Mikal Bridges ready for new role helping initiate Phoenix Suns offense this season
Suns fans will see more of Mikal Bridges running the point this season.
He won't just be on the wing sticking threes, slashing to the paint to finish plays, blocking shots or on the island defending against their opponent's top scorers.
After Bridges was last season's Defensive Player of the Year runner-up to Celtics' Marcus Smart, Suns coach Monty Williams wants to add more responsibilities to Bridges and his so-called "twin," Cam Johnson, who's also starting at the four spot to replace Jae Crowder, to occasionally initiate the offense.
Williams wants to them to manage that duty with primary ball handler Chris Paul to take the load off him bringing the ball up the floor.
“Those guys have the ability to facilitate, and I just haven’t given them the chance," Williams said about Bridges and Johnson after the Suns' third day at training camp on Thursday.
"We’ve talked about being comfortable with uncomfortable change. There’s gonna be times where it doesn’t look great but I think that’s where they’re gonna grow. And hopefully as the season moves forward when we get to a place where we’re hitting our stride and moving into the playoffs, hopefully those guys are more comfortable because we let them explore and make mistakes and figure some things out. But they both have the capability to expand the offense that way and that part is exciting when you think about those opportunities.”
The Suns' building Bridges into one of the NBA's most complete players and potential third All-Star alongside Booker and Paul is one of the team's best player development accomplishments since he entered the league.
When Bridges first came to Phoenix, he was a gangly 21-year-old kid with huge feet and a long wingspan that made him look like a stick figure running around the court.
Bridges was widely viewed as just a 3-and-D player when he first entered the league.
His physical development has steadily improved, like his scoring averages (8.3 points per game as a rookie, 9.1 his second year, 13.5 his third, 14.2 last season).
On Monday, Bridges entered the media room donning the Suns' new Nike Statement Edition uniform, which was filled out by his swollen shoulders, defined triceps, slightly thicker legs, and chest somewhat more pushing out the PHX logo on the more than it was at last year's Media Day.
He said at practice on Friday that he has experience bringing the ball up to start the offense when he was in high school. Plus, he's a product of his Hall of Fame college coach Jay Wright's offensive system at Villanova.
"I think the biggest thing is I grew my work ethic in college," Bridges said. "And even at 'Nova we played four-out (on the perimeter), even five-out when we had Omari (Spellman) at the five, so everybody had an option where just anybody can bring it up and we all play.
"Just being on a talented team in college and how Coach Wright tricks everything where anybody can be a playmaker helps for right now."
That Villanova offensive set parallels Williams' offensive philosophy.
“I just think when you bring the ball down the floor, it’s more than just dribbling," Williams said. "We talk to our guys a ton about making plays, not running plays. And I think when you’re bringing the ball down the floor you want to be able to make plays, especially when the defense is pressuring you.
"It’s like an old school rule: if somebody’s pressuring you full-court, forget the play, just take off and something good will happen.”
Bridges is the Suns' Ironman who hasn't missed a game in his career, and played the most minutes among all players last season.
Williams lamented after their Game 7 loss in the West semifinals to Dallas that he possibly wore down the 37-year-old Paul's stamina by not managing his minutes well.
But Williams doesn't worry about the same for Bridges. He only worries about working the team too hard if the workhorse Bridges loses his stamina, and said he will give the team a day off if Bridges ever tell him he's tired.
“I’ve never even thought about that. Mikal’s a guy that loves to play. We did the same things with him on off-days. We’ll black the gym out so he can’t come in. I don’t know if there’s somebody that can do that, can step into that role," Williams said.
"He and Book play a ton of minutes. That’s who we are, that’s how we’ve been effective. When I look at the old school guys before all this load management stuff came in, almost all the top guys played the same amount of minutes that Mikal plays and nobody even talked about it."
Without his career numbers as the Suns' Swiss Army knife (11.3 points per game, 51/37/83 shooting splits, 3.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 turnovers), the Suns would have a major missing link that helped enable the 8-0 run in the Orlando bubble in 2020, their NBA Finals appearance the next year, and their league-best and franchise-high 64 regular season wins in 2021-22.
Bridges is usually Phoenix's most reliable defender when he's on the island guarding their opponents' best scorers, or helping their pace when they turn defense to offense.
Bridges also had the second-highest plus-minus average 7.02 on the team behind Paul's 7.08 last season, and he had the league's seven-best defensive rating (109.6). According to StatMuse, the Suns have a 111.9 defensive rating during his career, and had the third-best in that category for last season behind Golden State and Boston, the teams which played in June's finals.
Johnson said on Thursday that he and Bridges worked out every day this summer at the team’s practice facility, no days off.
“I think he’s just improved all around," Johnson said about Bridges. "I mean ballhandling, shooting, being able to create, getting stronger in the weight room. It wasn’t that we’re going to get better at one specific thing. I thought we got better as basketball players, and he’s playing really well right now.”
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