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NY Post
New York Post
8 Apr 2023


NextImg:How Mikal Bridges can level up from his Nets breakthrough

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In less than two months in Brooklyn, Mikal Bridges has emerged as a top-flight scorer, a Most Improved Player Award candidate and a franchise cornerstone.

But he can be even more. So much more.

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“A lot more room on the plate,” Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said with a smile. “Just overall his ability to handle the basketball, I think, is the next thing for him. In a lineup, could he be out there and handle [the ball] by himself, just with other wing players around him? His ability to play pick-and-roll even more and be a distributor for us.

“Because he’s just going to gain so much attention now these days, can he be a decoy at times? And learning when to be a decoy and how to use that for the benefit of his teammates. So there’s a lot still that he can learn, for sure.”

Bridges’ career-high scoring average of 14.2 points came last season in Phoenix, after which the Nets asked for him as the centerpiece of any summer Kevin Durant deal. The Suns flatly refused.

They relented at the trade deadline, packaging Bridges to the Nets with Cam Johnson, four first-round picks and a pick swap. Since arriving, Bridges is showing why the Suns were so adamant about keeping him and why the Nets wouldn’t move Durant without him.

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The Nets traded Kevin Durant to the Suns for a package including four first-round draft picks and promising wing Mikal Bridges.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Now, after Friday night’s win over the Magic that secured a first-round playoff date with the 76ers, Bridges is averaging 20.4 points, but that doesn’t begin to tell the tale of how impactful he’s been — and how much more impactful the Nets are convinced he can be as he learns not just to react to defenses but to proactively outwit them.

“Just continuing to get better,” Bridges said. “That’s the biggest thing, just trying to work on my game and do whatever it takes to win. Just keep trying to grow every day, every year. That’s the mindset.”

After averaging 17.2 points for the Suns before the trade, Bridges had poured in a team-high 27.2 points in 26 starts for the Nets on efficient .475/.376/.894 shooting splits.

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Had the trade come a month earlier, Bridges might have challenged Lauri Markkanen of the Jazz and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Thunder — who made their All-Star debuts this season — for Most Improved Player honors.

Bridges can get to that level by pairing playmaking with his improved scoring — something the Nets will need to accelerate their post-Durant rebuild.

“Has Mikal has been able to improve as a player? Yes. On both ends of the floor? Yes. Can he still get better? Yes,” Vaughn said. “There’s some things he’s doing more than he’s previously done, which is improvement. We want to continue to see his improvement.”

MIkal Bridges guards Heat guard Gabe Vincent

Mikal Bridges, here guarding the Heat’s Gabe Vincent, is an accomplished defender.
AP

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That improvement likely will be more on the offensive end.

Bridges is a versatile and accomplished defender (All-Defensive first team in 2021-22).

The 26-year-old also is an ironman, a quality valued by a Nets franchise hurt by the lack of availability of top players during the Durant-Kyrie Irving era. He hasn’t missed a game since he was a junior in high school, and is set to lead the league in total minutes played for a second consecutive season. He’s also run the most on-court miles, per player-tracking stats.

Bridges’ biggest area of improvement will be in how he breaks down defenses, using his newfound gravity to manipulate them and create for teammates. That means better court vision, tightening his handle and deciphering how teams play him from night to night or possession to possession.

“Definitely having the ballhandling enough to create, and then just reading the game,” Bridges told The Post. “And we scout, too, so just knowing that they might help a little bit. Just reading the game.”

Nets coach Jacque Vaughn claps on the sideline.

Jacque Vaughn says Bridges has improved, but still has considerable room to get better.
Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

It’s somewhat akin to a chess master going from projecting 10 moves ahead to a grandmaster clearly seeing twice that.

And as Bridges’ reading of the game improves, can he become that archetypal star that modern teams surround with shooters for spacing?

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Of the 20 players averaging at least 24 points this season, 12 have added at least five assists per game — and all but two were over four per game. Bridges is at just 3.3 for the season and 2.8 since joining the Nets.

Improving that aspect of his game will be vital. Defenses already are starting to scheme to slow his scoring and stunt his efficiency.

Bridges is shooting just 35.4 percent overall and just 13.9 percent (5-of-36) from 3-point range in his past four games, punctuated by an unsightly 7-of-24, 1-of-12 line on Friday night.

“I think obviously people are adjusting to the fact he’s a big-time scorer and a big-time piece for our offense,” Spencer Dinwiddie said. “They’re definitely paying more attention to him and he’s just continuing to produce.”

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Dinwiddie added that Bridges has developed “gravity” and teams already are game-planning against him differently than when he first arrived.

Mikal Bridges reacts after making a 3-pointer for the Nets against the Jazz.

Bridges is scoring more than 27 points per game and shooting better than 37 percent from 3-point range in a Nets uniform.
Getty Images

“With Mikal they’ll still help [off him] a little bit, but they’re going to fire out to him, so if you even look or glance his way, his guy’s leaving immediately. So it’s understanding the nuances of how guys are playing different defenses,” Dinwiddie said. “With Mikal, they might help, but they’re going back to him every time, so it’s fake help. And obviously him being a big-time scorer, all he needs is a step, so if we can get him in a closeout situation, he’s just going to turn the corner and do his thing.”

His thing has been taking what the defense gives with machine-like efficiency. Bridges has become a midrange monster, much like Durant and Irving. But those superstar three-level scorers didn’t just react, they dictated.

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With his scoring exploits, Bridges has begun drawing opponents’ top perimeter defenders — and double teams as well.

His next step is to not just beat them, but to make foes pay as he gets downhill.

“He’s stayed aggressive, which is good. In some situations like that, you can get a little tentative, because on a nightly basis he’s going to start getting double-teamed a little bit. He’s already had the No. 1 guy guarding him,” Vaughn said. “The other game, we used him as a screener sometimes to our benefit, so I think he’s learning the attention he is gaining from the other team can be a benefit for us.”

The benefit comes from using that extra attention to warp defenses, particularly in the pick-and-roll.

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Mikal Bridges drives into the Timberwolves defense.

Bridges will be asked to improve as a ball handler and play-maker out of the pick-and-roll.
NBAE via Getty Images

Bridges’ percentage of possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler has nearly doubled since joining the Nets — up to 27.9 percent (going into Friday night) from 14 percent with the Suns.

He’s learning to adjust as teams change their pick-and-roll coverage from game to game — for example, as the Timberwolves did in adjusting center Rudy Gobert’s drop coverage from a loss to the Nets on March 10 to a win Tuesday in which Gobert blocked Bridges’ midrange jumper — or even play to play, as the Pistons tried with centers James Wiseman and Jalen Duren.

“Can he be a step ahead of those adjustments?” Vaughn said. “…So making that adjustment before the defense makes an adjustment. And that’s just seeing things over and over again, where you’re receiving that information quicker and then you use that against the defense. I don’t think you get that without being put in those positions over and over again.”

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Do that, and Bridges can go from being a 3-and-D guy to an All-Star.

And the Nets’ rebuild can go from tedious to turbocharged.