For the second consecutive year, Villanova is one of the very best teams in college basketball, and for the second consecutive year, Villanova’s players are not getting much love from NBA front offices. After winning the national title last season, they became the first NCAA champions in 20 years not to have a player selected in the following NBA draft. And despite their no. 2 overall ranking and 27–3 record, things might not change much this season. The Wildcats don’t have a player in the first round of the latest DraftExpress mock, with senior shooting guard Josh Hart projected to come off the board at no. 33 overall. Their other notable prospect, sophomore small forward Mikal Bridges, is largely projected as a 2018 selection.
Under Jay Wright, Villanova has been one of the most consistent programs in the country, winning at least 20 games in 11 of the past 12 seasons and making two Final Fours despite not having the same kind of one-and-done NBA pipeline of talent that other schools boast. There are five Villanova players currently in the league, and only two — Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry — were taken in the first round. This season’s team may be no different than any squad Wright has helmed over the past decade — just another group of good NCAA players who won’t stick in the NBA — but there’s also a chance Hart and Bridges are being significantly undervalued for what they can bring at the next level. While they don’t project as NBA stars, role players with their skills have never been more valuable, and they share some key similarities with the players who have outperformed their draft stock in this year’s disappointing rookie class.
Hart and Bridges have vastly different roles at Villanova. Hart is a senior All-American who leads the team in scoring, while Bridges is a sophomore who plays almost exclusively off the ball and isn’t asked to carry a heavy load on offense. What they have in common is shooting ability, with the volume and efficiency from both the 3-point line and the charity stripe that bodes well for their NBA transition.
Over the past generation, 3-point shooting has gone from a nice skill for a prospect to have to a near necessity for everyone but centers (and even that position is starting to feature more long-range shooting) in order to earn playing time in the NBA. The biggest transition most players have to make once they reach the NBA is going from dominating the ball at lower levels of the game to becoming a complementary player. If a guy is playing off the ball and he can’t threaten the defense from the 3-point line, he doesn’t have to be guarded, and the opposing team can use his defender to clog the paint. College stars don’t always make the best NBA role players — and it goes both ways.
That’s what we have seen so far from this year’s rookie class. There are a lot of players like Kris Dunn, a streaky 3-point shooter in college whose outside shot has fallen off a cliff in the NBA, or Denzel Valentine, whose poor defense has made it difficult for him to earn playing time. Dunn and Valentine were dominant NCAA players taken in the lottery of last year’s draft, but neither has been as meaningful to his respective team as Malcolm Brogdon (a second-round pick of the Bucks) or Dorian Finney-Smith (an undrafted free agent signed by the Mavs). All four were either seniors or redshirt juniors, so it’s not a matter of older players being more prepared for the NBA in comparison with younger counterparts.
Brogdon is one of the most pleasant surprises in the league this season. He’s averaging 9.7 points, 4.2 assists, and 2.6 rebounds a game on 44 percent shooting, playing a much larger role than expected given all the injuries in Milwaukee. Despite being the ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Brogdon fell in the draft because of concerns about his ceiling due to his age (23) and somewhat-limited athleticism. However, his ability to shoot and defend multiple positions and his advanced basketball IQ allowed him to quickly earn the trust of the Bucks coaching staff.
Like Brogdon, Hart is a big-bodied shooting guard (6-foot-6 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan) who does a little bit of everything for his college team, averaging 18.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.5 steals a game on 50.6 percent shooting. He’s not an elite athlete either, but he’s a little more explosive off the ground than Brogdon, and he’s shown himself capable of making plays above the rim.
What separates Brogdon from Buddy Hield, who’s had an underwhelming rookie season — Vivek Ranadivé’s opinion notwithstanding — is that he’s not just a shooter. He can run pick-and-rolls and make plays for others, allowing him to contribute to the offense when his shot isn’t falling. That’s one of the strengths of Hart’s game, as he’s a fantastic passer who can read the floor coming off a screen and make pinpoint passes on the move.
A player with Hart’s combination of size, shooting, and feel for the game has a pretty high floor at the next level. Even if he struggles in one-on-one situations against the level of athletes he will face, his ability to threaten defenses as a spot-up shooter, make the right decisions when attacking a close-out, and serve as a heady off-ball defender means he will improve most lineups he is a part of.
That has been the key for Finney-Smith, who made the Mavs roster out of training camp and earned a spot for himself in the rotation, jumping ahead of a more heralded younger player (second-year swingman Justin Anderson) and allowing the Mavs to include Anderson in a trade for Nerlens Noel at the deadline. There’s nothing flashy about Finney-Smith — he’s averaging 4.5 points on 40.4 percent shooting as a rookie — but he is tied for the second-highest net rating (plus-1.1) of any Dallas player with at least 700 minutes. He defends multiple positions, makes just enough 3-pointers to stay on the floor (shooting 31.8 percent from 3 on 2.3 attempts per game), and rarely makes mistakes with the ball (averaging 0.8 assists and 0.6 turnovers per game).
Even at the college level, Finney-Smith was never a star, with a career average of 10.7 points per game on 41.1 percent shooting. His best season came as a senior, when Florida missed the NCAA tournament in the first year after Billy Donovan decamped for the NBA. It made sense that he slipped through the cracks. However, he had shown the ability to contribute to an elite team in the past, when he was the sixth man on a Florida team that made the Final Four in his sophomore season.
That was Bridges’s role for Villanova last season, when he averaged 6.4 points a game on 52.1 percent shooting in 20 minutes per game off the bench. At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Bridges is an elite athlete with the quickness of a guard and the length of a big man, and his physical tools and activity level gave the Wildcats an extra dimension last season. According to sports-reference.com, they had an offensive rating of 128.3 when he was on the floor (the highest on the team) and a defensive rating of 92.8 (the third lowest).
As a sophomore, Bridges has been stuffing the stat sheet to the tune of 10.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 steals, and 0.9 blocks a game on 56.9 percent shooting. He has an elite steal rate (3.8 percent) while his block rate (3.4 percent) is outrageous for a perimeter player. He has become one of the best defensive players in the country. Opposing players have to be very careful with the ball when Bridges is guarding them, or he will rip it right out of their hands.
Villanova often sticks Bridges on point guards, and switches screens when he is on the ball, so he effectively guards all five positions on the floor over the course of a game. He would have to put on much more weight to fill that role in the NBA, but his quickness and length means he has the potential to be an elite perimeter defender either way. The NBA is becoming a pick-and-roll-centered league, and Bridges should be a real pest with his ability to get over screens and poke away passes. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Bridges is giving up only 0.625 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, putting him in the 71st percentile of defenders in the county, great numbers for such a young player.
Bridges is an excellent on-ball defender as well, giving up only 0.625 points per possession in isolation sequences, putting him in the 72nd percentile of defenders. Even if he is beaten off the dribble initially, his length and acceleration allow him to recover and block the shot:
The biggest knock on Bridges at the moment is his limited role on offense, as he has a usage rate of only 15.6. He’s the fourth option on Villanova, behind Hart, senior Kris Jenkins (who hit the title-clinching buzzer beater against UNC last season), and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson (the son of longtime NBA player Rick Brunson), and he’s rarely asked to create his own shot off the dribble. There’s no reason for Bridges to force the issue when he is on the no. 2 team in the country, and he’s widely expected to return to school next season in order to show what he could do in a bigger role, following the graduations of Hart and Jenkins.
It can be tough to fully discern the abilities of a younger player in a limited role on an elite team, which is why scouting John Calipari’s teams at Kentucky is such a challenge every season. Villanova doesn’t have the same level of NBA prospects, but the players it does have are every bit as accomplished at the NCAA level, and it’s unrealistic to expect Bridges to start dominating the ball given the quality of his teammates this season. What’s encouraging is what Bridges has done when he does have the ball: He has been a hyper-efficient finisher who makes good decisions within the flow of the offense (averaging 2.1 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game). He makes a lot of advanced passes when attacking close-outs, and he knows how to read a defense:
Bridges doesn’t have a particularly tight handle, and he often passes up chances to be more aggressive and attack the rim. He doesn’t do a great job of using his frame, and teams can hide weaker defenders on him without worrying that he will be able to attack a mismatch. He has had only eight isolation attempts all season. NBA teams want to see more of an ability to create individual offense out of perimeter prospects, and it’s an open question where Bridges would wind up if he declared for the draft this season.
Given how well Wright develops players at Villanova, the odds are Bridges will expand that aspect of his game should he stay as a junior. However, even if his offensive game stagnates, he’s already so good at the things NBA teams need from their role players that he could end up being better at the next level than many of the elite NCAA offensive players currently projected to go ahead of him. If a guy can shoot 40 percent from 3 and defend three positions at a high level while racking up steals and blocks, who cares if he can’t create his own shot?
As one executive from a lottery team told me this week in regard to Bridges, the NBA has moved from an isolation league to a ball-movement league. It doesn’t matter if you hide a bad defender on Bridges, because you can use him in a ball screen with your best player and force the bad defender out of hiding. It’s more important for your role players to be able to spread the floor and be capable of switching screens than it is for them to attack opposing players off the dribble.
Villanova plays like an NBA team, with Brunson and Hart running pick-and-rolls with their big men while Jenkins and Bridges spot up off the ball. They may not have any NBA stars, but they are better than the sum of their parts because they have two NBA-caliber wings who can stroke 3s, move the ball, and play high-level defense. That’s a formula for success at any level of basketball, and it’s something the NBA ought to pay more attention to.