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Mikal Bridges and the Unlocking Force of the 3-and-D Swingman

Villanova’s do-it-all junior doesn’t project star potential, but his complete two-way skill set could allow him to make as big an impact as a ball-dominant player in the modern game

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Mikal Bridges has never been more valuable than he is now. The Villanova junior is one of the nation’s best players on a top-five team, and he fits the mold of a positional archetype every NBA team needs. At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he’s an elite 3-point shooter (shooting 42 percent from 3 on 5.8 attempts per game this season and 38.6 percent over his three-year career) who shuts down players at four positions. The knock on Bridges is that he doesn’t create as many shots as most typical lottery picks. The way the league is trending, though, that may not matter as much as it once did. Winning NBA teams need elite 3-and-D players just as much as they need traditional All-Stars.

Few NCAA players in recent years have shot 3s and defended as well as Bridges. Even the best prospects are usually further along on one side of the ball than the other. Just compare Bridges to the lottery picks in last year’s draft. He makes 3s and free throws at the same rates as Luke Kennard and Lauri Markkanen, the two best shooters in the Class of 2017, and he gets blocks and steals at the same rates as Josh Jackson, arguably the best athlete. Players with Kennard’s stroke and Jackson’s defense don’t come around often. A guy like that can dominate without dominating the ball.

Villanova is a completely different team when Bridges is in. The numbers, courtesy of hooplens.com, are striking:

Villanova With and Without Bridges

Villanova W/ Bridges W/o Bridges
Villanova W/ Bridges W/o Bridges
Points per possession 1.24 1.15
Points per possession allowed 0.97 1.09
Possessions 1,715 477
Net difference Plus-.27 Plus-0.06

Bridges is a role player with the impact of a superstar. He averages 17.6 points a game without having the ball in his hands much. He gets most of his points within the flow of the offense, either on spot-ups or in transition. Bridges is the perfect cog in Villanova head coach Jay Wright’s system. He spaces the floor, moves the ball, cuts into open spots, and doesn’t make bad decisions. He is comfortable in any role. He had an elite true shooting percentage when he was a sixth man as a freshman (63.3), a fifth starter as a sophomore (67.6), and one of the primary options as a junior (64.4).

The biggest difference for Bridges this season is the sheer number of 3s he’s taking. He has almost doubled his number of attempts per game, but he’s not taking bad shots. His 3-point percentage is up nearly three points from last season. Villanova moves the ball from side to side as well as any team in the country, and Bridges can raise up any time he touches it. He has a quick release and a high release point, so he can shoot over the top of any perimeter defender. He doesn’t need much space. His man has to stay attached to him to even bother his shot.

Bridges isn’t just a shooter. He can put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble, but he doesn’t force the issue much. He takes what the defense gives him. While it can seem like he’s being passive at times, he rarely passes without a purpose. Good things happen when Bridges touches the ball. He attracts defensive attention wherever he goes, and he knows how to find the openings that that creates. He’s an unselfish player who reads the defense quickly. He has had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio all three seasons at Villanova.

It’s unclear how Bridges would fare with more responsibility. He is effective in almost every offensive category, albeit in a limited number of attempts. Bridges can create a jumper when he has the defense off-balance, whether it’s because he’s running around a screen, or he has a mismatch in the pick-and-roll or in the post. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, isolations are about the only area where he struggles, though these numbers come in such small samples that it’s hard to come to any conclusions:

Bridges’s Scoring Efficiency by Play Type

Play Type Possessions PPP Percentile
Play Type Possessions PPP Percentile
P&R ball handler 46 0.978 88th
Post-up 39 1.051 88th
Off screen 27 1.296 90th
Isolation 19 0.737 40th

Bridges understands his limitations. He doesn’t have a great handle or first step, so it’s hard for him to create shots against set defenders off one-on-one moves. When Villanova needs a basket, the team will usually give the ball to junior point guard Jalen Brunson, the son of former NBA player Rick Brunson. Bridges will never be a primary option at the next level, but he has more upside than he is given credit for. He will fill out as he gets older, making it easier for him to create space off the dribble to shoot. His defensive versatility will also allow him to be used in ways that maximize his offense: Bridges can guard a lot of players in the NBA who won’t be able to guard him.

Wright slides him all over the floor on defense. Bridges is a rare player: a swingman with a 7-foot-2 wingspan who also has enough lateral quickness to stay in front of even the fastest point guards. He plays as a small-ball power forward, but he typically guards the primary scorer on the opposing team, regardless of position. In an 88-72 win over Gonzaga in early December, Bridges spent time guarding Rui Hachimura, a 6-foot-8 combo forward; Killian Tillie, a 6-foot-10 stretch big man; Zach Norvell Jr., a 6-foot-5 shooting guard; and Silas Melson, a 6-foot-3 combo guard. He puts out fires on defense, no matter where they come from.

One fascinating way Villanova uses Bridges is at the head of a 1-2-2 full-court trap. He is devastating at the point of attack. He has quick hands and he’s deceptively strong for a guy his size. He can rip the ball right out of the hands of opposing ball handlers. Bridges made his name as a defensive sub on Villanova’s national title team in 2016. He had five steals in their 64-59 win over Kansas in the Elite Eight, including suffocating future NBA point guard Frank Mason III into a turnover when Kansas was trying to tie the game down three in the final seconds.

Bridges is an aggressive defender with the wingspan of a big man and the speed of a guard. A guy like that can be even more valuable in the NBA than in college because of all the different positions he can fill in a lineup. If Bridges is paired with a point forward who can run the offense and defend frontcourt players, he could defend point guards full-time and then attack them on offense. Think of the way the 76ers use Ben Simmons and Robert Covington. Covington has wider shoulders and a bigger frame than Bridges, but both players have the same unusual package of length, quickness, and shooting ability.

Three-and-D players, particularly ones with size and elite shooting ability, are hard to find. There are only nine players in the NBA this season with wingspans longer than 7 feet who are shooting better than 40 percent from 3 on more than two attempts per game. Most are stretch big men. The only perimeter players are Otto Porter Jr. and Kevin Durant. The old rule was that big men always rise in the draft because quality 7-footers are so hard to find. The league-wide move toward small ball has flipped that dynamic on its head. Most teams have more centers than they can use, and no one has enough wings.

This year’s draft reflects how talent is distributed in the league. There are four big men (Deandre Ayton, Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley III, and Jaren Jackson Jr.) expected to go in the top 10 and three more (Wendell Carter Jr., Robert Williams, and Daniel Gafford) in the top 20. The 3-and-D crop, on the other hand, dries up pretty quickly after Bridges. The other wings in his range—Miles Bridges, Kevin Knox, and Troy Brown—are more offensive-minded players who don’t have his combination of length and athleticism. Then there are smaller guards like Lonnie Walker IV and Khyri Thomas, or guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who haven’t shown they can be consistent 3-point shooters.

Bridges’s skill set means he’s one of the few young players who can not only earn minutes immediately on a good team, but also make that team better. The tag of a player who makes teammates better is usually given to shot-creators who can attract defensive attention and kick the ball out, but they still need teammates who can knock those shots down while handling defensive responsibilities. The mere presence of a good 3-and-D player improves those around them on both sides of the ball. OG Anunoby, the no. 23 pick in last year’s draft, is still a relatively unfinished product, but he’s been one of the keys to Toronto’s transformation this season precisely because he can fill the 3-and-D role.

The impact of a player like that is most felt in their absence. The best have on-court/off-court numbers as good as most stars. The 76ers have a net rating of plus-7.2 when Covington is in and minus-5.5 when he’s out, giving him a total differential of plus-12.4. That’s the second-highest on their roster, behind only Joel Embiid at plus-15.9. It’s the same story for Porter in Washington. The Wizards have a net rating of plus-5.7 with Porter and minus-5.6 without him. His total differential (plus-11.3) is higher than either Bradley Beal (plus-7.5) or John Wall (plus-5.0). It’s the highest on their entire roster.

Porter is not a better player than Washington’s two stars. His skills are just harder to replace. The Wizards have flourished without Wall over the past month by redistributing his touches, shots, and time with the ball to the rest of the team. The team can play a more democratic style of basketball (what Beal has dubbed “everybody eats”) with only one All-Star guard, as opposed to two. Shot creation is a zero-sum game: There’s only one ball. Shooting and perimeter defense are the only two skills without diminishing marginal returns. NBA teams can never have enough players who can do both. There’s no way to replace a guy like Porter without bringing in someone like him. His skill set is invaluable.

Bridges could become the best pure 3-and-D player in the NBA. Even the best players in that mold tend to favor one side of the ball. Bridges has a chance to be one of the best shooters and one of the best defenders in the league. How valuable would Andre Roberson be with ball skills and an elite 3-point shot? How about Wayne Ellington if he was a perennial All-Defensive team selection? As one NBA executive who likes Bridges told me, he’s the only player in this year’s lottery whose floor is a guy who could play big minutes in the Finals.

His ceiling is hazier. Bridges will probably never be an All-Star. Three-and-D players only reach that level when they can also average 20 points a game. The interesting thing about guys like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Paul George is they were all drafted in the late-lottery range where Bridges is expected to go. A 3-and-D skill set is a good baseline to start an NBA career. Few players develop shot-creation skills in the NBA, but even fewer develop a 3-point shot or the athleticism to guard elite players. Teams who pass on Bridges for the chance at a star are looking at things backward. Ball-dominant stars are rare in the NBA. Mikal Bridges could be something even rarer.