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Josh Jackson vs. Miles Bridges: A Look at the Future of the NBA Combo Forward

Takeaways from one of the best individual matchups we’ll see in the NCAA tournament

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The most compelling aspect of Sunday’s second-round game between Kansas and Michigan State was not the game itself (which the Jayhawks won handily, 90–70), but the game within the game — the individual matchup between the freshman star of each team, Josh Jackson and Miles Bridges. Jackson and Bridges, childhood friends who first started playing against each other as sixth-graders in Michigan-area AAU tournaments, are both projected to go in the lottery in this year’s draft, and the game gave NBA scouts the rare opportunity to watch two elite prospects who play the same position go at each other on both sides of the ball.

Projecting how combo forwards might fare in the NBA is incredibly difficult because the physical advantages they have at the college level rarely translate seamlessly in the pros. The top of the draft over the past decade has been littered with busts who starred at the position in college: Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, Anthony Bennett. They were all too big for NCAA wings and too quick for NCAA big men, but they struggled to adapt once they had to face players who could match (or surpass) their physical capabilities. Jackson is the best player Bridges has faced all season and vice versa. What they have done against guys going pro in something other than sports can tell us only so much.

The duel between the two didn’t disappoint, as they went point-for-point with each other on Sunday. Jackson finished the game with 23 points, three rebounds, two steals, and two blocks on 9-of-16 shooting for the Jayhawks, while Bridges chipped in 22 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and one steal on 7-of-15 shooting for the Spartans. Kansas won the game, but Bridges played his more highly touted counterpart to a draw, at least on the stat sheet. A deeper dive into the film reveals some interesting developments for both players.

Jackson on Offense

At 6-foot-8 and 207 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Jackson is a string bean consisting almost entirely of fast-twitch muscles. Kansas plays him as a small-ball power forward, a radical departure from the two big men lineups that head coach Bill Self has historically preferred, and he’s much too fast for the bigger defenders who have to guard him. It’s almost impossible for them to stay in front of Jackson, and he takes 43.4 percent of his shots at the rim, according to the numbers at hoop-math.com. He has shown the ball skills to get by defenders, even though he’s often given several feet of cushion in an effort to cajole him into shooting from the perimeter.

Bridges took a slightly different approach; he didn’t have to play as far off Jackson as most defenders, because unlike most defenders he has the raw athleticism to recover on drives. Jackson had no choice but to take jumpers off the dribble on Sunday, and he repeatedly knocked them down. That was the most encouraging aspect of his performance against Bridges, since so much of Jackson’s potential at the next level will be determined by his ability to shoot. There’s not much any defender can do against Jackson when he’s making step-back 3s.

For the most part, Jackson was not able to get to the rim against Bridges. His one made basket off a drive in the half court came when Matt McQuaid, a shooting specialist, was switched onto him. The play of the game came as the result of a lazy closeout from Bridges, which gave Jackson a free run to the rim and a massive dunk that brought the house down. It was a jaw-dropping display of athleticism, but it didn’t necessarily mean much about his ability to create his own shot at the next level.

Jackson is normally an excellent passer, but he didn’t notch any assists against Michigan State because he rarely drove the ball into the lane. He took only three free throws, with one coming off an and-1 against McQuaid and the other two coming from Bridges bumping him off the ball.

Interestingly enough, Jackson was most successful in creating offense against Bridges in the post, even though he was giving up a ton of size. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, Bridges is built more like a football player, and he can get off the ground incredibly quickly for a guy with his frame. However, with only a 6-foot-9 wingspan, his arms are much shorter than the ideal dimensions NBA teams are looking for, and the elevation that Jackson gets on his jumper allowed him to shoot over the top of Bridges fairly easily.

Andrew Wiggins, Jackson’s one-and-done predecessor at Kansas, makes a living posting up perimeter players in the NBA, and Jackson might be able to do something similar. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Jackson is averaging 0.882 points per possession in the post, putting him in the 60th percentile of college players, and that number could go even higher if he’s playing as a small forward in the NBA, where he’ll face shorter defenders.

Bridges on Offense

Jackson and Bridges have opposite offensive profiles. While Jackson’s jumper is the biggest question mark in his game, Bridges’s jumper is the strength of his. He shoots 38.9 percent from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game, and 39.2 percent of his shots are from beyond the arc. Jackson, in contrast, takes only 20.3 percent of his shots from deep. Bridges spends more of the game spotting up off the ball than Jackson does, and he moves really well, getting himself in position to catch and fire quickly from deep:

The concern for Bridges is the rest of his offense. He isn’t asked to create his own shot nearly as often as Jackson is: 42.4 percent of Jackson’s shots at the rim are assisted, compared with 58.1 percent of Bridges’s shots. He can look really awkward when asked to shoot off the dribble and he doesn’t have much of an in-between game at this stage in his career. If he can’t get by his initial defender and he’s forced to score in traffic, he winds up throwing up prayers that have almost no chance of going in. The lack of elite talent around Bridges at Michigan State means he gets a lot of chances to show what he can do, but the flip side is those chances can just as easily turn into him showing what he can’t do.

Michigan State lost control of the game late in the second half, but Bridges did everything in his power to keep the Spartans in it. As the game wore on, his advantage in strength became too much for Jackson to handle, and Bridges was able to beat his counterpart at the point of attack several times. In this sequence, he caught Jackson guessing, refusing a screen and taking advantage of a brief second of indecision to cross him up. Not many guys as big as Bridges can pull off a move like that, much less get by a defender as quick as Jackson.

Once Bridges got in the lane, Jackson bounced off of him, giving him space to finish at the rim. Bridges shoots 64.7 percent at the rim, and you can see why in shots like this, which took a ridiculous amount of touch and body control (and probably some luck as well):

Like Jackson, Bridges was able to have his way in the post in the rare situations he ventured down there. After getting an easy basket on a hook shot, he started to draw extra defensive attention, opening up shooters on the perimeter. Bridges is averaging 2.1 assists and 2.4 turnovers per game as a freshman, but his basketball IQ and his feel for the game are better than those numbers would suggest, and they could improve as he plays with more talented players at the next level. He has a good sense of where other players are on the floor and how to get his teammates open.

What Did We Learn?

Not many guys have been able to score on Jackson this season as easily as Bridges has. However, not many have the ability to run downhill and push him off his spots as if he weren’t even there, either. Similarly, not many players at the college level have the speed and shooting ability to score over the top of Bridges. Jackson and Bridges are such incredible athletes that the minor flaws in their physical dimensions — Jackson’s lack of strength, Bridges’s lack of length — aren’t normally a huge issue. However, they were both exposed when they were forced to go up against someone who was just as athletic as they were. Once they get to the NBA, that will happen all the time.

It’s still unclear what position either will play. There isn’t a single starting power forward at the next level who weighs as little as Jackson, or whose arms are as short as Bridges’. They will both create speed mismatches at power forward, but will they give up just as many points the other way? Over the last generation, power forwards have gotten progressively smaller in the NBA, and Jackson and Bridges would be a further continuation of that trend if they stay at their college positions.

The good news for both is that mismatches go both ways. Bridges may not have been able to stop Jackson, but his ability to overpower him on drives is a promising indicator that he can score against perimeter players at the next level. Conversely, if Jackson is able to shoot as well in the NBA as he did against Bridges, it won’t matter if he’s not playing at small-ball power forward as much and taking advantage of bigger and slower defenders to get to the rim at will.

Bridges’s college career is over, but Jackson could still end up carrying Kansas to a national championship. Kansas now moves on to play Purdue in the Sweet 16, where Jackson will face Vince Edwards, a 6-foot-8 small forward with some 3-and-D potential at the next level, and may spend some time on Caleb Swanigan, a 6-foot-9 and 250-pound Goliath in the running for the Wooden Award, depending on how often Purdue coach Matt Painter tries a supersized lineup. Neither matchup will be as telling as his duel with Bridges, but they will still provide an interesting data point for NBA teams. Scouts always root for the most talented prospects to advance, which is why Jayson Tatum (Duke) and Jonathan Isaac (Florida State) going down in the second round is such a bummer. The NCAA tournament is the biggest stage in college basketball, but the reason NBA front offices place such an emphasis on it is because it’s the best chance for many prospects to face other great players. The selection committee made a lot of bizarre decisions with seeding this season, but putting Jackson and Bridges in the same pod was one thing they got right.