Fairmont native Bridges calls NBA Draft Combine experience "surreal"

May 24—FAIRMONT — The chance of a lifetime, Fairmont Senior basketball alumnus Jalen Bridges almost missed his invite to the NBA Draft Combine.

"I wasn't really on my phone because I've been working out and grinding and haven't been worried about everything else. Kinda' just focused on my own journey," Bridges said. "I got some time to check my phone, and my agent was blowing me up. I check my email, and I had an email from [the NBA] congratulating me."

The list for combine invitees came out May 3, with the combine itself happening May 12-19 in Chicago. Bridges was one of 78 players on the invite list, along with his Baylor teammates Yves Missi and Ja'Kobe Walter. After Fairmont Senior, Bridges enrolled at WVU where he played two seasons for former coach Bob Huggins.

The Draft Combine is the next step in his dream to make it to the NBA. According to his father Corey Bridges, Jalen started playing basketball around the age of six and first dreamed of making it to the NBA while in middle school.

"It's just a blessing," Corey Bridges said. "You never think this is the destination, but he's been working hard and does everything he needs to get to this point. It really is exciting."

Bridges took part in the NBA G-League Elite Camp last year after his first season at Baylor. He said it wasn't his best year, but the camp was a "tease" of the NBA Draft Combine. Bridges set his sights on the 2024 Combine after the experience.

"It just showed me that if I put my head down, I build on the habits and put my head down for a year, then when I look up in 365 days I'll be at the NBA Combine and I'll be hearing my name called," Bridges said. "Luckily that's where we're at today."

When Bridges first arrived at the Combine, he said it felt like a dream coming true in real time.

"It was really surreal," Bridges said. "Having this dream since you were a kid, getting up everyday, and taking action to make your dream a reality, in a sense it makes everything really feel like it was worth it. It's kind of fulfilling, honestly. It's probably the most fulfilling moment of my basketball career so far."

On Sunday, May 12, Bridges and the other participants arrived and spent the rest of the day getting settled in. On Monday, players were measured and went through strength and agility drills. Bridges measured in as 6-foot-6.75-inches, 213.4 pounds, a 6-foot-10-inch wingspan, 8-foot-9-inch standing reach, nine inch hand length and 10-inch hand width, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

The next two days involved team scrimmages. Players that opted to play in scrimmages formed four teams and played games with 10 minute quarters. Bridges said he would swap in and out with his teammates whenever the ball was called dead.

Bridges admitted he could have shot the ball better during the scrimmages, but he believes he did what he needed to in the moment.

"I felt like I showed what I needed to do," Bridges said. "Basically, in any setting that I can fit in... I just play within myself, within the team, within the system, and everything I do is geared to winning and helping my team be as successful as they can."

Media had the chance to interview Bridges and the other participants after the scrimmages, but the interviews with teams came in the mornings of scrimmage days and the days following. Bridges said undisclosed two teams that had serious interest in him prior to the Combine sat him down for interviews.

The interviews involved eight members of the teams' front offices asking Bridges questions about himself. To the young NBA hopeful, it was an awe-inspiring moment that made him realize how small the basketball world really is.

"It's kinda' intimidating," Bridges said. "It's you and eight other people who you don't really know. They're seeing you for the first time. They're asking you a million questions about yourself and you don't really know anything about them.

"I honestly really liked the interviews. I like getting to know people and know through connections that we may have. The world is really small, but the basketball world is minuscule. Everybody knows everybody. It's actually crazy."

Bridges also said he always tried to be himself during the interviews. For his answers, he'd try to carry himself positively so that if a kid was watching him, they'd find someone positive to look up to.

After the scrimmages and interviews, the combine consisted of health checkups and looking into his injury background. At the end, Bridges returned to his home in Texas.

Now, Bridges turns his attention to team pre-draft workouts. The NBA Draft is set for June 26-27, meaning Bridges has one more month before he may or may not hear his name called in New York.

While mock drafts popped up everywhere in recent weeks, Bridges isn't paying attention to them, no matter how favorable or unfavorable they view him. As Corey Bridges pointed out, mock drafts change everyday.

"His name could be on that mock draft today, and another one can come out next week and his name's not even on it," Corey Bridges said. "We try not to pay too much attention to the mock drafts because it changes very often once people put their mock drafts out. We try to stay away from it and concentrate on what we can control, and that's working hard and doing what he's supposed to do."

Still, it's an exciting prospect for Bridges to play in the NBA. While he liked Dwayne Wade when he started following the NBA, Bridges became a fan of players still in the league such as Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.

"Guys that since I can remember turning on my TV, watching them play; it's a blessing to be in this exclusive club and, God willing, I'm about to be in," Bridges said. "Just taking one day at a time to stay grounded, stay where my feet are, and lean on those seasoned players, ask questions, be a sponge. I definitely look forward to that."

Bridges' ability to learn has characterized his playing style since his high school days at Fairmont Senior when he played for David Retton. Bridges said Retton taught him how to play in a system after doing his own thing with teammate Zyon Dobbs in middle school.

"We were just out there doing our own thing, and then we got to high school and we couldn't do that anymore because guys were as good as us and if not better," Bridges said. "Establishing [playing for the team] from an early age helps a lot in the long run. Especially like in college because there are gonna be guys who are once again bigger, faster, stronger, and just overall better than you."

Retton had high praise for Bridges and described his game as constantly improving, good shooting and the ability to defend anyone.

"He steadily improved from his freshman year to his senior year," Retton said. "He was always a good shooter. I noticed that when he got in a [defensive] stance, he had very good feet. He could move laterally. He became a very good on-the-ball defender for us in high school."

Retton said that as team personnel changed over the years, Bridges took on defending more people on the court and not just the guard he was lined up against. And in the NBA where the game is becoming positionless, it gives Bridges something he can bring to the league.

"He has a lot of versatility in his basketball game," Retton said. "And he was a winner to coach in high school. Very intelligent and worked extremely hard."

Bridges has the opportunity to become the first Fairmont and Marion County native to play in the NBA, at least according to He also could join fellow Fairmont Senior alumni and NFL players Zach Frazier and Dante Stills, the latter a basketball teammate of Bridges, as recent Polar Bears to turn pro through the draft of their respective leagues.

"That's just a testament to my parents for raising me right," Bridges said. "Always pushing me to do better and reach for my goals. They always told me if my goals didn't sound crazy to everybody else, then I need to come up with some new goals."

While he's unsure who will draft him, if he even gets drafted at all, Bridges hopes he will become an inspiration to basketball loving kids in West Virginia to continue to work hard if they want to make the NBA.

As for which team he hopes will draft him, Bridges has no preference.

"Whichever one wants me the most," Bridges said with a laugh.

Reach Colin C. Rhodes at 304-367-2548