When the smoke cleared after the 2023 NBA trade deadline, and the post-mortem reporting started to trickle out, it sounded like the Nets might’ve been nuts. You’re telling me a team offered Brooklyn four first-round picks for Mikal Bridges — a Very Nice Young Player who’d been a Net for about as long as it takes to nuke a Hot Pocket after coming aboard in the Kevin Durant blockbuster — and that Sean Marks turned it down?
Yes, the specifics matter — whose picks they were, which years they’d come in, what levels of protection would’ve been on them, etc. But still: Choosing to turn down four firsts for a non-All-Star who’d averaged 11.3 points per game over his first four seasons is the sort of thing that’ll arch some eyebrows. Over the last month and a half, though, Bridges has made Brooklyn’s brain trust look brilliant for prizing him so highly, seizing the opportunity to become an offensive focal point and blossoming into one of the most intriguing wings in the league:
Bridges entered Tuesday’s matchup with the Cavaliers 20th in the NBA in scoring since the trade deadline, averaging 25.9 points per game — nearly 12 more than last season — while shooting 43.9% from 3-point range on 6.1 attempts a night, both of which would be career highs. After scoring 30 or more points three times in 400 regular and postseason games as a Sun, he’s done it seven times in 17 games as a Net, including explosions for 45 against Miami and 38 against Boston.
He’s still doing the complementary things that made him such a great fit in Phoenix — the off-ball cutting, the relocating along the arc to give teammates passing angles on kickouts, etc. — but he’s also attacking off the dribble, averaging more points per game off drives since the deadline than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler. He’s finishing possessions in the pick-and-roll about as often as Kyrie Irving and James Harden, according to Synergy’s tracking, shooting the same percentage on those plays as DeMar DeRozan, and averaging nearly 1.1 points per possession on them — a 92nd percentile mark.
For a guy I just described as “a non-All-Star,” Bridges sure is counting an awful lot of All-Stars as company these days.
If anybody did, though, it’s probably because he or she was watching Phoenix awful closely in the dead of winter.
“You saw the days where [Devin] Booker was out and he was the primary scorer, we saw how he adjusted and really flourished in that role,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn recently told reporters. “So we put the ball in his hands. We’ll continue to do so.”
Over his first four seasons, Bridges made his mark primarily as a central-casting complementary 3-and-D wing. Out of 177 players to log at least 5,000 minutes between 2018-22, only nine had a lower usage rate than Bridges — all of whom occupied narrowly tailored, defense-first roles similar to the one that he’d assumed well enough to earn a starting role on an NBA Finals team, as well as All-Defensive First-Team honors and second place in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season.
But when point guard Chris Paul and fellow swingman Cameron Johnson both suffered injuries early in the 2022-23 campaign, a Suns offense already operating without erstwhile starter Jae Crowder needed Bridges to take on a bigger role — more touches, more bringing the ball up the floor, longer stays on the ball and more responsibility for creating offense for himself and others rather than taking the shots others spoon-fed him. Bridges responded, averaging 16.8 points and 3.8 assists per game during the 14 games Paul missed. His usage rate rose, as did his assist rate; his turnover rate, however, did not, and he still posted 48/43/92 shooting splits despite not only taking more shots, but also generating more of them himself: 27.5% of Bridges’ makes during that stretch were unassisted, by far a career high.
Bridges’ work on the ball during Paul’s absence was interesting. What he did when Booker went down for nearly two months with hamstring and groin injuries, though, was eye-opening. With Phoenix’s All-NBA offensive machine in street clothes and the 37-year-old Paul struggling at times to steer the ship, Bridges shouldered an even larger share of the burden, averaging more than 54 touches and 33 frontcourt touches per game — a tick below what Kawhi Leonard is getting in L.A. — and using them to produce 18.3 points and 4.3 assists per game during the 25 games Booker missed (including a Christmas Day cameo from which he was pulled after just four minutes).
The production itself didn’t matter quite as much as how Bridges was arriving at it. He was driving to the basket more than twice as often as his previous career high. That share of his buckets that were unassisted was all the way up to 35%. And his usage as a pick-and-roll ballhandler was through the roof: After averaging a scant 2.4 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions through his first four seasons, according to Second Spectrum, Bridges ran 16.5-per-100 during Booker’s 25-game absence. Most importantly, the Suns scored more than a point per chance on those possessions, as the newly minted member of Phoenix’s “middy committee” looked increasingly comfortable slithering around a ball screen and getting to his spots to pull up …
… or probing the defense as he penetrated, progressing through his reads to find open teammates in advantageous situations:
The Suns struggled mightily without Booker, going 11-14 in that span with the NBA’s second-worst offense. They scored better with Bridges on the court than off it, though, and after a rough few games of transitioning to life as a No. 1 option, the Villanova product really started to look the part; he scored 20 or more 11 times in the final 14 games before Booker’s return, and dished five or more assists in six of those 14.
The typical usage-efficiency curve holds that when players have to take and create more shots, they do so less efficiently … and yet, here was Bridges, flashing the sort of combination of usage, true shooting, assist creation and turnover avoidance that you typically only see from All-Stars. Could he really keep that up? Might Mikal Bridges — everybody’s preferred archetype for the 3-and-D wing any title hopeful needs — actually be a lot more than that?
Had Bridges remained in Phoenix on a Suns team that had just welcomed back a healthy Booker, we might not know. Once the Durant deal landed him in Brooklyn, though — and once Marks and Co. evidently made it clear that they weren’t settling for a penny less than five firsts and a private island in the Adriatic — we had our chance to find out. And, well, so far, so freaking good: That unassisted-makes percentage is up to 45% in Brooklyn — about 2.5 times higher than last season — and he’s scoring more points per shot now than he did when he was mostly just rising and firing off dimes from Paul, Booker and Cameron Payne.
“It’s kind of cool to me, honestly,” Bridges recently told Marc J. Spears of Andscape. “Just see what you’re made of.”
Dating back to Christmas — from a couple of games into his stint stepping in for Booker through the remarkable start to his run in Brooklyn, a stretch that encompasses nearly half a season — Bridges is averaging about 22-4-4 on .600 true shooting. If Bridges produced like that over the course of a full season, he’d be entering some awfully rarefied air — the kind I’m not sure that many expected a 26-year-old in his fifth season to just suddenly reach.
Bridges doesn’t have the total offensive package just yet; he’s still got work to do reading defenses as a playmaker, slinging passes a beat ahead of rotations, tightening up his handle and trusting in his pull-up enough to bomb a few more 3s rather than constantly looking for the midrange stop-and-pop. But it took Paul George four years to average 20 points per game. Khris Middleton didn’t become an All-Star until his seventh season. (Bridges recently told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps that George and Middleton are two players he’s specifically studied as he’s worked on his game.) Julius Randle won Most Improved Player at age 26. Hell, we didn’t know Lauri Markkanen was the best basketball player alive until Year 6. Skill sets can take time to develop, and opportunities can take time to present themselves; on a long enough timeline, what was once obscured can become obvious.
Zoom out, and it doesn’t sound all that shocking that a 6-foot-6 swingman with a 7-1 wingspan, athleticism, quickness, a high release and great touch at all three levels as well as the free-throw line would one day bloom into a No. 1 option on a team that could make the playoffs. Or, for that matter, that a team in desperate need of a vibe shift would turn down four first-round picks because it believed he could.