Phoenix Suns: Will Mikal Bridges Emerge as a Third Star this Year?

Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Elite two-way wing play is the recipe for success in the modern NBA. The Phoenix Suns found their guy for that in the 2018 NBA Draft, grooming him organically from that point on.

During the 2020-21 NBA season, just his third campaign, Mikal Bridges evolved into an elite role player, propelling the Suns to the NBA Finals. His potential suggests that in time, he will become much more than that. But as it stands right now, he looks like a second hand option for the Suns to play through.

Coming off a year where Bridges finished fourth on the Suns in points per game during both the playoffs and regular season, many expect him to again take a back seat approach and embody Phoenix’s fourth best player. However, I foresee him achieving much more than that.

Why Mikal Bridges will have a Breakout Year for the Phoenix Suns

Elite efficiency on spot up shooting, defense against primary ball handlers, and an innate sense for cutting and slashing already represent Bridges’s peak attributes as player. But in terms of trends and his trajectory, look no further than his continued uptick in points per game each season as evidence for his growth. Since his initiation into the league, his scoring averages have ascended from 8.3 points per game, to 9.1 per game, and most recently to 13.5 per game.

In spurts, Bridges can assume Phoenix’s third-man scoring duties. Last year during the postseason, he scored more points than his regular season average nine different times, including a 27-point outburst during the NBA Finals.

All that, combined with Bridges’s ancillary offensive abilities away from the ball and top-end defense make his growth arguably the most valuable entity for Phoenix right now. Due to that, he represents the strongest force in deciding just how successful the team can be.

The Suns compensated Bridges for those factors this summer, agreeing to a lucrative extension and locking him up for the foreseeable future.

Advanced metrics also back up the reasoning behind Bridges’s extension, as well as the likelihood for his continued growth.

Last season, Bridges posted a rare shooting split of .647/.425/.840 in two-point field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage. He ended up ranked 25th in true shooting percentage across the entire league as well.

Working well within the mid-range primarily helped elevate these statistics for Bridges. Last season, he shot a career-high 53.3 percent from there, which jumped +14 percentage points from the season prior.

Bridges easily creates scoring opportunities for himself off the dribble around the mid-range especially, which remains an invaluable skill during tight games. With this, Bridges improved his effective field goal percentage each season thus far during his career as well. The emphasis now falls only on him maintaining this consistency in order to fully embody a “third star” role.

While both Chris Paul and Devin Booker create from the mid-range in isolation, Bridges’s shots come from attacking defenders on their closeouts. He is fundamentally sound with everything he does, and with his talent off the dribble, he shows great patience and reads angles well to eliminate said defenders before pulling up.

Moving on from his shooting, Bridges’s abilities as a cutter also deserve some appraisal. He scores at a hight rate under the rim both during half court sets and by filling the lane properly via transition opportunities.

Last season, Bridges finished at the rim at a 76.0 percent clip, which ranked in the 93rd percentile. He also shot frequently at the rim to begin with, tallying 205 attempts which ranked in the 72nd percentile.

Oddly enough, the Suns played as a slower-paced team last year, on-brand with Chris Paul’s preferences. They averaged 2.8 points per possession in transition, but saw a major uptick in frequency of transition opportunities with Bridges on the floor.

That dynamic is invaluable, especially for a team that often lacks in frequency of attempts at the rim.

Bridges’s ability to visualize lanes even before they open up primarily allows him to operate this well as a cutter. He takes advantage of sleeping off-ball defenders or draws extra attention before kicking it out to either open shooters or Ayton down low.

While doing all this, Bridges never put the ball in harm’s way, with a +2.22 assist to turnover ratio for his career. With the ball in hand, he makes split second decisions on what to do, and makes the correct ones far more often than not.

But at the defensive end, Bridges is as sound of a defender there is in the league. His condor-like seven-foot-one wingspan and six-foot-seven frame, paired up with wiry strength, lateral quickness, and quick hands give him all the prerequisites to be effective on both guards and wings.

Bridges routinely blows up dribble-handoffs, as well as pick-and-rolls with his reach and timing. He disrupts even the most consistent opposing offenses, forcing them away from of their initial sets.

Bridges also shows no fear when sticking with his defenders as they make transition runs. Against the Los Angeles Clippers during the Western Conference Finals last year, he repeatedly shut down Reggie Jackson, Paul George, and Marcus Morris. This represents exactly what he brings to the table as a defender, matching up effectively versus guards, wings, and post players.

His IQ and present-moment awareness skills jump off the charts, and he remains effective while staying out of foul trouble—a coach’s dream with regard to any primary defender.

Knowing his team’s surrounding strengths and weaknesses, Bridges tends to defend guards more often than not, which allows Paul avoid expending all his energy at the defensive end and continue his offensive excellence. His wide skillset also allows the Suns to pair him with Ayton during most pick and roll coverages, which properly positions everyone in their defense behind them.

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The Suns missed on their chance to win it all last year ever so slightly. This year though, Bridges’s individual growth poises to raise the ceiling for Phoenix, as they look to amend for the dramatic fall off which occurred during that heartbreaking championship series.