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Mikal Bridges learned from best in Phoenix, now applying those lessons in Brooklyn

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Mikal Bridges, before he arrived in Brooklyn from Phoenix, was seen as a solid role player, one who could do a bit of everything ... and then some. Runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year last season, the Suns small forward expanded his offense this season with Devin Booker out, averaging close to 20 points a game in January on 47/40/89 shooting splits. He also was leading the NBA in minutes played just as he had last season. And minutes matter to head coaches.

It’s a good feeling,” Jacque Vaughn said of Bridges. “Some things as a coach you don’t want to think about and that’s one of the things. Like you want your dudes to be available on a nightly basis and Mikal Bridges is a guy that takes pride in that, he’s done it his whole career. So when you’re thinking about game-planning and what’s next for the team when you can pen a guy in on a nightly basis, that eases the mind of a coach and what he brings so far has been phenomenal as a human being and as a player.”

That’s just one several quotes from Vaughn from stories Tuesday from Alex Schiffer and Brian Lewis, reminding people of what he brings to the Nets beyond the scoring.

The Nets may be a bit surprised at how Bridges has taken his game to the next level, but they had coveted him for a while, as Adrian Wojnarowski said the morning of the February 9 trade that sent Kevin Durant to Phoenix. When Durant first made a trade request this summer, then-Suns owner Robert Sarver nixed any deal that included Bridges, but when Durant asked specifically for a trade to Phoenix in February, the new Suns owner Mat Ishbia agreed to include Bridges (along with a ton of draft capital.) Ishbia’s GM, James Jones, reportedly asked Sean Marks if the deal could get done without Bridges but Marks said no. Bridges was a non-negotiable item.

Since then, he’s been a revelation. After the smallest of slumps in mid-March, he’s averaged 34.3 points on 52/44/97 percent shooting splits in his last three games, going to the line 31 times and making all but one attempt, as Brian Lewis points out Tuesday. The progression is staggering: He averaged 14.2 points a game in Phoenix last season, then 17.2 there this season before the trade and now 26.8 in 20 games for the Nets. If he keeps up his pace, averaging roughly 27 a game the rest of the way, he’ll get to 20.0 for this season. So far, he’s scored 535 points in a Nets uniform, more than Durant (80) and Kyrie Irving (421) combined.

Beyond the numbers, his coach says it’s about winning for Bridges, a two-time NCAA champion at Villanova and a winning player in Phoenix, getting to the NBA Finals in 2021 and the conference finals last season.

“He’s a winner. At the end of the day that’s how I describe him,” Jacque Vaughn said. “He really cares about winning, which is a great attribute. So he’s trying to do whatever it takes on both ends of the floor to help us win. You’ve just seen his game grow.

“The free-throw attempts, that’s the ability to attack the rim. His 3-point shooting, how many threes he’s shooting for us (nearly seven a game.) The early attack in transition — whether it’s to a pull-up or to create for someone else — the opportunity he’s taken advantage of. We’ve put a lot on his plate and I look forward to seeing him grow as a player.”

It’s also about being surrounded by great players whether at Villanova where his teammates included Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart or in Phoenix with Booker and Chris Paul.

“Just trying to get to the line, just trying to be aggressive. That’s just a big thing. Coming from Phoenix, watching a lot of and being right there with a lot of Book and CP3 and how they draw fouls, I’ve learned a lot,” said Bridges, who is just starting a four-year, $90 million deal.

“I’ve learned a lot from guarding the top guys and me getting silly fouls just because they’re so smart and they just give me an angle and let me foul them. So just learning. But yeah, it’s an emphasis to try to be aggressive. Good things happen when you get in the paint or go to the line; just opens the game up.”

As fellow “twin” Cam Johnson has said, “Yeah, he gets one pull-up on the left and gets going and you can see him. He has a look that he’s going to keep getting them up and he’s been hitting them. So give credit to him.”

Lewis writes that Bridges is now on a very short list of Most Improved Player candidates, the others being Lauri Markkanen of the Jazz and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Thunder. (Nic Claxton might get some love in the voting as well.)

Whether he wins that or whether the Nets decide to add another big scorer in the summer, Bridges has proven his mettle, proven Marks’ belief that he could carry a team. For now, it will be about the winning, getting into the post-season.