Great defense isn’t as sexy as great offense. That’s an unfortunate reality that is tough to accept for somebody who really appreciates some good two-way basketball.
However, defense still plays a major part in winning championships.
There’s no denying the offensive brilliance of the Golden State Warriors has been a huge part of their success, but the team wouldn’t be a dynasty if it weren’t also elite on the other side of the floor. In turn, perhaps the media and fans should start to appreciate the value of getting stops just a little more.
Rudy Gobert’s All-Star Game snub was this year’s first sign of how blind we can be to the importance of great defense. He is single-handedly responsible for the Utah Jazz becoming a postseason staple in the wicked Western Conference, but a message was sent to him that he should probably focus more on dunking if he wants to get any type of recognition.
A similar message was sent a few weeks ago, as Phoenix Suns youngster Mikal Bridges was left off each of the All-Rookie teams. While it might not be as talked about as the Gobert snub, it was just as disappointing.
It’s hard to call somebody who plays for a 19-63 team a winner, but that’s exactly what Bridges is. That’s what he was at Villanova, and that’s what he’ll be as long as he continues playing basketball.
What makes Bridges so impressive is his willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team. That starts with what he is capable of doing on the defensive end.
Despite being a rookie, Bridges constantly drew the opposing team’s best offensive wing. Considering the Suns’ miserable record, you might think that went poorly. But it was actually the exact opposite. The rookie fought every minute he was on the floor, and made things difficult for his man on a nightly basis.
Bridges finished the year with the seventh most deflections (223) in the NBA, and he was also ninth in the league in total steals (129). On top of that, his steal-to-turnover ratio (1.78) was the second highest ever for a rookie. And who is the one guy that was better? Just Kawhi Leonard, who is arguably the best defender in basketball.
Bridges’ length is obviously a major factor on the defensive end, but his basketball IQ also helps. There are plenty of players with all the tools in the world, but they can’t play a lick of defense — Bridges’ defensive awareness is uncanny. He knows exactly when to jump passing lanes, and he rarely lets his feet get tangled up in isolation. His man is always in front of him.
But Bridges isn’t just an Andre Roberson type. He’s got plenty of game and that is only going to improve moving forward. But for now, Bridges’ two-way importance to Phoenix was what allowed him to finish the season with the fourth-highest VORP (value over replacement player) in the rookie class. It’s also what made the Suns 3.5 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass.
Bridges came into his rookie year with a reputation as a shooter who was capable of creating space with precise off-ball movement. In his final season at Villanova, Bridges buried 43.5 percent of his triples. He did so on 6.0 attempts per game.
That brilliant shooting didn’t exactly carry over in his first year with the Suns, though. In his first season in the league, Bridges shot just 33.5 percent from the outside. Part of that definitely had to do with the difficulties that come with adjusting to the further three-point line, but it also didn’t help that he changed his form after school.
However, if anybody can be trusted to turn his shot around, it’s Bridges. In his first year as part of Villanova’s rotation, Bridges shot just 29.9 percent from three. The following year, Bridges canned 39.3 percent of his threes. And as previously mentioned, he was shooting 43.5 percent on his way out. He did all of that while shooting a good percentage from the charity stripe—which he also did as a rookie—and that is generally a good indicator of whether or not a guy’s jumper can improve.
Bridges has more to his game than just a jumper, too. While he appeared one-dimensional coming out of college, he flashed other skills in his first season. One of those was his ability to attack closeouts. While Bridges’ jumper wasn’t as good as it could have been last season, opposing teams still respected it enough to contest when he was in ready to let it fly. But when they bit too hard, he knew exactly how to use his length to get to the basket.
But an unexpected aspect of his game that specifically manifested itself late in the year was Bridges’ playmaking. The 22-year-old finished last season seventh in assists (129) among all rookies. That’s a pretty significant number, as he operates off the ball far more than his peers.
From February to the end of the regular season, Bridges also had 12 games in which he recorded at least four assists. That’s not a crazy number by any means, but we’re talking about a wing that was the fifth option on his team on most nights. As that part of his game expands, Bridges is only going to get tougher and tougher to figure out.
So if it’s not clear to you why Bridges deserved to make one of the two All-Rookie squads then that’s okay. It’s not like that can change now, and there are obviously plenty of players that impressed during their rookie seasons. But just know that Bridges’ rookie year will be the last time he flies under the radar.
All of the indicators suggest that we’re looking at a guy that is set to be one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D wings of the future. And playing alongside one of the league’s more promising young cores, it’s only a matter of time before Bridges is shining in the moments that will suit his style best: the postseason.