This is where we were the last time we checked up on The Mikal Bridges Story: Path to Stardom. I wrote a month back that the edges of his game have remained as solid as ever, despite a major uptick in usage. Bridges is still a tremendous off-ball mover, frequently cutting to the rim or relocating along the arc; the ball doesn’t stick his hands either, as he still attacks closeouts and swings the ball with gusto. Offensively, fans can’t rest assured that he won’t forget his roots.
I also wrote that the mid-range shooting was real, and his creation ability was going to rely on that area of the court, even if the percentages may fall back to Earth just a little bit. And they did. But defenses are still, as they were then, worried about Bridges taking a pull-up middy. This, of course, cannot be said for most players (it's simple math). Thus, Bridges’ star leap would come to fruition provided he expanded his game around the mid-range.
I broke the focus on his improvements into three areas, which I’ll stick to here: off-the-dribble 3-point shooting, at-the-rim finishing, and general floor-reading. Obviously, this is a bit simplistic (intentionally so, for our understanding), the sort of analysis most players would scoff at, far too regimented to capture how fast and chaotic NBA basketball really is. I’ve asked Bridges about aspects of his offense he’s worked at in Brooklyn, but the answers rarely go beyond some form of “just trying to read the defense and make the right play.”
I don’t blame him, of course. He’s not perusing his shot chart and calculating what share of his shots are pull-up threes, or bursting with excitement every time he uses his body to shield a shot-blocker near the rim. I am. Maybe the coaching staff is too. Bridges just has brief moments of self-assured realization: Wow, I’ve never done these things consistently before...but I knew I could. If he is indeed the competitor that all the evidence suggests he is, those moments push him to keep going, to keep working. You can tell he’s been working.
It starts with the pull-up threes. I wrote in March that increasing his attempts from beyond the arc “would open up the rest of his game, allowing him to get deeper into the paint and better looks at the rim more often.” Also, of course, he can make them. Some points of reference from this season, courtesy of nba.com:
Devin Booker: Shooting 30.9% on 3.9 pull-up threes per game.
Jaylen Brown: Shooting 31.8% on 2.6 pull-up threes per game.
Mikal Bridges (in BKN): Shooting 38% on 1.7 pull-up threes per game.
Not only do these long-range bombs open up the floor for Bridges, as it does for Brown and Booker, who are more efficient from inside the arc, but these have proven to be great shots for him, albeit in a small-sample size in Brooklyn. But the eye-test backs up the numbers. The swishes look easy and unbothered by that high release point, and even the misses prove Bridges can get to a decent shot whenever he wants to, especially in isolation. He seems to know it now, too:
The next step in this area is launching these shots when he comes off of a ball-screen. If that big defender is sitting back in drop, shoot the long-ball. This step is a bit trickier and requires even less conscience as a shooter; in isolation, all the action is in front of you. Coming off a screen, you have to look at what’s ahead as well as worry about your defender chasing you, whose footsteps you can likely hear. It’s one thing for Bridges to look at the data that shows how few 3-point attempts are successfully blocked from behind; it’s another for him trust that the only way Taurean Prince can bother this potential pull-up three is by fouling him:
In any case, Bridges has shown an admirable willingness to increase his 3-point volume in Brooklyn, despite only having been here two months. In early March, defenders could guard him like this without much repercussion. No “hand down, man down” energy to speak of:
Already, though, those days seem to be in the rearview.
Now, let’s talk about Mikal Bridges’ ability to read the floor as a primary option, and what he’s shown so far as his offensive responsibilities have increased. This will certainly be the section to re-visit after the Philadelphia series. Sound on:
The finishing aspect of Bridges’ game is an outright positive right now, whereas the decision-making/floor-reading parts of his game is a mixed bag. The signs of improvement here are also the easiest to spot; we just want to see a variety of finishes go in at a decent rate.
Early in his Brooklyn Nets career, we saw Bridges rely on his length and long strides to take him to the rim. Sometimes his drives worked; other times he’d prematurely abort his dribble and attempt to cover an unreasonable amount of ground without it. At his lowest moments, that tendency is in plain view, as it was against the Houston Rockets on March 29th:
But the positive moments are currently shining much brighter than the negative ones. Bridges is no longer using those long strides as a crutch, and instead is one-two’ing to euro-step finishes and to shield off defenders, as well as incorporating a solid base of two-foot finishes:
Again, breaking down his improvements into these categories is not without its faults. Much of those finishes are aided, if not possible because of Bridges keeping his dribble alive for longer. That micro-skill is applicable to both his finishing and his floor-reading, and it’s often so important for burgeoning creators that is could be its own section.
Either way, the results speak for themselves. He is now up to 67% on shots from inside the restricted area, per Cleaning the Glass, on three attempts a game. That’s far from elite, specifically on the volume side, but represents a sigh of relief, if not a squeal of joy. No, Bridges isn’t an elite vertical athlete, and again, doesn’t have a history of being a primary option. But he is a lanky 6’6” (with a 7’1” wingspan) and willing to experiment with a variety of finishes; 67% tells us that those qualities are providing a nice baseline for his 2-point offense. Now, it’s just about getting those looks more often.
Brooklyn’s first-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers will offer up plenty of nuggets about Mikal Bridges’ star potential. Philly’s coaching staff, not merely their players, will be all over him. He is now the head of an offensive snake, and deserves the thorough game-planning that will be directed his way. Bridges will see switches, traps, hedges, drops and everything in between against the Sixers. Ball-pressure and physicality will be turned up, especially against him. Remember the P.J. Tucker treatment that Kevin Durant received as a Net?
Despite the likelihood that Brooklyn faces an early demise at the hands of the Sixers doesn’t have to destroy optimism for Bridges, though. The flashes will mean more, the tough moments can be chalked up to learning experiences, and neither viewpoint is wrong. If he does indeed make a star leap offensively, this upcoming series may be what we look at as a turning point, the first time that an opposing defense truly keyed in on Bridges and held his feet to the fire.
But no matter how Mikal Bridges fares against the Philadelphia 76ers, his recent improvements tell us that this series will only push him farther.