The Brooklyn Nets faced one major criticism after sending Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns: They traded an all-time great and didn’t receive a star in return. Just 22 games into his Nets tenure, Mikal Bridges has already silenced that narrative.

The 26-year-old continued his breakout stretch in a win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, pouring in 42 points on 16-of-24 shooting from the field and 5-of-9 from three. Bridges never scored 40 points in four-and-a-half years with Phoenix. He's done it three times already for the Nets. The former lottery pick has scored 30 or more points 10 times with Brooklyn after reaching that threshold just twice with the Suns. Overall, Bridges is averaging 27.5 points on 50/43/91 shooting splits since joining the Nets at the trade deadline.

The Villanova product's workload in Phoenix gradually evolved while playing a complementary role to Devin Booker, and later, Chris Paul. With Booker missing an extended period early this season, the Suns leaned on Bridges heavily as a shot-creator, a role in which he flashed his raw potential. He's built upon that stint in Brooklyn, blossoming into a dependable lead scorer.

“I always say I got traded at the right time,” Bridges said postgame Friday. “I had a nice rhythm at the end [in Phoenix]. In the beginning, I was struggling [in Brooklyn]. It was tough trying to do everything offensively and defensively. But I found a good little groove and even the games where I might not have shot that great just watching film with my coaches and a lot of shots were just in and out or right there.”

“I've found a groove towards the end because I just had a lot of reps but it just helped me to prepare me for this moment right now. I'm just trying to keep going. “

Hawks head coach Quin Snyder coached against Bridges in the Western Conference during four seasons with the Utah Jazz. Snyder said postgame that he's always regarded Bridges as a high-level offensive player. However, he's been impressed with the Nets wing's ability to sustain his efficiency in a high-usage role.

“The usage is so much higher because of the makeup of their team. There’s things that he’s doing that he’s done before. He was just playing with an all-NBA player and a hall-of-fame player in Phoenix,” Synder said. “Clearly he’s been working. He’s been efficient forever, he’s made those threes. He’s just more aggressive right now because he has to be, and that’s a credit to him”

Bridges' three-level scoring repertoire was on full display Friday. He continued his mid-range brilliance, an area in which he's shooting 50 percent with the Nets.

Bridges has carried over his elite spot-up shooting to the Nets, converting 43.7 percent of his threes off the catch. More importantly, he's become increasingly comfortable taking threes off the dribble, a skill that bodes well for his ceiling as a high-usage scorer.

Throughout his last two seasons with Phoenix, Bridges shot 19-of-59 (32.2 percent) on pull-up threes while attempting just 0.4 per game. Over his last 15 games, he's shot 17-of-36 (47.2 percent) while increasing those attempts to 2.4 per game.

Earlier in his Nets tenure, defenders would frequently sag off Bridges at the top of the key, surrendering pull-up threes. His improved shooting off the bounce from all areas of the floor has forced opponents farther out on the perimeter, opening up drives where he can finish using his long strides and 7'1″ wingspan.

In addition to his shot-making, Bridges has become increasingly adept at drawing fouls, something he attributed to watching Booker and Paul for years, as well as guarding some of the league's top scorers. He's attempting 6.6 free throws per game with Brooklyn, the 16th-most in the league during that span. He's converted on 91.1 percent of those attempts, the NBA's best percentage among 40 players to attempt 5.2 or more per game.

Following the win over Atlanta, Bridges said he always knew he had the potential to carry the load in a lead-scoring role:

“In Phoenix, it just took a little more time because you got guys like CP3 and Book. C's gonna be a Hall of Famer, Book's gonna be one when it's all said and done,” he said. “I knew one day I was going to keep growing. There was no timetable that was rushed I was just trying to keep getting better every single year.”

“Obviously it was always in the back of my head. One day, I've just got to build to get there. You can't just get there in one year you got to keep building and eventually things line up. Obviously, I've been grateful to be in this situation. I just had a little jumpkick to what I wanted when it was all said and done.”

Bridges had been known as a perennial defensive player of the year candidate with Phoenix. Amazingly, he's continued his brilliance on that end while shouldering a heavy offensive burden in Brooklyn, drawing the opponent's best scorer on a nightly basis. Bridges' tenacious defense Friday held Hawks star Trae Young to 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting.

Following a career-high 45 points in a February 15th win over the Miami Heat, Bridges was critical of his defensive performance, saying his main focus has been and always will be on that end of the floor.

“Defense always comes first. I'm still kinda mad that I gave up a couple buckets there,” he said. “That's just who I am. I just think defense wins championships.”

Bridges' two-way brilliance becomes more impressive when taking into account he holds the NBA's longest active games-played streak. In the era of load management, he has appeared in 387 consecutive contests. The streak extends to his college career at Villanova, where he never missed a game over three seasons.

That dependability is one of the many factors that have made Bridges a favorite among his teammates in Phoenix, and now, Brooklyn. The five-year veteran was named a finalist for the NBA's teammate of the year award Thursday.

Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said Bridges has a handshake with every one of his Nets teammates, something he views as a microcosm of his ability to grow relationships.

“How he learned all those handshakes,” Vaughn said when asked what impresses him most. “That just tells you who he is. He spent the time to think about that person, what the idiosyncrasies of them are, the differences, and I’m gonna make a teammate that coincides with their personality. He's the ultimate teammate, you love that about him, a winner, a competitor, but also there’s something about having someone on the bus and in the locker room that makes it special.”

Dorian Finney-Smith, who Brooklyn also acquired at the deadline in exchange for Kyrie Irving, broke out of a shooting slump during the win over Atlanta. The former Maverick drained four of his six three-point attempts and credited Bridges for his support.

“He’s showing his whole game, but he’s also doing a good job of telling me to get my confidence back,” Finney-Smith said. “I had played him a bunch of times so he knows what I can do. It feels good when he’s scoring 40 but he’s worrying about me because I’m not shooting it how I want to.”

The trades of Durant and Irving were a crushing blow to the Nets' title hopes this season. They were the culmination of a three-year failure of epic proportions. But Bridges' expedient rise to stardom has given Nets fans hope. Following an and-one for his final basket of the game Friday, Bridges sauntered to the free-throw line to MVP chants from the Brooklyn crowd.

The moment was surreal for a player who was caught off-guard by a life-altering trade six short weeks ago.

“It was crazy. I obviously wasn’t expecting that,” Bridges said postgame. “It’s just a lot of love, man. That's the biggest thing I take away from being here. It's just the love from the city and the fans. Even when I'm home or walking around people are just big Nets fans and showing love. It's just a blessing, man.

“They made me feel so welcome at a time when I was pretty upset about leaving Phoenix because of all my friends and all my teammates and the staff,” he continued. “They made me just be so into Brooklyn right away just from the love they've been showing. So I thank them a lot.”

Bridges is under contract for $70 million over the next three seasons. With the salary cap set to rise, that deal has the potential to be the NBA’s best value contract. Brooklyn's new centerpiece has exceeded expectations in dramatic fashion following the biggest trade in franchise history. And Vaughn said he only sees Bridges' workload expanding as his star shines brighter and brighter.

“He’s in positions that he wasn’t in a few months ago, and I think he’s really enjoyed having the burden, I guess if we want to use that word, of scoring for us and being an offensive cog for us on a nightly basis,” Vaughn said. “This is all part of his growth… He puts in the work, he’s present all the time, he pours his soul into the team, and he deserves this.”

“We’re gonna keep putting more on his plate.”