Oftentimes one worries about young players heading into their first postseason.
Are they going to produce the same way they did during the regular season? Are they going to wilt under the brightest spotlight they’ve experienced in their professional career? Are they going to be ready to deal with schemes and adjustments they haven’t seen because a series dictates a level of familiarity you don’t establish with your opponents in the regular season?
And somehow, it never felt like Mikal Bridges would crumble. It never felt like such a moment would swallow him whole.
Maybe it’s all the big-game experience he accumulated while at Villanova. In his freshman season, he was the seventh man for the National Championship winning Wildcats, averaging 6.8 points and 1.3 steals per game during the 2016 NCAA Tournament, while shooting 63 / 43 / 80 splits from the field, three, and free-throw line. As a junior, and in his breakout season, the 6-foot-7, two-way wing became the Big East Tournament MVP following a 22.7 scoring average in the tourney while shooting 62 / 55 / 91, and also playing All-Conference-level defense. ’Nova won the national title again that year, and Bridges was named to the All-Tournament team after posting 15.5 points per game on 47 / 44 / 85 splits.
It may have been “only college,” but it certainly didn’t hurt.
He came right into the NBA and was a meaningful player, posting 8.3 points and 1.6 steals per game while making 56 starts and appearing in all 82 games as a rookie, logging 29.5 minutes per contest. Last year, he gradually improved. But this season, Bridges put together a regular season eerily similar to another then-young, two-way wing emerging as a star in his role: Kawhi Leonard. And, no, Bridges isn’t quite that, but it’s a trajectory someone in his position should aspire to, because it’s similar.
Bridges won’t likely win Finals MVP, like Leonard did in 2014, so let’s slow down and acknowledge that, but the parallels in impact for each third-year player adds up (in the regular season) in a way you probably wouldn’t have anticipated.
In 2014-15, Leonard posted 12.8 points/6.2 rebounds/1.7 steals on 52 / 38 / 80 splits for a Western Conference Champion.
In 2020-21, Bridges posted 13.5 points/4.3 rebounds/1.1 steals on 54 / 43 / 84 splits for a Western Conference Champion.
In the playoffs, Leonard was at 14.5 points/6.7 rebounds/1.7 steals on 51 / 42 / 74 splits.
Bridges, so far, sits at just 11.8 points/4.3 rebounds/1.0 steals on 47 / 36 / 92 splits… so he has some catching up to do there, but he probably won’t need to yet alongside Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and DeAndre Ayton, among others.
But Bridges is immensely impactful on both ends of the floor early in his career, which is the point. His 27-point outburst last night doesn’t even fully capture what he can become, and typically these young, two-way wings with early playoff moments eventually become stars, like Leonard, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and others before him. On a team with Paul, Booker, and Ayton, he might not need to, but we’ll know after this summer, when he is extension eligible, what the Suns have planned for him. (That is, along with the also extension-eligible Ayton, and pending free agent Paul.)