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Coming into his own: Mikal Bridges center stage on Team USA

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2023 FIBA World Cup - USAB Practice in Abu Dhabi Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Joe Vardon of The Athletic, like any good reporter, wants great copy and Mikal Bridges is it with Team USA. The 26-year-old who quickly took command of the Nets culture after arriving in the Kevin Durant mega-trade in February is doing the same thing along Team USA’s journey to the FIBA World Cup.

He wants to win badly but handles all it all with humility as he does in Brooklyn.

“I actually have to take a moment to (step back) and realize it,” Bridges told Vardon after Team USA’s first practice concluded at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus. “Sometimes I’m just so ‘go, go’ and it’s onto the next thing and the next. But that’s something I learned after leaving college … appreciating a moment and being (present) in a moment.

“It’s definitely surreal, just being here, having these colors on, having USA across the chest,” Bridges continued. “When Steve (Kerr) first talked to me about being on the team, I was in Phoenix then, and when he called, it was already a ‘Pinch me’ moment. And when I got the official call from Grant (Hill) asking me to be on the team, I was like, ‘Oh shoot, we’re really doing this.’ ”

Bridges knows winning and what it takes and what it means. He won two national championships at Villanova and got to the NBA Finals two years ago with the Suns. Now, he’s going for his first international title.

“This is one thing you dream of,” and told Vardon after Americans beat Spain in a tight game played before 11,000 rabid Spaniards. “I’m happy I’m a part of this, happy I’m going through this...

“Winning a championship for your school is amazing,” Bridges said. “It’s dope winning it for your city — obviously I didn’t win it, but like, winning an NBA championship for your city is amazing too. But I mean, playing for your country is a whole different level, and the time you have to get a group of guys who might not know each other and you have just six weeks or seven weeks to go win a title … man, it’s all just amazing. That’s why I love it.”

And he’s taken on a leadership role as well along with his other Villanova teammate and now fellow New Yorker Jalen Brunson. Bridges told Vardon that the Villanova pedigree he shares with Brunson and the Knicks Josh Hart is helping Team USA.

“Playing for Coach (Jay) Wright at Villanova, what he preaches and in his system, it’s all about your attitude,” Bridges said. “It’s the biggest thing in the program, and that’s life. Going to Team USA and being in Spain and playing Spain and them making a run, with their crowd going crazy, it’s like, what are you going to do when times get tough?

“What separates good teams from the great ones is what happens when adversity hits. I think coming from Nova, being in those tough situations, you embrace it. I remember being on the court in Spain yelling, ‘We live for this s—.’ That’s what I’m saying when I talk about the joy of going through this.”

Bridges’ easy personality (among teammates) along with his Villanova connections in Brunson and Hart and Nets connection in Cam Johnson has made him a popular guy with Team USA members and also reporters. He’s a go-to quote.

Talking about Austin Reaves, the Laker and Team USA guard, with the Los Angeles Times’ Dan Woike, Bridges was full of praise.

“This ain’t no underdog s--- no more,” Bridges said of Reaves’ rise. “He’s here.”

“I’ve been a fan,’” he continued. “I think the biggest thing about him I like is that he knows how to draw a foul. He knows how to create fouls and get to the free-throw line and that’s like a skill. He’s not just getting there. There’s a skill to that and it’s very underrated. People don’t really understand it but the ones that do, they know how tough it is to guard.”

And please don’t call it recruiting, but Bridges is friendly with a lot of his high-profile teammates.

“A lot of us have been friends in the league,” Bridges explained to Vardon for a previous story, “I mean, like me and Jaren (Jackson) have been close, being drafted (in the same class). Me and Ant (Anthony Edwards) always talk to each other in games. Me and BI (Brandon Ingram), just because of Josh and stuff. So, it’s all falling together, and it’s great.”

Bridges has played well so far as well. He’s averaging 11.7 points in the three warm-up games and scored five of his 12 points Sunday in the crucial fourth quarter run by Team USA. As we head into the FIBA World Cup which opens for the Americans vs. New Zealand, expect more exposure for the Nets’ humble but charismatic star.