Patience pays off Mikal Bridges as NBA Draft nears
NBA.com Global on Jun 16, 2018 08:14 AM
CHICAGO, IL - MAY 15: NBA Draft Prospect, Mikal Bridges poses for a portrait before the NBA Draft Lottery on May 15, 2018 at The Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Chris Dortch, NBA.com
Mikal Bridges is an outlier.
In the one-and-done era, the lottery portion of the NBA Draft has been filled with players who logged a single season of college basketball.
Lottery picks who redshirted are rare -- Kris Dunn of Providence, who sat out a season because of a shoulder injury, was the last one (the Minnesota Timberwolves took him at No. 5 in the 2016 Draft). Rarer still is a lottery pick who redshirted willingly, who chose to take an unconventional career path, who, in this era of instant gratification, chose to be patient.
That’s why Bridges, a 6'7" swingman from Villanova who is projected as a top 10 pick in virtually every mock draft, stands out.
When he showed up on campus in 2014, he weighed less than 180 pounds. His jump-shot mechanics needed adjusting. And the competition ahead of him on the Wildcats’ roster was stout -- future NBA players Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart.
None of that seemed to bother Bridges.
“I was raised to be patient,” Bridges said. “When the coaches brought up the idea [of redshirting], I just knew it was the right thing to do. My body wasn’t ready. I tried to think about my future. I thought the future was more important than the present.”
Little did Bridges know how smart that decision would be. Fitting in perfectly with the small-ball system Villanova coach Jay Wright made fashionable, Bridges helped the Wildcats win an NCAA national championship as a freshman and again last March.
In 2017, he was the Big East Conference’s co-defensive player of the year as Villanova won the league championship and reached the Sweet 16. In his final season, Bridges won the Julius Erving Award, given to the nation’s best small forward, was a third-team All-American, the Big East tournament MVP and earned a spot on the All-Final Four team.
Bridges attributes his ascension and development to Wright and his assistants. “[Wright] never makes you feel comfortable, or like you can relax,” he said. “He pushes you to be the best player you can be, to be mentally tough.”
While all that’s true, the Villanova staff gives just as much credit to Bridges. He saw the need to redshirt, he used his time on the sidelines to improve, and, lastly, continued improving by turning weaknesses into strengths. Additionally, he added size and strength (more than 30 pounds over his career) and accepted coaching, too.
“He got to this point by acquiring a superior work ethic,” said former Villanova assistant Ashley Howard, now the coach at La Salle. “He developed his shot first. He was a good shooter when he came, but he wasn’t the shooter he was when he left.
“He also added explosiveness and physicality on drives, the ability to play through contact and finish. Now he’s a guy that can drill shots or go through the lane and dunk on people. That was a big part of his physical development.”
Though Bridges agreed with the decision to redshirt, the Villanova staff made sure he always knew why.
“It wasn’t an indictment on his game,” said Villanova assistant coach Kyle Neptune. “It wasn’t like he wasn’t good enough. He definitely got his butt kicked sometimes in practice, but he made it tough for other guys at times also.
“Through it all, his confidence never wavered. That’s something very unique about him. He always has the utmost belief in himself. But it’s a silent confidence. … He’s just always been confident in himself, and secure -- on and off the floor.”
The NBA team that drafts Bridges will get a perfect modern-day player with prototypical height and length for a wing position. Plus, he has the ability to space the floor or make defenses pay for over-respecting his jumper, and -- this is a Villanova staple -- a willingness to defend multiple positions.
“I think he can guard the one, two or three at the next level,” Neptune said. “He’s a great anticipator for steals. He can recover and block guys’ shots. He’ll know everything his man’s doing, all his tendencies, because he’ll have studied the scouting report. He picks it up quickly, he retains it, and he knows it.”
Bridges has been a bit taken aback by his ascension up the Draft boards. But as Villanova dominated yet another NCAA Tournament, it provided the showcase for not just Bridges, but point guard Jalen Brunson, big man Omari Spellman and shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo. All of these players left for the Draft with eligibility remaining and are projected by many analysts as first-round picks.
“Last summer, I wasn’t gearing to be a lottery pick,” Bridges said. “I was just trying to become NBA ready. I was confident, and I worked out as if I was a pro, but I never thought I’d be in this situation. Looking back on that redshirt season, it was the best thing for me. I just had to be patient and put in the work.”
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