Like many of his Brooklyn Nets teammates, Mikal Bridges limped through a disappointing close to the 2023-24 season. After a 32-50 campaign, it was no surprise Bridges looked beaten down as he took the podium for Monday’s exit interview.

“Tough,” he said when describing the season in one word. “It was really tough, just personally. I got a couple gray hairs.”

Bridges opens up on mental battle during letdown season

While Bridges’ Nets teammates shared the misery of the letdown season, none of them shouldered his expectations. After a 30-game stretch averaging 26.1 points on 47/38/39 shooting splits to close 2022-23, he entered the year with All-Star buzz as Brooklyn’s number one option.

So naturally, when the team struggled, Bridges took the brunt of the criticism, and it was not without merit. The Villanova product looked like an afterthought as the season progressed, averaging 15.4 points on 39.5 percent shooting over his last 29 appearances. As the struggles mounted, he drifted further into the background of Brooklyn’s offense.

While he briefly touched on changes to Brooklyn's offense and greater attention from opposing defenses this season, Bridges focused primarily on his mental struggles when discussing his regression.

“I think I just didn’t have the right headspace,” he said. “I think I was just too mental on myself on wanting to win so bad and being so frustrated on things… it kinda took away from everything. I play the game with joy, that’s always how I played. And when I got people asking me and talking to me about, ‘You don’t look the same’, that’s strictly off my emotions, that’s means something, that means that I’m not there how I wanna be.

“Being a main piece and teams throwing different coverages [at me], obviously that’s a part of it, but I think mentally I wasn’t as strong and positive as I should’ve been, which brings it down to the offensive end and how I’m playing and being so frustrated. And I think towards the end, being so beat up mentally and lacking confidence, I think that hurt me.”

Nets remain confident in Bridges through struggles

Brooklyn Nets small forward Mikal Bridges (1) dribbles the ball against Detroit Pistons center James Wiseman (13) during the second half at Barclays Center.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to mental fatigue, Bridges' heavy physical load appeared to have taken its toll. The 27-year-old has played in 474 straight games, ranking fourth in the NBA in minutes this season after leading the league the previous two. He finished 2023-24 averaging 19.6 points on 56% true shooting, compared to 26.1 points on 60.7% true shooting with Brooklyn last season.

The decline in production will draw questions about the Nets' future plans given their intentions to build around Bridges. General Manager Sean Marks rebuffed numerous trade inquiries for the forward at the deadline, including a Houston Rockets package that reportedly would have returned Jalen Green and several draft picks from the James Harden trade.

But Marks and the Nets sustained that Bridges is a core building block through the late-season rut, reaffirming their commitment to him at numerous points. Cam Johnson, Bridges’ long-time teammate and close friend, echoed that sentiment on Monday.

“It's not him, specifically. It's a team-wide thing, it's across the board,” he said when asked about Bridges’ struggles. “Our team identity and execution wasn't where it should be… But it's nothing on him, it's nothing on his shoulders. It's nothing extra, a burden that he has to bear, it was across the board.

“I'm proud of him, and I've seen strides in his game, I've seen strides in the way he sees and reads the game and his ability to play with the ball in his hand and his shot… So there's no worry, there's no doubt [about Mikal], People are so quick to be like, ‘Oh, maybe he's not who we thought he was.' But he's only getting better. I got full faith, and everybody went through the same thing the second half of the year.”

Bridges’ breakout close to last season raised lofty expectations entering 2023-24, some of which were unrealistic. With his sixth season in the books, it’s clear he’s not a number one or likely even a number two option on a title team.

However, the late-season stretch doesn’t erase the elite flashes we saw from Bridges after joining the Nets. And while the regression was eye-opening at times, it was clear he wasn’t his usual self mentally amid the team’s dysfunction.

Bridges admitted this much during his last interview of 2023-24, insisting he’d learn from it and return with a revamped mindset next season. After passing up a rebuild and putting a large portion of their eggs in his basket, the Nets can’t afford anything else.