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Mikal Bridges knows he’s The Man in Brooklyn; says he wants leadership role

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

In an interview this week with SLAM’s Franklyn Calle, Mikal Bridges talks about the transition from Phoenix to Brooklyn, from third or even fourth option to the leading scorer and how he’s learning the borough, etc. but he spoke mostly about leadership, how he knows that at 26 years old, he is THE man in Brooklyn ... and he wants the role.

It was something he knew early on his 27-game post-deadline stint with the Nets, he told Calle, and the challenge he was dealt.

“I think the biggest challenge is probably always leading, every single time. Even if I get frustrated, guys are kind of looking at me strictly just because, and I feel like that’s a struggle I just kind of [have to] get better at it ’cause it’s emotions in the game and I get frustrated a lot,” said Bridges of his new role in Brooklyn. “Just can’t let my emotions bring anybody else on the team down, so, just got to stay positive, even if it’s tough—gotta push through it and try to be level-headed at all times.”

In Phoenix, of course, he was behind Chris Paul and Devin Booker. He’s at the head of the line in Brooklyn.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but, you know, it’s something I love and embrace and take on. It’s definitely different, being one of the go-to guys and defenses scout on you. Luckily, I had some time before I got traded—we had a lot of guys out in Phoenix at the time—where I was being that guy. And it was, trust me, a lot of growing pains. It was tough just being that focal point and everybody’s looking at you. But I feel like it’s been good—a lot of learning, still learning to this day—and there’s gonna be a lot more to learn. But I’m here to embrace it and go through the tough times just to blossom later.”

With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden now long gone and Ben Simmons still on the mend and without the personality needed for the role, the obvious choice as successor was Bridges. The Nets saw it in him and he says he began to see the first tinges of what it could be like in his third game when he scored 45 points vs. the Heat. It was the first 40-point game of his career and the first of three he would put up as a Net, the first of five games where he met or exceeded his previous all-time game high of 34.

“Just having that game and winning, and just all that buzz and being fine, that feeling of being in New York for real and all the love and the publicity after that—I’ll definitely say after that Miami game [is] where I felt [it]. And I had a little [All-Star] break [after], so I went home and then when I came back it was like, Alright, let’s get ready for this, this little second gear,” Bridges told Calle.

Bridges isn’t just good managing down. He’s also shown he can manage up, making strong connections with Joe and Clara Wu Tsai and sideways, being at all the Liberty home games so far, making himself visible to fans. He’ll do more in the community this week with some events set up around the Draft which takes place at Barclays Center.

Initially, the transition from Phoenix to Brooklyn was tough on a personal level, going from a 9,000-square foot home in the Valley of the Sun to a hotel room high above Manhattan. The Tuesday before the Thursday trade deadline, Bridges had scored 21 points for the Suns vs. the Nets at Barclays Center, then flew home to Phoenix on the team charter. Two days later, he and Cam Johnson were on another charter, this one heading back to Brooklyn.

“I think the toughest thing was just not having everything, and everything [happened] so fast with the trade. Just had to leave where [I’m] at to come there. I just had my bags and went straight to New York,” says Bridges. “But it was dope. I always wanted to live in New York—came to New York a lot in college, just playing out here [in Philly], went to Villanova, so everybody lives in New York coming from Villanova. But it was great. I love the people here, and I love the vibe in New York and the city. So, I was very excited to come here.

“Just being on the East Coast again, I love the East Coast people. Obviously, I love the people in Phoenix as well, they’re great people, but it’s just [about] coming back to the East Coast, to what I’m used to.”

He also had a readymade circle of friends with Johnson, his “twin” in Phoenix, and two former Villanova teammates, Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart with the Knicks. He recalled his previous visits as a Wildcat.

“When I was in college, we came to New York a lot, just playing in the Garden [in the annual Big East Tournament] and then having events. Coach [Jay] Wright loved New York, so we had an event called Hoops on the Hudson,” Bridges recalled. “We’d come out here and be out here for a couple days while it was preseason. Just been around and visiting in college and in the summer, have friends who live out here—I just know the speed of New York and I was just super excited to come here.”

The speed of New York indeed. Bridges is already a fan favorite, the good guy without any baggage replacing three very, very skilled and controversial Hall of Famers. SLAM posted a video of him touring various Brooklyn institutions and traditions...

Nets marketing will remind us of all the records he put up this season, the primary ones related to his durability and conditioning, another contrast with his predecessors in the driver’s seat. As Calle wrote:

He became the first player in NBA history to average 25 or more points while shooting 50/40/90 in his first 10 games with a new team. He also broke the record for most points ever scored in the month of March by a Nets player, which was good for the second-most points by a Nets player in any month in franchise history.

He also led the NBA in games and minutes for two straight years, the first NBA player to do that in 70 years when Wilt Chamberlain did it. Chamberlain, like Bridges, grew up in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia. He finished fourth in Most Improved Player, not bad considering that most of that improved took place in the final third of the season.

The Nets roster is likely to change in the next 48 to 72 hours, but despite fans wishes in places like Portland, Bridges is highly unlikely to be anywhere but Brooklyn at the weekend. He likes the idea.