When former General Manager Ryan McDonough traded up to select small forward Mikal Bridges, fans assumed at that point that T.J. Warren was on the verge of being traded. Now a month into the season, and Suns fans might be thinking a bit differently.
When the Phoenix Suns selected Josh Jackson with the fourth overall pick in 2017, they sold the selection as not only a coup d’etat as former General Manager Ryan McDonough apparently had Josh Jackson snub the Boston Celtics forcing them to pass on Jackson and select Jayson Tatum, but also that Jackson could have been the number one overall pick with the skill-set to be a future Kawhi Leonard-type, a tremendous two-way player.
But now, one season and one month into his career, and Jackson has been relegated to the bench having lost his starting job, even seeing his minutes dwindle from 23.0 over the first seven games this season (including three starts) to only 12.7 per game over his last nine games.
Jackson is neither the scoring threat he was billed to be (he is shooting a paltry 40.5% from the field and 30.3% from beyond the arc with a 75 ORtg Per-100 possessions, third worst on the team ahead of only Dragan Bender and De’Anthony Melton), the passing-threat he was supposed to be as a tall ball-handler (5.2 turnovers per 36-min which leads the team), nor the defensive threat that was supposed to be the hallmark of his game (only .7 steals and .7 blocks per game).
T.J. Warren, on the other hand, has upped his game considerably since last season, averaging 51.0% from the field, 46.6% from beyond the arc, and since becoming the regular starting small forward: 24.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks, and 55.5% from the field and 46.9% from 3.
Warren is so hot right now, over his last six games, he is one of only three players in the NBA to average at least 24.0 points per game while shooting a minimum of 50% from the field and 45% from beyond the arc.
And then there is Mikal Bridges.
While Warren has usurped Jackson as the team’s primary starting small forward (likely ending the chances that T.J. will be the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award winner this season), Bridges has now usurped Jackson in the rotation, even starting his first career game versus San Antonio, starting three consecutive games through November 19.
Unlike Jackson who last season got starts and extended minutes because of both necessity and a blatant attempt to tank, Bridges has earned his ever-increasing floor time, and potentially now a number of starts this season.
Granted Bridges has two additional years of college experience over Jackson including two NCAA Championship runs which certainly helped the rookie be better prepared for the NBA, Jackson was a primary scorer last season for the Suns over the second half of the year (averaging 17.2 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting a decent 44.0% from the floor) and with his adjusted shot over the summer, was supposed to have become a better 3-point shooter heading into this season (he has improved his shot by 4% over last season thus far which is actually a pretty good improvement should the percentage hold for the season, although he is still only at 30.3% on the year on 33 attempts).
In games that Bridges has received at least 20 minutes of floor time (9 games thus far), he is averaging 11.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.4 steals while shooting 52.4% from the field and 45.7% from the field (his shooting stats obviously his most important as of course other stats are going to rise with more minutes).
And while their individual defense advanced metric of Defensive Rating is very similar (Bridges as a 112 DRtg to Jackson’s 113), it should be noted how similar the two player’s ratings are so far (with Bridges’ being slightly better than Jackson’s) showing how Jackson isn’t standing apart from his rookie teammate.
At this point, based solely on what we have seen from the two players through 16 games, it stands nearly indisputable that Mikal Bridges has had a better start and looks more like the two-way player that we all thought Josh Jackson was supposed to be.
Bridges is the Jackson we all thought the Suns were getting when they took the former Kansas product.
If Mikal keeps this up, becoming a consistent scorer, especially from the outside, while also maintaining a solid defensive disposition, Mikal might just overtake Jackson in the depth chart never to relinquish the role.
If so, will it mean that at some point this season or next offseason Jackson might be placed on the trade block, used to help procure either the point guard or power forward that the starting lineup so desperately needs?
While Bridges is only six months older than Jackson, he still has a full year of college/NBA experience more than Jackson and might just be showing how this additional work has made him a year more well-rounded, meaning that Phoenix should at least give Jackson this full year and next season as well before actually making any drastic decisions on Jackson’s future- outside of maybe a blockbuster trade that they just cannot pass up.
Either way, with Warren having taken a large step forward and Bridges already proving to be a solid NBA player with far more to go in his own development, regardless of what Jackson does the rest of 2018-19, Phoenix has a very solid duo between Warren and Bridges at small forward (with Bridges also playing a shooting guard when Devin Booker starts at point guard), that could already be seen as the team’s core at that position for many years to come.