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The Suns’ Wing Dilemma Puts the Future of the League Into Focus

Mikal Bridges has been a statistical savior in his rookie season; Josh Jackson has been a statistical nightmare as a sophomore. There is only one major difference between the two, but it’s important enough to change how the Suns’ entire system operates.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Suns, with the worst record (4-21) and net rating (minus-11) in the league, are in Year 5 of a rebuild with no end in sight. They have been picking in the lottery for so long that their picks cannibalize themselves. Dragan Bender (no. 4 overall pick in 2016) and Marquese Chriss (no. 8 in 2016) spent the past two seasons competing for playing time. The same could happen with Josh Jackson (no. 4 in 2017) and Mikal Bridges (no. 10 in 2018, acquired via trade with the Sixers). Jackson was widely seen as having more upside coming out of college, but Bridges has already taken a lead he may never relinquish. He has one key advantage: The tie in the NBA goes to the better shooter.

Bridges started the season out of the rotation, but is now averaging more minutes per game (22.1) than Jackson (19.7). Neither of the young wings has had a consistent role, as Suns rookie head coach Igor Kokoskov has spent the past six weeks shuffling through lineups, trying to find some that don’t get run off the floor. Bridges and Jackson have both started, and they have both sat until garbage time, of which there is plenty in Phoenix. Their per-game stats are unremarkable. Jackson is averaging 8.4 points on 39.9 percent shooting, while Bridges is averaging 6.8 points on 41.6 percent shooting.

The difference between the two shows in their on- and off-court numbers. Bridges has been a plus-minus machine as a rookie. The Suns are in the red (minus-2.0 in net rating) in Bridges’s 525 minutes on the floor, but their performance has been catastrophic in the 632 minutes he’s spent off it (minus-17.0). Jackson has had the opposite effect. Phoenix has a net rating of minus-13.6 in 485 minutes with him and minus-8.2 in 672 minutes without him. They have each played at least 100 minutes with eight different players this season, not counting the other. All eight have better net ratings with Bridges than Jackson. Bridges is making his teammates better. Jackson is making them worse.

It all comes back to shooting. Bridges, who won two national titles in three seasons at Villanova, came out of college as a knock-down shooter. The big knock on Jackson after one season at Kansas was his inconsistent jumper, a weakness that has followed him to the next level. Bridges has been streaky as a rookie, but he’s still been a better shooter than Jackson in every category in their NBA careers:

Bridges vs. Jackson

Category Bridges Jackson
Category Bridges Jackson
2P% (2PA) 52.9% (2.8) 46.3% (8.5)
3P% (3PA) 30.7% (3.1) 26.1% (2.7)
FT% (FTA) 84.6% (1.1) 63.4% (3.2)

Bridges helps his teammates just by standing at the 3-point line, since defenses can’t leave him open. He’s confident from deep, with long arms (7-foot-1 wingspan) and a quick release, so defenders have to stay attached just to challenge his shot. The Suns don’t need to run any plays for him. He’s a smart player with a high basketball IQ who shot off of movement at Villanova. He knows how to move without the ball and reset himself before shooting, and he had the type of well-rounded shot profile in college that translates to the next level.

Jackson has the opposite issue. He doesn’t threaten the defense off the ball, so his defender often camps out in the lane when he’s playing on the perimeter. Playing with Jackson makes it harder for his teammates to operate. If they attack off the dribble, a good defense can force the ball into his hands. NBA teams with young, ball-dominant wings like Jackson have a simple dilemma: He can’t play off the ball, and he’s not good enough to justify playing on it. There are 46 players in the league this season with a usage rate higher than 24 (minimum 15 games played). Jackson is dead last in true shooting percentage at 46.0.

Jackson’s poor shooting isolates him from the rest of the offense. Not only does he not make his teammates better, they can’t make him better, either. He has to create all his own offense off the dribble, which is difficult when defenders can play off him and dare him to shoot. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, 28.2 percent of Jackson’s shots are pull-up jumpers, even though he’s in only the 19th percentile of shooters leaguewide on those plays. He’s an intuitive passer, but he can’t be a secondary playmaker because defenders don’t close out on him, and he’s not a consistent enough decision-maker to be a point forward. He has a high assist percentage (16.4) for a 6-foot-8 wing, but it is negated by an even higher turnover percentage (17.3).

Bridges is far more polished. He benefited from three seasons in college with Jay Wright, one of the first NCAA coaches to run an offensive system based around modern NBA principles. Bridges doesn’t hold the ball, and he hunts for the most efficient shots on the floor. The percentage of his shots that come from the 3-point line (51.7 percent) is almost double Jackson’s (26.9 percent), and his percentage of shots in the long 2-point range between 10 feet and the 3-point line is four times lower (5 percent) than Jackson’s (20.7 percent). He doesn’t make many bad decisions, and he’s the rare rookie with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4-to-1).

The knock on more experienced NCAA players like Bridges is that they don’t have as much room to grow at the next level. However, with NBA teams increasing the number of 3s they take every season, a player with the potential to be a volume 3-point shooter is more valuable than ever. Bridges can leverage that ability to improve the rest of his game. He doesn’t have the same burst as Jackson, but the threat of his jumper means that he can play faster with the ball since defenders always have to worry about him rising up for a shot.

All of those factors run the other way for a nonshooter like Jackson. He has a long way to go to catch where Bridges is now as a shooter, much less where he could be in a few seasons. He’s chasing a moving target. Becoming a consistent spot-up 3-point shooter will be hard. Being someone who shoots 3s off of movement might be impossible. The only way for a perimeter player to succeed at the highest levels of the game is to be a high-level playmaker or a movement shooter. The best can do both. Recent history indicates that Bridges has a better chance of developing the former than Jackson does of developing the latter.

The Heat are a perfect example of how skill set determines a young player’s role, irrespective of draft hype. They drafted two wings in 2015: Justise Winslow (no. 10 overall) and Josh Richardson (no. 40 overall). Winslow was a one-and-done star at Duke who could do everything but shoot. Richardson, a four-year player at Tennessee, was seen as a 3-and-D prospect with a low ceiling. Winslow still can’t shoot four years later, while Richardson has gone from a good shooter to a great one (39.9 percent from 3 on 6.9 attempts per game) and turned himself into a more well-rounded player in the process. Richardson is a two-way star who can play on or off the ball, while Winslow is stuck in a sixth-man role to limit the damage his poor shooting inflicts on his own team.

There’s an opportunity cost that comes with developing a nonshooter in the NBA. Richardson was able to expand his game over the past four seasons because Miami could keep him on the floor without negatively impacting his teammates. The Heat didn’t have to run plays for Richardson, and they didn’t have to deal with the growing pains that came with playing him on the ball. He grew into a bigger role over time instead of being forced into one due to the limitations in his game. The Heat didn’t have to start from scratch with Richardson, who came into the league at 22 years old, in the same way they did with Winslow, who came in at 19.

Bridges, like Richardson, has been a positive contributor from Day 1 in the NBA. He’s already one of the best two-way players on the Suns roster. Their best lineup this season (plus-3.7 in 73 minutes) has Devin Booker at point and Deandre Ayton at center, with three wings (Bridges, Trevor Ariza, and T.J. Warren) who can shoot 3s and slide among multiple positions on defense around them. Booker, Warren, and Ayton handle the scoring, but it wouldn’t work without Bridges and Ariza spacing the floor and doing the heavy lifting on defense. Athletic wings with size and shooting ability are worth their weight in gold.

The Suns are trying to build around Booker, whom they signed to a five-year, $158 million contract extension in the offseason, and Ayton, the no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. There aren’t that many shots to go around for anyone else. Jackson has to be able to spot up off Booker and Ayton for them to be effective when he’s in, and Phoenix doesn’t want him taking the ball out of its stars’ hands too often. If his 3-point shot doesn’t improve, he could wind up like Winslow, coming off the bench and being a ball-dominant player on the second unit.

Bridges has a higher floor than Jackson and a better chance of reaching his ceiling. They aren’t even that far apart in age. Bridges, who turned 22 in August, is only six months older than Jackson. Jackson was so much more athletic than his peers at lower levels of the game that he didn’t need to become a good shooter until he came to the NBA. Bridges, a fringe top-100 recruit in high school, wouldn’t have made it this far if he hadn’t learned how. All the time he spent working on his jumper in college is paying off. A player with his skill set could find minutes on just about every team in the league. The Suns will finally start winning games if they get a few more players like him.