So yesterday, I’m sitting in my room doing the preparation work for this article when my roommate wandered in to chat. I had the recent Sacramento Kings vs. Phoenix Suns matchup paused on my laptop screen, so, naturally, he started guessing which player I was researching based off that information.
What if I told you, in a game featuring the lowly Sacramento Kings, it took him 10 tries to pick the right option?
Now, while I will admit that my friend isn’t nearly the devout observer of the sport that I am, this interaction got me thinking, why don’t I hear more about Mikal Bridges?
Well, for starters, his specialty resides on the less celebrated side of the ball. Also, he doesn’t stand out as much as other elite perimeter defenders in the most salient feature on that end of the court: playmaking.
|Player||Stocks Per 48|
|Gary Payton II||4.78|
As you can see from the chart, his rate of “stocks” (steals + blocks) pales in comparison to other notable perimeter defenders. He also doesn’t stand out in often-cited one-number metrics either – placing a pedestrian 80th in our D-DRIP statistic (among players with at least 900 minutes played). And his tracking data outputs bemoan a similar lack of exceptionalism.
The answer is simple. Just watch the games.
Everything starts with the work he’s authored out on the perimeter. As Mark Schindler recently penned for Basketball News: “[Bridges] has by and large been the best wing defender in the NBA this season. He routinely guards the best player on the opposing team, and guards them well.”
Bridges does a great job exercising his seven-foot wingspan to stay attached to defenders and make their existences the equivalent of a word that rhymes with “shell.”
While his execution in the point-of-attack has been stellar, the inherent degree of difficulty of his tasks out there is worth emphasizing.
According to matchup data, 10 of the 20 players he’s guarded for at least 50 partial possessions this season have earned the moniker of All-Star at least once in their careers. He does all this while also leading the league in overall minutes.
Another element of his defense that must be observed firsthand is resiliency in transition. This season, the Suns have made a concerted effort to increase their pace on offense. However, such ambition often comes with the unintended consequence of weakened transition defense. But this hasn’t been the case in Phoenix (T-3rd best transition defense in the league), and that’s thanks in large part to Bridges:
While the more entertainment-friendly clips highlighted above don’t fully capture it, his mastery of the fastbreak prevention subtleties is sublime as well. He’s quick to identify unaccounted-for trailers, leverages his length to eradicate passing lanes, and uses his surprising strength to halt the drives of would-be penetrators.
One other thing you might have noticed from the above montage is the amount of surface area Bridges had to cover. He’s currently the league leader in miles traveled on defense per game.
Bridges manages this workload alongside an offensive usage almost identical to last year’s career high – a primetime indicator of the robust nature of his motor. His seemingly unlimited tank enables him to maintain a highly engaged defensive stance. Even when he’s off-ball, he’s bouncing around on the balls of his feet, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
This makes him especially potent as a strongside help defender. Here, his active posture and penchant for filling space quickly enables him to dig on drives with the ferocity of a miner at the height of the California Gold Rush without ever forfeiting the opportunity to retreat back to his original man.
Also, remember how I mentioned his playmaking was lagging behind the other elites? Well, a similar trend continues when assessing the group’s foul rates.
|Player||Fouls Per 48|
|Gary Payton II||4.9|
Bridges mitigates a ton of the value he loses for not securing as many blocks and steals as his contemporaries by playing great defense without fouling. This attribute may arguably be even more valuable than their event creation because it limits opposing team’s free throws (the most efficient shots in basketball).
I’ve written about this before with the Clippers, but there is so much more nuance involved with defense than just the merit of individual players. Coaching, scheme, communication all play an essential role in a team’s ability to consistently trot out an elite-level defense.
With that said, Bridges is more than deserving of the increased recognition that is sure to come following his highly forecasted first-ever All-Defensive Team nomination this Spring.
He’s a smart, active defender, who never backs down from a challenge. And quite honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to find five better perimeter defenders in basketball than him.
If you don’t believe me, watch him and see for yourself.
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