Fresh off helping lead the Villanova Wildcats to a dominating title run, 21 year old Mikal Bridges enters the draft as one of the highest rated wings available. In a draft era that values youth and potential ceiling, Bridges’ proven skill set and reliability has sold scouts and analysts on his ability to be a day one contributor.
Bridges spent three seasons at Villanova, only fully coming in to his own in his final season under head coach Jay Wright. Contributing to two title teams in his time at the small Philadelphia school, Bridges has grown within an elite winning culture (they went 103-13 over this three seasons. That is not a typo).
Listed at 6’7, 210 pounds and with a reported 7’2 wingspan (he did not attend the combine to get official measurements), Mikal Bridges embodies the physical ideal for every NBA team. Winner of college basketball’s 2018 Julius Erving Award, given out to the game’s best small forward, Bridges’ rise to the top of the college game was no small feat — a testament to his work ethic and perseverance. Ranking top ten nationally in: Offensive Rating (8th), Offensive Box Plus/Minus (5th), Box Plus/Minus (4th), Offensive Win Shares (4th) and Win Shares (3rd), speaks to his ability to contribute to winning basketball across the floor at an elite level.
There is a polish to the way Bridges plays on both ends of the floor. Like many players that spend time in Wright’s system, there is a quiet swagger and confidence about his play, but that is balanced with sound fundamentals. He has a great sense of spacing on offense, finding the gap in the defense around the perimeter and shifting the balance on the floor. In catch and shoot situations, he has a quick and high release, always squared to the basket — combine his wingspan and elevation on his jumper, it’s tough a for a defender to contest.
Bridges is also comfortable in motion; using plenty of pin down, flare and floppy screens to break free on the perimeter. Even though he’s looking to shoot immediately out of a set, if the shot isn’t there he’s not a ball stopper. Bridges won’t rack up a ton of assists as a playmaker, but reads the floor well and keeps the offense in motion.
There is plenty of variety to his scoring ability. Most will point to his long ball, where he shot a lethal 43 percent on nearly 250 attempts on the season (38 percent from NBA range), but Bridges can also be effective around the rim. He isn’t a bouncy athlete, but is a quality straight line driver that doesn’t take much effort to get off the ground.
As reliable as Bridges was this season flanking Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo on the offensive end, he was just as impressive defensively over the last three seasons. It’s easy to project him as the lead perimeter defender at the next level. His footwork, instincts and lateral quickness are his weapons to stay on the opponents hip, as an on-ball defender. In addition, his length can be leveraged while guarding wings. Bridges is a sound help defender, active in passing lanes and hedging screens. Depending on the personnel around him, he’ll comfortably guard positions 1-3.
Bridges might have a higher floor than any other prospect in the top ten not named Luka Dončić. For a team looking for immediate production, he needs to be near the top of their list.
When talking about upperclassmen that have lottery level talent, there are often less kinks to their all around game; especially compared to their one and done counterparts. Yet in this era of basketball, that seniority is often portrayed as a weakness itself. Partially because the flaws they do have are typically set in stone, and partially because their ceiling doesn’t look as high.
For Bridges, there are basically no questions about what he brings to the table. Scouts and GMs now look to see whether he fits in to their system. Across the board that answer should be yes, because no team can have too many big, versatile wings. But in dissecting that fit, some will question how his frame translates defensively. If it’s possible, Bridges should add some muscle in preparation to guard larger wings. He’s a solid enough defender that he’ll still be able to contain bigger opponents on the perimeter, but may be mismatched if they push inside. Whether that changes how versatile he can be defensively remains to be seen.
On the offensive end Bridges might be limited as a playmaker and shot creator, for himself or others. He doesn’t have much advanced ball handling, and can be loose with the ball when tasked with more offensive responsibility. Teams would hope, when drafting a player in the top ten, that they are getting someone who can create more on their own. But in the right system, Bridges shouldn’t be asked to do that much. And his basketball IQ should make up for some of those other deficiencies.
Fit with the Mavericks
Bridges is a Rick Carlisle player. He does all the things Carlisle looks for in a wing, and would be relied upon from game one. The sort of reliability and stability Bridges would provide on the wing is sorely missed in Dallas. He would allow Carlisle flexibility in his lineups, without having to give up any size or length on the perimeter.
Long term, I would plug Bridges in as the shooting guard. He’s mostly listed at small forward, but I think Bridges has the quickness defensively to match up consistently from that spot. Providing Dennis Smith Jr. with a security blanket on both ends of the floor, and allowing Harrison Barnes to play the position he prefers. Thanks to his length, the Mavs could shift him to the small forward as Barnes play stints at the four as Carlisle looks for additional ball handlers in the backcourt. It would be seamless.
The only question the Mavericks would need to ask themselves is if Bridges provides good value, if they ultimately stay put and draft from the fifth spot. He might be the most sure thing from this group of prospects outside Dončić, but there are others with a higher ceiling. If the Mavericks, with minds on competing as soon as next season, don’t want to swing for the fences and want the proven ability of Mikal Bridges, perhaps they should consider trading back a couple spots. There’s nothing wrong with knowing the player you want, and there’s nothing wrong with getting proper value on the pick either.
At Bridges’ absolute lowest he probably could be compared to a Tony Snell type player. But that would even require him to regress some. His floor is high enough it’s easy to project him in to a Robert Covington role. He doesn’t have the size of Covington, but has similar versatility, and can be the glue guy in a lineup with playmakers.
If Bridges’ game continue to grow, at his absolute highest, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him slot in to a Kris Middleton or Klay Thompson mold. Middleton has more shot creation ability, and Thompson is one of the purest shooters the game has ever seen. But considering how Bridges didn’t fully come in to his own until the last year or so, there could be more untapped potential just waiting to explode.