Miles Bridges defies easy categorizations. The Michigan State freshman is by far the best scorer on his team, but he doesn’t play with the ball in his hands much and he’s rarely asked to create his own shot. He’s built like a tank (6-foot-7, 230 pounds), but he has little feel for playing out of the post and doesn’t know how to take advantage of his size. And while he’s a fantastic athlete who can fill up a highlight reel, his substandard reach (6-foot-9 wingspan) means he doesn’t always play as big as his physical tools would suggest. He has the strengths of many of the best combo forwards in the NBA and the weaknesses of some of the worst. There just aren’t many players like Bridges at any level of basketball.
Any scouting report on Bridges has to start with his athleticism. He’s one of the most exciting players to watch in college basketball because he’s a threat to catch an alley-oop at any point in the game. He doesn’t lack ambition — he is constantly signaling for an oop by pointing up, even when there’s no lane for him to catch a lob. Michigan State plays him a lot off the ball, and the defense can’t lose track of him for even a second. Someone with his heavily muscled frame should not be able to get this high off the ground:
Lob the ball anywhere near the basket and Bridges can throw it down. He’s a high-energy player who’s constantly in motion, and he gets a lot of his points from running the floor, tracking down loose balls, and crashing the offensive boards. He wins possession battles just by jumping over the top of people.
By themselves, his elite athleticism and motor would land him a spot in the NBA. What makes Bridges really intriguing is his ability to stretch the floor. When he’s not cutting to the rim, he spends most of the game spotting up off the ball. Bridges has deep range on his jumper, and he’s not afraid to shoot from anywhere on the floor. Like many left-handed shooters, the ball looks great coming off his hands, and he puts a lot of arc on his shot:
Bridges can play with power and he can play with finesse. Michigan State uses him like a shooting guard at times, running plays for him to catch the ball coming off screens and fire in one motion.
Bridges is averaging 16.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.7 steals, and 1.7 blocks a game on 49.8 percent shooting this season. What makes his role at Michigan State unique is his combination of volume rebounding and 3-point shooting. He grabs rebounds like a big man and shoots 3s like a guard. Look at how his averages in both categories compare to the other elite freshmen in The Ringer’s NBA Draft Big Board:
The players closest to Bridges in those two categories are Markkanen, a 7-foot spot-up shooter, and Ball, a 6-foot-6 point guard. There are only five players in the NBA this season — James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kevin Love — averaging more than eight rebounds per game and four 3-point attempts per game. There’s no way to make a comparison between Bridges and any of those players, but that’s precisely the point. It’s hard to compare Bridges to any player in the NBA, be it a role player or a superstar.
But will his 3-point shot hold up at the next level? While he has shown confidence in his ability to shoot from anywhere on the court, he’s shooting only 62.3 percent from the free throw line on 2.8 attempts per game. Free throw shooting isolates a player’s shooting stroke without any interference from outside factors, and it has been shown to be more predictive of what a player will shoot from 3 in the NBA than his college 3-point percentages. If Bridges can’t consistently threaten defenses from the perimeter, his offensive game falls apart.
When he’s playing in the half court, his first, second, and even third thought is to take a 3. He settles for a lot of jumpers, and he will usually move the ball rather than attempting to shoot off the dribble if he’s not open. The ball doesn’t stay in his hands for long, and if he does have possession, a shot is more than likely going up. Even when Bridges has a much smaller defender on him, like James Blackmon of Indiana (6-foot-4, 195 pounds), he would still rather take him out on the perimeter and pull up:
For as big and physical as Bridges is, he’s strangely uncomfortable playing with his back to the basket. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Bridges is averaging 0.565 points per possession in the post, putting him in the 16th percentile of post scorers around the country. This is one area where his lack of length can be an issue, as he has to resort to a lot of difficult fadeaway hooks rather than just shooting over the top of his defender:
Bridges had one of his worst games of the season against Indiana, with 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting, because the Hoosiers rotated a bunch of smaller and quicker defenders on him and dared him to try to beat them with his size. Like a lot of combo forwards, Bridges is much more comfortable taking bigger and slower defenders off the dribble. He’s at his best when he can face-up a 7-footer like Markkanen and take advantage of his quickness and explosive ability to get to the rim.
However, the problem for Bridges is that mismatches go both ways. He can use his quickness to attack bigger defenders, but they can use their length to finish over the top of him on the other side of the ball. While he does a good job of defending the post at the college level, he rarely has to face NBA-caliber big men. When he does, he’s in trouble. Johnathan Motley of Baylor (6-foot-10 and 230 pounds) abused Bridges in their matchup at the Battle 4 Atlantis, forcing Tom Izzo to change Bridges’s defensive assignment because of plays like this:
One obvious comparison for Bridges is Draymond Green, another unorthodox combo forward from Michigan State. Plays like that, though, are where you see the difference between the two. Green has a 7-foot-1 wingspan — freakish for a player who stands under 6-foot-6 without shoes on. That reach allows Draymond to comfortably guard much bigger players and contest their shots while staying on the ground. Bridges has the strength to battle with anyone in the post, but once a bigger opponent turns around and shoots, there’s nothing he can do. He has to jump to get a hand up, which means he’s very susceptible to pump fakes:
The good news for Bridges is that the NBA is moving away from posting up, especially at power forward, where the new archetype is closer to Harrison Barnes than Dirk Nowitzki. At the same time, though, that means Bridges will have to face more 6-foot-8 combo forwards who are comfortable guarding players like him 25-plus feet from the basket.
There’s a minus with every plus and a plus with every minus with Bridges. On one hand, his athleticism allows him to protect the rim like a much bigger player and serve as a good weak-side shot blocker (1.7 blocks per game), a must for a power forward who has to rotate over and serve as the second line on defense. On the other, he would have one of the shortest reaches of any power forward in the NBA, leaving him vulnerable to players who can face him up and use the threat of the shot to get him off the ground. His wingspan would be less of an issue as a small forward, but he would be giving up any advantage in quickness he had, and he doesn’t have the post game to exploit any size advantage. He has shown the ability to pass the ball off the dribble, but he struggles with double-teams and averages one and a half as many turnovers (2.7) as assists (1.9), which suggests he would struggle in a role where he’s asked to create for other players.
The area of the game where he could be most valuable at the next level, playing defense in the pick-and-roll, is the one area he almost never gets to show at the college level. There’s less floor spacing and less overall skill in the NCAA than there is in the NBA, so collegiate offenses feature far fewer ball screens. Bridges has been involved in only 21 possessions defending the pick-and-roll this season. If this play against Kadeem Allen of Arizona is any indication, Bridges could be a great defensive weapon as a bigger defender who can get down in a stance and slide his feet on the perimeter, enabling him to switch screens and suffocate an NBA offense:
In a best-case scenario, Bridges could be a small-ball power forward who can switch screens on defense, spread the floor on offense, and average a near-double-double without having any plays run for him. In a worst-case scenario, his 3-point shot abandons him, while his lack of length makes it impossible for him to guard the best forwards in the NBA. Pre-draft workouts could have a bigger impact on Bridges’s stock than they will for his peers, as teams get the chance to analyze his athleticism, shooting stroke, and ability to match up with more conventional swingmen like Jackson, Isaac, and Tatum. The lack of comparable players means that NBA teams are flying blind on Bridges, which is both scary and exciting. The draft is always a gamble, and there are few players in the lottery who represent a bigger role of the dice than Miles Bridges.