Why Mikal Bridges is the talented, malleable force players want to roll with

He starts from the end of the bench and dances his way to the front. Before every game, Mikal Bridges slaps hands with one teammate and wraps another in a hug. The next man in line, whether it was a member of the Phoenix Suns that reached the 2021 NBA Finals, or now one of his fellow Brooklyn Nets, Bridges is liable to leap into the air or skip with any partner, a pregame grin stretching wider and wider across his face. His feet bounce off the wood as if they just can’t stay on the floor. Bridges daps the coaching staff and even folks down the scorer’s table. There’s some secret combination or practiced coordination with damn near everyone in the building.

“I think it’s just being who I am, that’s how culture starts,” Bridges told Yahoo Sports. “Bringing in good people. I think there’s nothing else to it. Just bringing energy, being who I am and just be nice. Basically be myself and hopefully people will follow.”

It’s a simple equation for Bridges, who does not view basketball or NBA team building as some form of advanced arithmetic. The only solution is winning, and Bridges has paved a lucrative path providing whatever variable his teams need to be victorious. Blanket an opponent’s superstar? Check. After February’s blockbuster that sent Kevin Durant to Phoenix and Bridges to Brooklyn, he saw his Nets simply needed more points in order to compete. And so Bridges launched five more shots per game than he did with the Suns, upping his scoring from 17.2 to 26.1 each night, rattling off performances in the 40s.

His game is putty, himself long and elastic. “Probably the most complete player we ever had,” retired Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. Bridges’ inspector gadget arms, his hands dangling at his knees, made him the ultimate bucket-fighting tool during two Wildcats championships and earned All-Defensive honors in Phoenix before bringing All-Star expectations into this 2023-24 campaign at Barclays Center. All the versatility, mixed with Bridges’ connective personality, has Nets staffers hopeful the 27-year-old with the pregame cheese and the chops to back it up can one day attract another building block, another alpha, and help resurrect another contending era — all while the club (6-5) remains in the postseason picture.

“I’m friends with a lot of people. I think friendships help,” said Bridges, who’s bond with Damian Lillard made Brooklyn an appealing destination as the All-NBA guard attempted to navigate his exit from the Trail Blazers this summer and fall. “Obviously, if I think it’s a good option, then yeah,” Bridges said, but he’s not proactively giving recruiting pitches across the league. “Not unless it makes sense. I’m just trying to win now and do what it takes. You can talk about all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybe this,’ but you can’t control that. Other than that just trying to win now. I’m more locked in on the guys here.”

If he helps build it, they will come. One succession of claps and smacks at a time. Bridges is always looking for chances to concoct another elaborate handshake, at random moments during a shootaround, or standing about during media day. Most of his collaborations include some type of vocal component as well, whether it be a shout or a growl. When he first arrived in Brooklyn, a camera captured Bridges creating a new sequence with Yuta Watanabe in some back hallway as they waited to take the court. They clapped twice, low, then clapped twice up high, then side-stepped into a lefty jumper — Watanabe’s dominant hand — and yelled out, “Haaa!”

LeBron James’ early Cavaliers teams, where players would engage in mock combat and buzz around the bench until they posed for a family photograph, first inspired Bridges’ affinity for the art form that is an NBA greeting. His secret shakes are usually quite intentional. “Things happen and you joke about things and you just bring them to life,” Bridges said. “A quick reminder of something that might have happened a while ago, and a handshake makes you think of it.”

Back in Phoenix, Bridges and reserve point guard Cam Payne would ping each other day and night with small moves or actions they spotted on Instagram. Payne, once notorious for his pre-tip dances with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, has always shared the value of ritualistic camaraderie. “It kinda breaks the ice if you don’t really know people,” Payne said. “And it’s always about getting hype.” So as Bridges rounded into a playoff performer, Payne helped him design what became the Brooklyn centerpiece’s 3-point celebration. “‘Kal would make shots, and he didn’t really have nothing. He’d just look at the other team,” Payne said. The duo put their heads, and their fingers, together. When Bridges direct messaged Payne some clip of a baseball team holding a trio of digits in the shape of a pistol, Payne further encouraged Bridges to wag his head side to side as he held the pose. “He’s been doing it ever since,” Payne said.

Mikal Bridges headshot
Mikal Bridges
SF - BKN - #1
2023 - 2024 season

Bridges flashed those fingers inside Barclays Center on Feb. 7, two days before the trade deadline, two days after Brooklyn shipped Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks. Bridges was joking with arena staffers that he’d be coming soon, unaware of the clandestine talks Suns and Nets officials were holding before finally dealing Durant to Phoenix, but understanding his reality with a new, aggressive owner in Mat Ishbia taking claim of the franchise. If a deal was going down, Bridges would be part of it, he whose current 403 consecutive games played make up the longest active streak in the NBA.

“I just kinda knew that, in the beginning, [the Nets] were just asking for a lot [for Durant]. I mean, I get it. Outside looking in. A guy who plays every game is valuable and does a lot of things,” Bridges said. “Personally, I’d like to have a guy like me on my team who plays a lot of games, is efficient and is always solid on defense.”

Plus his skillset was evolving, to where Bridges maintains he was traded at the optimal opportunity. Monty Williams, then piloting the Suns’ bench, had met with Bridges and Cam Johnson before that 2022-23 season, about moving veteran wing Jae Crowder to a bench role, about inserting Johnson’s sharpshooting onto the perimeter, about Phoenix relying on Bridges and Johnson to juice the Suns’ starting lineup with added scoring around Devin Booker and aging floor general Chris Paul. Bridges assessed the adjustment Williams was proposing and saw another routine problem that had presented an easy answer.

“If we could have another guy to score with CP and Book, it would make us even tougher to guard,” Bridges said. “It wasn’t like I needed to be the man or something like that. It was just, like, if I can get better and play off the dribble more, it gives them guys a little bit of rest and makes us tougher to guard.”

“He’s really got a clear mind in that way,” said Wright. “It sounds simple, but it’s rare. It’s just rare.”

Crowder’s extended absence last season, disenchanted by his demotion, provided plenty of added workload. Injuries to Johnson, Booker and Payne further thrust Bridges onto the controls of Phoenix’s offense and the leather between his hands. His stroke was always there, a career 37.3% marksman from distance, but Bridges found greater comfort on the floor. He knows the angles of the game, when to start and when to stop, often using his long gallop to finish his drives to the basket with a sweeping Euro step. He intuits how to hang and fade longer than any opponent contesting his mid-range jumper, utilizing all of his 7-foot-1 wingspan.

When Bridges and Johnson landed with the Nets as headliners of Brooklyn’s return for Durant, his explosion felt seamless to those who’d witnessed him working behind the Suns’ closed practice doors.

“You can see such a natural progression of skill, of the ability to change games, take over games, score when necessary,” Johnson said. “Earlier in his career, he was really a predominantly off-ball cutting guy. And then the three, the middy, getting to the basket, all those things started adding in. Pick-and-rolls, you saw a lot more of that right before the trade, and then a lot more of that coming here. He’s the type that’s gonna continue working. It’s not a matter of, ‘OK, I’m good. I’m here.’ No, he’s gonna put in the work.”

“I just didn’t want him being a go-to guy to change his mentality of always making the right play,” Wright told Yahoo Sports.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: Mikal Bridges #1 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots the ball against Deni Avdija #8 of the Washington Wizards at Barclays Center on November 12, 2023 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Nets defeated the Wizards 102-94. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mikal Bridges is focused on trying to build something special in Brooklyn. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

All of his minutes covering the sport’s craftiest creators afforded Bridges numerous lessons along the way. That list grew longer and longer, until he’d created a syllabus on how to handle a lead scoring load. He’d watch his own film against Paul George, and then another team’s game against the Clippers, and notice how George’s primary defender handled the assignment differently, comparing and contrasting their effectiveness and how George would attack their approaches. “You just watch a lot of tape and you can’t have your hand out there or they’ll draw the foul. It’s learning. You do it a couple times, you learn from it,” Bridges said. “Just seeing all those little savage, savvy moves.” And then incorporating them into his own arsenal.

He was a clear candidate for Steve Kerr’s Team USA outfit that reached the bronze medal game of the FIBA World Cup in Manila this September, constantly capable of plugging any hole as the Americans’ ship often took on water in tournament play. Kerr would leave Bridges as the lone starter on the floor when his bench unit entered games. Perhaps Bridges or rising guard Anthony Edwards, the Timberwolves’ All-Star, can carry over onto Team USA’s 2024 Olympic squad in Paris — where roster pairings have led to plenty of future NBA tandems and trios.

The Nets have only Bridges and Johnson under guaranteed contracts for the 2025-26 season, leaving a cap sheet that can be painted like a canvas with even brighter colors. Maybe third-year guard Cam Thomas continues to bloom from first-round pick into a key installation. Maybe the next woebegone All-Star — not likely to be Bulls scorer Zach LaVine, league sources told Yahoo Sports — eyes Brooklyn and the glimmering practice facility along the East River. Any outcome seems bound to prominently factor the 6-foot-6 swingman with a memory full of daps, where a winning formula has Atlantic Avenue jumping like the New York Liberty’s playoff run — for which Bridges was a regular attendee.

“We want to get there, but I think you just gotta go every day, and one day, maybe you’ll get there,” Bridges told Yahoo Sports. “Work hard and do the right things, and maybe you’ll get blessed with players and awards as well.”