For the best seven years, the Villanova Wildcats and I have developed a friendly relationship. After marrying into a family that has had generations graduate from the beautifully constructed private college that’s carefully tucked into the corner of a northwest suburb of Philadelphia, it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Over the past three years especially, I’ve developed a feel for the players and Wright’s coaching style/patterns/philosophies. I’ve come to appreciate the development of the recruits he brings onto campus. I love the leadership and the pride that his juniors and seniors always seem to possess. I’m stunned at how well the underclassmen perform when they are thrown to the fire after some line of wrist injuries.
Guys like JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hillard, James Bell, Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu, Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins are some of the most lovable college basketball players of the past six years and four of them (at least) you haven’t heard from since they graduated.
That’s what speaks so much to me about the success that Villanova has sustained. It’s not because of one-and-done players. Year in and year out, the Wildcats are one of the (if not THE) most balanced and fundamental TEAMS in college basketball because of guys that come into the program and want to stay in the program. While Wright may have his fair share of Top-100 guys, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that any of them are or have been “elite”…
Well, at least until now.
This years team (who has spent a hell of a lot of time ranked in the Top-5) feels a little different. Both Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges continue to impress not just me, but many of those that prognosticate about the professional futures of college basketball players.
I’ll eventually get into Brunson (who could launch himself into the first round of the upcoming NBA Draft with the exposure that is surely coming for Villanova once Conference Tournaments begin), but today I want to focus on Mikal Bridges; the one player outside of the projected Top-5 I think is most suitable for the Chicago Bulls right now.
And apparently, I’m not alone:
Standing at 6’7″ and 210 pounds (with a 7’1″ wingspan), Bridges has become the perfect vision of an NBA “3 and D” small forward. In 27 games this year, the junior from Malvern is averaging 16.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. He’s shooting 49.8% from the field, 41.1% from three and 83% from the charity stripe (for a true shooting percentage of 62.8%!!!!!).
He’s also got an absurd Box Plus/Minus of 11.7.
What Sticks Out?
Before we get to what sticks out about Bridges game, I think it would be a necessary exercise to look at Chicago’s immediate needs, who’s running the front office, what type of player they always seem to fall in love with and the current outlook in the Eastern Conference before even getting into what Bridges can bring to the table.
Let’s start with the former. After seeing the maturation of Lauri Markkanen, the growth of Kris Dunn and the way in which Zach LaVine has come back from his knee injury, you would have to assume that DougPax’s tank plan sped up a bit. I don’t think its crazy for the Bulls front office to start thinking about how they can catapult their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture as early as next year; especially when you consider the possibilities their vaunted cap flexibility can garner them and the two picks they have in the upcoming draft.
Now, in terms of GarPax themselves, I believe that when they’ve been put into situations like the one they’ll soon have this summer (drafting in the middle of the lottery and late in the draft), they tend to prefer selecting the upperclassmen/program guy with the highest floor.
Since John Paxson was promoted to the VP of Basketball Relations in 2003, the Bulls have been in the middle of the lottery three times. Once in 2003 when they selected Kirk Hinrich (senior) with the seventh pick, again in 2007 when they selected Joakim Noah (junior) ninth and this past year when they swapped the 16th pick for the seventh to get Markannen.
In fact, since 2003, the Bulls have picked/acquired 14 upperclassmen (if my math serves me correctly) in the draft including Chris Duhon (senior), Ben Gordon (junior), Taj Gibson (junior), Jimmy Butler (senior), Tony Snell (junior), traded for Doug McDermott (senior) and Denzel Valentine (senior) just to name a few. In that same time period, they’ve drafted/acquired seven underclassmen total including Luol Deng (freshman), Tyrus Thomas (freshman), Derrick Rose (freshman), James Johnson (sophomore), Marquis Teague (freshman), Bobby Portis (sophomore) and Markkanen (freshman).
If those lists don’t at least prove the thesis that the Bulls front office prefer drafting players with higher floors, I don’t know what else will.
Now, with all of that said, there are two glaring needs for the Bulls heading into the 2018-19 season; center and small forward. Personally, I’m of the belief that this Bulls team can raise it’s level of play with an impactful, smart “3 and D” wing player more so than it can with a young, development piece at center.
Which brings us all the way back to Bridges and what sticks out; he’s “3 and D” ready now. He’s the type of guy you want to build into the offense with the Jimmy Butler 3 as he doesn’t need to have the ball to be effective (the Bulls have enough of those kind of guys already). He can be a secondary or third scorer in Fred Hoiberg’s offense with his ability to put the ball on the floor and blow by help defenders (he’s got as quick of a first step as anyone his size) that collapse onto Markkanen or LaVine or shoot from outside.
The more and more you watch him the more you realize how crafty he is without the ball. Check out this little play from the start of the Xavier game the other night. I watched Bridges set this up for three plays in a row; each time doing something different. He baits his defender, feels him start to cheat towards the wing to deny the pass (which Bridges did the possession before) and simply curled for an easy deuce:
On the defensive end of the floor, he might be the best on ball defender in college basketball right now. With his frame and shoulders, he will be able to not only survive in the post against bigger forwards, but he can stick with guards out on the wing because of his elite lateral agility. Even in the rare situations that a guard might have the advantage in that department, Bridges’ length (again, his arms stretch out to 7’1″) swings the odds back in his favor.
Before I go on, I just want to ask one thing: Do you know how hard it is to get past a dude with reach like that? He’s always in the way. He’s always in a passing lane. He’s always suffocating you.
The thing I like most about Bridges is that he never takes a play off. Take the one below for example. Bridges initially prevents the start of of Xavier’s set by staying close to his man on the wing and denying the entry pass (even the illusion of his arms is too much to fit a pass in sometimes). After the ball gets reversed, Bridges stays tight on his assignment’s hip and fights over the top of the dribble hand off; getting an offensive foul called for his efforts. After the turnover, Bridges tries to push the tempo up the floor for an easy bucket but gets stopped near the block. As he slowly backs his way into the post, he gets not one but two help defenders to bite down on him, flips the ball to the top of the key and slips behind the eyes of the D, who are all locked in on the ball. He fills into an open space that Eric Paschall can see him in and…
These types of sequences happen all the time when you watch Villanova. It’s something that I, along with Wright expect:
“He just gradually got better and better,” Wright said. “He knows this year he’s the leader, he’s the captain, so he’s playing with a lot more freedom, a lot more aggressiveness. . . . He knows it’s his turn and he’s ready for it. He’s worked hard to improve his game, mentally and skill-wise.
“It’s just character and intelligent. Most kids would just think, ‘Oh, what’s in it for me?’ Mikal loves being a part of a team. He’s smart enough to know that ‘I’m getting better. The world may not see it, but I know I’m getting better and I’m going to show it.”
Wright compared Bridges’ growth as a player to that of former Villanova guards Kyle Lowry and Josh Hart, who both became NBA first-round draft picks. Lowry is a three-time NBA All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist, while Hart, now with the Lakers, was a first-team All-American for the Wildcats in 2017.
“That’s the kind of guys we’ve had,” Wright said. “Guys that normally have a chance to be pros and they want to work hard to get there. . . . It might take them some time, but they have the character and the intelligence to work through that. [Bridges] could be, in the end, one of the best in terms of where he came from.”
I know that that Bridges may not get the juices flowing as much as guys that are projected to go in first few picks, but what’s wrong with getting a player that is already solid as hell and has an NBA ready body and mind. The things that he’s picked up from being a program guy under Wright and his coaching staff could be paramount for this young Bulls team. Just at the surface level, pairing Bridges with Dunn allows LaVine the ability to hide defensively while simultaneously maintaining the space on the offensive side of the ball.
In an area of the draft that is projected to feature more question marks than guarantees (Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter, Miles Bridges), Mikal Bridges is as much of sure thing as there is. He’s a 21-year old who has played for a world class program, won a title and matured from a Top-100 ranked recruit to an NBA lottery pick.
I’ll take that every day.