can almost always find a middy he likes. Here he is splashing a short one over Rudy Gobert in a deep drop coverage:

Right now, Bridges is best as a drop coverage killer, feasting on middies. In Brooklyn, a DeRozan-esque 48% of his shots have come from that area, and he’s made 46% of them. His shot diet is more difficult than it was in Phoenix, self-creating most of these looks rather than attacking closeouts, but he shot 49% and 51%, respectively, from the mid-range in his last two full seasons as a Sun, per Cleaning the Glass. This 15-game stretch of hot two-point jump-shooting does not scream “unsustainable.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about his 46% conversion rate as a Net is that he hasn’t needed a perfect set-up to let it fly. There can be a strong contest, he can be off-balance, and despite bringing the ball up on the left side of his body, he’s comfortable hop-stepping and pulling when going to his right. And despite a slender frame, there have been signs of a post-up game Bridges has been willing to break out against smaller guards, all featured here:

If midrange-loving Net fans thought the outlook was entirely bleak after this season’s trade deadline, don’t worry, Mikal’s got you covered. That is the foundation of his scoring, but it won’t be what drives or prevents his ascent to true stardom. That would be his three-point and rim scoring; it is the modern NBA, after all.

Mikal Bridges is a career 40% three-point shooter, but the vast, vast majority of those have come off of a catch-and-shoot opportunity. In fact, his six unassisted makes from deep as a Net blow his Suns numbers out of the water. To put it another way, 15% of his trey-balls have been unassisted in Brooklyn; he never eclipsed 4% in that category in Phoenix, per

Which is weird, even considering how dramatically his role has shifted upon his move to BK, because this certainly doesn’t look like a guy that you should give any space, even off the dribble:

So, the first thing that Bridges must improve on to truly make the star leap is embracing the pull-up three. If a defender is sagging off of him at the arc, then he’s already won the battle. An open pull-up three is a good look for him, and more importantly, it’s a good look for this Brooklyn Nets team, devoid of offensive creation ability. By any metric available, by any eye test imaginable, Bridges is a great, probably elite shooter. This can’t happen anymore:

Only 31% of Mikal’s shots as a Net have been from deep, according to Cleaning the Glass. For reference, RJ Barrett is at 29%, and he’s only cracked league-average efficiency from deep once in his four seasons. Everything about Bridges’ game screams: trade in some of his mid-range pull-ups for threes, especially when defenders are giving that shot to him. We’ve seen him make it, and confidently at that! And while this isn’t just about the numbers, some quick napkin math of 31% from deep resulting in more points-per-shot than 46% from the mid-range certainly doesn’t hurt my case.

But again, this really isn’t about the math. It's about how turning himself into a dangerous pull-up 3-point shooting threat would open up the rest of his game, allowing him to get deeper into the paint and better looks at the rim more often. Bridges is not a particularly explosive athlete, and he does not have a particularly downhill handle. This is to say, he doesn't have a ton of change-of-direction in his game; rather, when driving to the basket, he picks a direction and commits to it. Sound on:

This is why it’s vital for Mikal to boost his 3-point attempts. Forcing defenders, particularly bigs defending whoever is screening for him in the pick-and-roll game, to sprint out to the arc to take away the threat of the pull-up three is a much simpler path to creating more rim attempts for Bridges than banking on a sudden athletic/handling leap as he nears his 27th birthday. Alperen Sengun waiting to meet Bridges is already a sign of respect to his mid-range game: no easy pull-up twos. Now imagine if Sengun had to hedge all the way out to the 3-point line. Instead of Bridges banking on long strides to get past a defender, he could more likely use them with the defender already on his hip; the further out he forces defenses to respect his shot, the less work he has to do with a live dribble.

That would have a trickle-down effect on his playmaking as well, which does show signs of life despite his live-dribble passing being a step below that of your ideal primary options. These plays feature either missed or slow reads that dampen potential advantages the Nets offense created:

That being said, when Bridges does reach the backline of a defense, getting all the way into the paint and picking up his dribble, he’s shown a propensity for patience, allowing the defense to dictate to him who the open man is:

It’s not that Bridges can’t read the floor. As shown above, he certainly can, even in tight situations. It’s just that his passing reads are accelerated once he’s beat his initial man; right now, it’s hard for him to focus on breaking down his man while reading the action around him. Again, this is to be expected for a guy growing into his most demanding offensive role since high school ball. But there clearly is passing talent to work with.

In that first clip, Bridges gets around a hedge from Joel Embiid before stringing out his dribble and getting all the way underneath the basket before executing the right read. Forcing the Embiids of the league to meet him higher and higher until they’re out to the arc would give Bridges more opportunity to burst around those defenders and get into the lane. Think back to the first part of this article, where I talked about Bridges roasting closeouts by reading them before he caught the ball. Well, a similar principle would apply with defenders rushing out to take away his pull-up threes: Use their momentum against them.

Bottom line: Bet on the shooting. Mid-range, catch-and-shoot, fallaways, whatever, Bridges’ best skill is being an elite shooter with decent size, long arms, and a high release. Weaponize that, build the offensive game around the A+ skill and ease the burden on a guy still adjusting to big-time ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities. It’s those areas that may hold Bridges back from being a true driver of good team offense, the lack of pressure he puts on all five defenders at once.

Certainly, this is a bit of a harsh article on a guy who has exceeded every offensive expectation upon arriving in Brooklyn. To even be discussing how much star potential Mikal Bridges has is more than a major credit to his game considering he’s largely been viewed as the platonic ideal of a three-and-D wing throughout his career.

But during this heater, Bridges is roasting whoever is in front of him, not necessarily the whole team of defenders. The Nets are scoring just 109.0 points per 100 with him out there, just a 12th percentile mark across the league; that drops to a disgusting 101.4 per 100 with Bridges on and Dinwiddie out (CTG). Obviously, the lack of offensive talent surrounding Bridges is far from his fault, but he’s not exactly elevating Brooklyn’s offensive numbers.

This can all change, of course, especially after the upcoming off-season. Nobody, not even his teammates thought Bridges was capable of averaging over 25 a night for a month straight. Why should we put a hard ceiling on his offensive game when all he’s done is busted through the prior ones? To me, the path is clear and more importantly, achievable. With his stroke and the flashes we’ve already seen, would it surprise anyone if Bridges becomes a deadly, off-the-dribble 3-point shooter? We know that would open up the rest of his game and create more panic from defenses, producing a trickle-down effect on the whole offense.

There’s still a lot to be seen, of course, including playoff defenses locking in on Bridges as a primary contributor. What happens if and when teams trap him off the pick-and-roll or dribble-handoffs? What happens when a defender that can really pressure his dribble and move laterally, like a Jimmy Butler, pressures Bridges 30 feet from the basket? These are the questions that will define his offensive ceiling, his path to stardom, no matter how many of his jumpers are all net.

That being said, Mikal Bridges becoming an offensive star was in nobody’s cards, even after the trade from Phoenix. Yeah, the leash is off, but over 25 points a night? If you were betting on a star leap from the one Nets fans call Brooklyn Bridges, his first 15 games in the uniform would be the perfect start. Just because he has aways to go doesn’t mean he can’t get there, especially when there’s a roadmap to it. No, Mikal Bridges isn’t a star yet. But if he’s proven anything so far in his brief time in Brooklyn, it’s that you bet against him at your own peril.