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The Total Package: Examining Mikal Bridges Work On Defense

Dakota Schmidt writes about the various ways that Mikal Bridges shines on defense

Seton Hall v Villanova Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

On April 4th, 2016, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels 77-74 in the NCAA Tournament Final. That game became an instant classic due to a tremendous buzzer-beating 3 from Villanova forward Kris Jenkins that pushed the team to their first title win since 1985.

Although Jenkins capped off the tournament with a jaw-dropping play, the team wouldn’t have made it to that title game against UNC without a strong cast of experienced players. That 2015-16 squad was led by current NBA/G League talent like Ryan Arcidiacano, Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu and Jenkins.

As those four players led the pack, Philly native Mikal Bridges spent the entirety of the season as a member of the team’s second unit. The redshirt freshman averaged 6.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1 steal on 52% from the field and 30% on perimeter jumpers in only 20 minutes per game.

Bridges made his biggest impact on the defensive end. His combination of a 6’7 frame and tremendous athleticism allowed him to make some pretty big plays. He was more of a question mark on the other end of the floor because his offense mostly came from working the offensive glass or huge rim-rocking like this.

As Bridges’ career with Villanova progressed, so did his offensive arsenal. The biggest progression came from his work as a perimeter shooter as he shot 39% from 3 on 3.1 perimeter attempts in 2016-17 and 43% from beyond the arc on 6 attempts in 2017-18.

That excellent perimeter stroke allowed him to average 17.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game with a jaw-dropping 65% True Shooting Percentage during his junior year. His progression as a perimeter shooter definitely pushed him to his current level as a likely lottery pick in this month’s NBA Draft.

From a physical perspective, Bridges has the tools that NBA GMs dream about as they look for that ideal wing. Standing at 6’7 and 210 pounds, he combines a strong frame with a tremendous 7’0 wingspan. The forward maintains solid lateral quickness and decent hops. He is a strong and athletic player with a solid wingspan that can be asked to defend any position from point guard to power forward/center.

Bridges’ basketball IQ is something that you’d typically see from an NBA veteran rather than a 22-year-old college player. His intelligence is evident in every spectrum of defense. From how he switches, recognizing when to go into passing lanes, working as a help defender and knowing the perfect time to become a help defender, Bridges just stands as a fantastic defensive player.

He often shows no fear when it comes to going from defending a guard, to a center, over the course of a single possession. Bridges being able to maintain that level of versatility is something incredibly rare for an NBA player let alone a young draft prospect. A great example of his ability as a switcher is seen in the play below as he puts himself on three separate Gonzaga players before disrupting a perimeter shot from Josh Perkins.

Aside from his work as a switcher on defense, the best trait for Bridges has to be his work as a ball hawk. As a junior, he averaged 1.5 steals per game, which put him 5th among players in the Big East. That solid average is actually a downgrade from the prior season, as he had 1.67 steals as a sophomore. No matter what his average might be, Bridges is a force whether he’s working in the passing lanes or against an opposing ball-handler.

Among those two different avenues, his best work definitely comes when Bridges does his best Xavier Rhodes impersonation to intercept a pass. Like an elite NFL cornerback, Bridges does a nice job of being able to both reading what the passer is going to do and also react when the ball actually leaves the facilitator’s hands. Once that recognition happens, Bridges is able to use his long 7-foot wingspan to cause a deflection which gives his team an opportunity in transition.

A tremendous example of this is seen in the video below as Bridges seems to recognize that his assignment was going to get the passed to him before the ball even enters the facilitator’s hands. With that acknowledgement, he’s able to push his body in front of the Butler forward as the pass is actually made. As soon as he does that, Bridges uses his hand to deflect the pass and then pushes himself in transition where he finishes with a tremendous slam.

Although it isn’t as common, Bridges does a nice job of being able to force steals when he’s going one-on-one against an opposing ball-handler. That knack is due to the incredible reflexes that he exhibits as he’s capable of just swiping the ball away if the ball-handler gets complacent for a split-second.

Last but not least, Bridges shows a ton of potential as a solid shot blocker. Some of that promise was evident during his time with Villanova as he averaged 1.1 blocks per game during his junior season, which was good enough to have him placed 3rd in the Big East.

That’s evident in this facet of the game as Bridges does a great job of knowing when to leave his assignment and try to block a shot at the rim or mid-range. That aggression really never backfired as Bridges only averaged 2.1 fouls per game.

Alongside his knack as a help defender, the NBA Draft prospect can also force rejections when he’s working against the opposing team’s ball handler. Due to the combination of quick feet and a 7-foot wingspan, Bridges can more than hold his own as an on-ball defender, no matter if he’s working against guards or forwards. That lateral quickness allows him to keep up with a driver even when he gets temporarily caught up in an off-ball screen.

Aside from some lapses as an off-ball defender, he has few flaws on that end of the floor. He may have some initial struggles as he learns to deal with the pace and increased athleticism of pro players, but Bridges definitely has the tools to be a standout defensive player in the NBA for years to come.