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Mikal Bridges looking to improve his playmaking so ‘everybody eats’

Last season, after being traded to the Nets, Mikal Bridges proved he can score with the best of them. He’s also a top defender. Now, he wants to improve his playmaking.

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Until that four-second stint to preserve his 392-game Iron Man streak in the Nets final game vs. the 76ers, Mikal Bridges averaged 27.2 points a game for Brooklyn. That was better than either Kevin Durant (26.0) or Kyrie Irving (27.0) after the trade deadline. And he played in more games.

So there is little to no doubt that the 26-year-old can put up numbers on the scoreboard. He had three games of 40 and another seven of 30 plus. Now, though, he and his bosses at HSS Training Center want him to become better in an area where he’s shown flashes, but not consistency: playmaking.

“Has Mikal been able to improve as a player? Yes. On both ends of the floor? Yes. Can he still get better? Yes,” Vaughn said at the end of last season, as recounted Saturday by Brian Lewis. “There’s some things he’s doing more than he’s previously done, which is improvement. We want to continue to see his improvement.”

Specifically, Vaughn said there’s his playmaking.

“Just overall his ability to handle the basketball is the next thing for him,” Vaughn said. “In a lineup, could he be out there and handle by himself, just with other wing players around him? His ability to play pick-and-roll even more and be a distributor for us.

“Because he’s just going to gain so much attention now these days, can he be a decoy at times? And learning when to be a decoy and how to use that for the benefit of his teammates. So there’s a lot still that he can learn, for sure.”

Before he joined the Nets and took over KD’s role in the Nets offensive schemes, there were some indications that he could be a better players, as Lewis notes.

Bridges has passing ability. He had 21 points, nine rebounds and a career-high nine assists for the Suns in a Nov. 11 win over the Warriors that impressed Steve Kerr enough that he approached Bridges after the game about playing for Team USA.

Then Bridges had 28 points and another nine assists in a Jan. 19 win over the Nets, who traded for him roughly three weeks later.

But with the Nets, he averaged only 2.7 assists, with a high of seven at Miami on March 25.

In talking with Lewis, Bridges admitted it’s his next big challenge and being Bridges, he said he will embrace it. He also noted how with him filling the Durant role in the Nets offense, he had to adjust.

“Me coming off the screen, you want to go score. Yeah, you have that option, but also have everybody else. If everybody eats, that’s the best thing — everybody has a rhythm, and it’s tough to guard. So just watching film and just learning and getting ready for the offensive stuff,” he told Lewis at his basketball camp last weekend.

“[When] I got there, our offense was a little tough to pass just because of how it was set up, because they had KD and Kyrie. [They] were the most unbelievable scorers in the world, so the offense was ran like that. So being put in there, I felt like I was liable to shoot a lot. But I’m very, very willing to pass and be a playmaker, and that’s as someone where I’d rather have a 25, 10 and 10 game than a 30-something and four assists.

“I’m happy that was one of the things that [Vaughn] talked about, because for me when I go into games, I feel me scoring a lot and I also feel like I watch games and I feel like I’m missing people as well. I was just a 3-and-D guy about six, eight months ago. I know how that feels being open and maybe not getting it. So I know how ready I was at that moment for a catch-and-shoot. I know everybody else that’s in that position — like [Dorian Finney-Smith] or somebody — I know they’re ready. So just to make them happy, man, and once everybody’s happy, everybody’s having fun out there.”

So how does one improve playmaking? Lewis asked. With designed drills executed alongside a trainer, or is it limited to live pickup games? Or is it a matter of adjusting his mindset?

“Yeah, you could do [drills] … but it’s more of a mindset, and having that mindset coming in and watching film,” Bridges told Sports+. “That’s the biggest thing, to have that mindset of playmaking.”

“And just a progression of like, ‘Yeah, if I keep scoring here and keep doing that, that’s going to make the defense have to put two on a ball. And then off the rip, they’re coming in. First game of the season, teams are like, ‘Don’t let him score, don’t let KD score,’ and it makes him be able to create. But a guy like me coming in, they’re just going to be in the drop and make him shoot that s–t every single time.

“But just trying to evolve from that and make defenses honest. So now I can make that every time. Now they’ve got to step up, and then now I’ll find him.”

The Nets, if everything goes well, should see some improvement — maybe a lot — in shot creation next season. Spencer Dinwiddie is annually a leader in assists-to-turnover ratio and did average 9.1 assists for Brooklyn after the deadline. If that was his season average, it would have been a career high. And of course, a Ben Simmons return would be huge for shot creation. Simmons averaged 7.7 assists in his four years in Philadelphia and has 33 triple doubles to his credit. (Dennis Smith Jr., who the Nets signed in the off-season, is more known for his defense at the point than playmaking, averaging 6.7 assists per 36 minutes last season in Charlotte.)

Lewis isn’t the only interviewer who Bridges opened up to about playmaking. He talked with Paul George last week on his Podcast*P, making things more personal than technical.

“And I [hang] with my teammates so much. Those are my guys,” he told George. “I want everybody to eat. So I want to still control the game, but make sure everybody feel happy. Because I know playing off-ball, being that role guy, when [Devin Booker] and them find me, I’m the happiest [guy] in the world. So I know when I find my boy Doe or somebody in a corner, they’re happy. So I just have that role player mentality. Every time in that corner, I’m ready every single time, so I know my other guys that are in that position right now, I know they’re ready to definitely get there.

“And hopefully the offense this year can be more [balanced], emphasize [that] more.”