They just didn’t know it would happen so soon, and they learned by happenstance.
In the final 20 games Bridges played last season, he averaged 19.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists and shot 51.5% from the field, 43.5% on 3s and 83.9% on free throws.
As Hornets coach James Borrego told USA TODAY Sports, “We were wearing down. He was the one guy, on his own, who could just go make plays at the four spot.
“Miles was forced into more usage, not knowing how he would produce. As the season went along last year, he became more confident and comfortable in his role – higher usage, more touches, more decision-making.”
That has carried over to this season. Bridges is Charlotte’s leading scorer at 20.8 points per game (eight more than last season) and second-leading rebounder at 7.4 per game. He is also second in steals (1.4 per game) and third in assists (3.3 per game) for the 11-8 Hornets – one of young, talented and entertaining teams in the league with Bridges, Ball and Terry Rozier.
Bridges’ performance has generated early-season chatter for Most Improved Player as he emerges as a more complete player in his fourth season.
“I always kind of expected it,” Bridges said. “I’m just happy that it’s coming to fruition because all the work I put in. I felt like I would get a shot at it and do what I’m doing now."
Bridges offered a simple explanation for his jump.
“It’s just me going to the basket first before I settle for jump shots,” Bridges said. “If I can get easy shots like layups and free throws, that’s when I start hitting my 3s.”
His shooting percentages are down compared to last season but that’s not a surprise given his increased minutes, usage rate and responsibility. His impact is clear in Charlotte’s on/off court statistics. Charlotte is minus-16.5 points worse per 100 possessions when Bridges is on the bench with Charlotte’s offense and defense suffering. The Hornets are four points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when he is on the court.
“It comes down to decision-making,” Borrego said. “The ball’s in his hands more, and he’s understanding when to probe, when to put the ball on the ground, make plays for others and he’s become just more comfortable in that world, and I trust him with the ball.”
Recognized for his rim-rattling dunks, Bridges is more than a dunker. He can operate in isolation, post-ups, handoffs, cuts and with the 3-ball. His usage rate – the percentage of plays used by a player when he is on the court – last season was 17. This season, it increased to 23, only behind Ball on Charlotte’s roster.
“He’s been fairly elite player getting to the rim and finishing going back to the last couple of seasons,” Borrego said. “That’s been his strength. What’s made him take the next step is the shooting. That’s off the bounce and catch-and-shoot. It’s both. When players start doing that, their confidence grows, the defense is at their mercy and he’s really elevated in those areas.”
In the offseason, Bridges reviewed video of his last 20 games.
“I noticed how aggressive I was at the end of last season and it was helping us win,” he said. “It was me moving better off ball and getting myself open and trusting that my teammates will get me the ball when I want it.”
Charlotte’s roster contained several high-usage players the past three seasons leaving Bridges as the fourth or fifth option most of the time. Devonte’ Graham signed with New Orleans and Malik Monk went to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“It was crowded as far as playmakers and touches,” Borrego said. “He was more of a fourth option and at times fifth option. But when he just continued to stay with his development program, watch film and study and you’d see moments of it, but I didn’t know it would happen this consistently this quickly. That’s where I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I didn’t see his ascension this quickly.”
At 6-7, 225 pounds with leaping ability, Bridges recognized he had the physical skills to compete. To take the next step, he said, “I wanted to think the game better. Know when to pass, when to shoot.”
Even something like driving to the basket and drawing a foul when the Hornets are in the bonus to get two free throws became a revelation. He reached out to LeBron James and Kevin Durant who encouraged him to become more of a playmaker.
“The more I get others involved, the more the game is going to come back to me,” Bridges said.
Bridges is just 23 years old and is expected to become a restricted free agent following the season. The Hornets and Bridges did not reach an agreement on an extension before the season began with Charlotte’s offer coming in around $60 million for four seasons. Bridges took the route of the confident: he bet on himself.
“We love Miles Bridges,” Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said at the start of the season. “We did have conversations with his representative up until the last minute. The decision was made to wait and see how the season plays out, and we'll approach it again in the spring.”
If Bridges continues to play like this – and especially if he makes his first All-Star team and the Hornets reach the playoffs – he will sign a much larger deal in the offseason.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Miles Bridges got better after talks with LeBron James, Kevin Durant