The highly-touted Michigan State star enters the 2018 NBA Draft as a tough player to assess. His athleticism is off the charts, but “tweener” status and other weaknesses could drop Miles Bridges in the lottery—and give the Knicks a chance to take the college stud.
You still remember Miles Bridges, right? The uber-athletic wing from Michigan State that decided to play an extra season in college even though everyone—and I mean everyone—told him not to? Okay, just making sure. I surely wouldn’t blame you if you did forget about him, because it seems as though Mikal Bridges has been the only Bridges people seem interested in these days.
This was probably not the way Miles envisioned it when he decided to return for another season at Michigan State. Or maybe it was. Improving his draft position was not his concern. He wanted to improve himself, and mostly, he wanted a national title. Bridges did not get his storybook ending—an evergreen trend in college basketball—yet his status as a lottery talent remains intact. Overall, you have to consider Miles’ decision a success.
That call to remain in school could also end up being a blessing for a team returning to the lottery, like the Knicks. Had Miles come out last season, each team would have had to choose between him and a player they were also high on. Now they have the chance to get both. What makes Miles so appealing? His versatility. You can’t pinpoint his position. Bridges’ path to the NBA took was one less traveled, for good reason. Let’s jump in.
Tale of the Tape
Weight: 220.4 lbs
1. Post Offense
Miles projects to be a wing that splits time between small forward and small-ball power forward. The general consensus is that he performs better on offense when matched with a bigger defender. During his freshman season, Bridges played a chunk of his minutes at the four, where he was able to drive by slow-footed defenders for highlight-reel dunks. His sophomore season placed him mainly on the perimeter, where he had spells where he would settle for long jumpers.
While his offensive game is solid overall, his inability to take smaller defenders on in the post remains an Achilles’ heel:
Bridges has yet to identify a post move he trusts completely. When he backs down, he rushes his shot. He had flashes of solid post play. Above, Miles found a good space to set up shop, but simply lacked the touch to finish. Lucky for Miles, he has time to iron out the kinks. Unlike Kristaps, he does not have ever-expanding reach:
Here is where lack of experience down low hurt Bridges throughout the year. He draws Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger, a dude that stands around the same height as Bridges at 6-6. Regardless, Miles has the advantage at just about every point in this matchup. His first mistake was going baseline. He drew another defender and compromised himself in the process. Rather than using his 35-pound weight advantage to back Pflueger under the hoop, Miles opted for a high difficulty pass which led to a turnover.
Experience could be the remedy to this problem. He has the strength and agility to develop a go-to move. Perhaps, something like this:
Bridges has also proven that, in due time, he should improve his shooting touch. He managed to increase his free-throw percentage from 68.5 percent as a freshman to a glistening 85.3 percent as a sophomore, a strong sign for his future as a shooter.
2. Ball Handling
Had Bridges been a member of last year’s draft class, this would have been a larger area of concern. To form an opinion on his handle is dependent on which lens you look at him through. For instance, if you consider him as a power forward, his handle is pretty solid. If you envision him as your small forward of the future, then you may think his dribbling needs serious work.
The main problem is simple: he doesn’t hold the ball tight. When you watch elite guards handle, the ball seems to disappear for moments. That’s how close to their body the ball is. Miles holds the ball like bait at the end of a fishing rod:
Look at any of those drives, and you’ll see where the ball is at all times. In the open court, it is less of a problem—but in traffic, the defense will force the turnover. He also stops mid-drive to take tough jumpers from time to time à la 2014 J.R. Smith:
Syracuse amplified this weakness in their Sweet 16 win over Michigan State. The infamous “Orange zone” turned the paint into Grand Central during rush hour. With nowhere to go, Bridges was forced to shoot twice as many threes (12) as two-point attempts (6). His aggressiveness was neutralized, evidenced by his one visit to the free-throw line.
If the plan for him is to play outside, Bridges will have to improve upon that. The lanes will be there for Miles. He’s built like battering ram, so he’ll inevitably get to the rack. He just has to make sure the ball is with him when he gets there.
Bridges’ athleticism is limitless, but his reach is undoubtedly a question mark. The Jalen Rose comparison for Miles would probably be Draymond Green—an undersized forward from Michigan State that came into the draft with a chip on his shoulder. Green is around the same height as Bridges, but where their similarities divert is wingspan. Green has a 7’0” wingspan which is what allows him to be such a pest against larger opponents.
Unfortunately, Miles does not possess the wingspan needed to guard power forwards and centers. His reach at the combine measured at 6’9.5”, which is nothing to scoff at, but if he has to guard someone like a Lauri Markkanen or, worse yet, an Anthony Davis, he will have serious problems. Look at how the 6’9” Tyler Cook gets his shot up with little friction:
With limited reach, his only play on taller players is jumping, which leads to fouls. Luckily for Bridges, a lot of teams are getting smaller, so he will end up being assigned to the likes of Harrison Barnes’ or Dario Saric’s of the league rather than the Zach Randolph’s.
Help defense is where he could subside any concerns. The Knicks worked on “help side” a lot with Wendell Carter Jr. during his workout. You can bet Miles worked on it when he visited Saturday, too. With Kristaps Porzingis next to him and Frank Ntilikina in backcourt, Bridges would be use that quantum leaping ability to assist on the weak side.
He has the ability to at least alter the shot or wipe it from existence:
1. Limitless Leaps
The only prospects in Bridges’ athletic atmosphere are fellow presumptive lottery mates Mo Bamba and Zhaire Smith. The most impressive thing about his freakish jumping ability is how much weight Bridges carried going up. He weighed about 240 lbs at Michigan State and is now down to around 220 where he thinks his explosiveness will only be amplified.
“I feel quicker and more explosive at 220 and it’s a good weight to play at,’’ Miles told reporters at the combine. Prior to his weight loss, he was already a force gravity was not ready to deal with:
Not only can Bridges lift off with ease, but he doesn’t even need a running start to do so. He didn’t test his vertical at the combine, but I’d be willing to wager that it was in the neighborhood of Smith (41.5 inches) or even Donte DiVincenzo (42.0 inches). His ability to levitate comes in handy on the boards, an area in which he thrived at Michigan State.
During his freshman season—one that saw him spend most of his time at the four—Bridges averaged 8.3 rebounds per game. His sophomore average went down a bit to 7.0 per game, but he actually grabbed five more total rebounds (237) than he did as a freshman. You can credit his affinity for cleaning the glass on two things—his hops and his energy.
2. High Energy
Speaking of that energy! You can teach guys how to shoot, dribble, and box out. You cannot teach energy. What Miles also does better than most is move without the ball. Last season, Doug McDermott possessed that same skill and reaped the benefits by way of easy feeds similar to this (without the ferocious finish).
This Miles Bridges can jump huh pic.twitter.com/nninFVmhZL
— Matt Spendley (@mattspendley) February 21, 2018
Miles could fill the void Doug left behind and he’ll have willing passers at his disposal. Frank Ntilikina’s vision is a strong suit. Kyle O’Quinn (assuming he stays with the team) loved throwing that alley to Carmelo:
Replace Carmelo with Miles and that play is open a hell of a lot more, with a larger margin of error. The Knicks have severely lacked true athletes the past few seasons so these plays were not there as often. Bridges could shift that dynamic.
3. Offensive Arsenal
When you skim Bridges’ scoring figures, it looks like he returned to Michigan State to just mild improvement. However, if his two years at East Lansing are put into a vacuum, you notice how the little things add up to a refined product.
Bridges managed to clean up on some of his earlier mistakes. His turnover percentage improved from 13.9 percent to 11.6. He increased free throw percentage by 17 points, and on the other end, did not foul as often. Bridges also improved both his offensive and defensive ratings while scoring around the same clip.
Now this the Miles Bridges people fall in love with, explosive off the bounce with the AUTHORITATIVE FINISH pic.twitter.com/8xYVqxRVEp
— Matt Spendley (@mattspendley) February 10, 2018
Last season, Tom Izzo really pushed him. Not only did Bridges have to be the team’s top creator, but he also had to be the go-to scorer. Couple those duties with the fact he had to move out to the wing in order to create room for Jaren Jackson Jr. at the four, and the responsibilities on his shoulders start to add up. In that cluster (which looked eerily similar to Carmelo-Amar’e-Tyson frontcourt traffic jam) he shot more threes—51 more attempts to be exact—but also began to find comfort in his scoring.
This was the best play of his college career, and it’s fitting it was towards the end. His shooting mechanics have always been solid. His confidence to shoot those shots in a myriad of ways was not. That pull-up game winner does not happen during his freshman campaign. He looked like there was no sweat on his brow when he raised up for that shot.
He carried that same confidence any spot on the floor.
His scoring duty would not be the same in New York as it was in East Lansing. Most nights Bridges will be the third or fourth option. But trust that there will be nights where Fizdale might look to someone like him to carry the team. That is an area maybe Mikal Bridges is not as polished in. Miles had to do it through the Big Ten for two seasons. His addition of the pull-up jumper allows him to take on the task.
4. Mental Maturity
I am well aware there is no measurement of mental strength. Having said that, the most impressive feat of Bridges’ career, to me, was his decision to return for his sophomore season. Not just the decision itself—which has proven to be fatal for some prospects like Jared Sullinger—but his ability to stick to his guns. One of the first questions about playing in New York that arises is dealing with the media microscope. When Bridges decided to return to school, everyone from Izzo to his own mother told him to reconsider.
His decision to stay the extra year was a challenge to the ethos of the one-and-done culture. If a player is projected as a lottery pick, they almost have to go. And as his mom told him, there were bills to be paid. Still, he followed the plan he believed to be the right one. If Miles was able to deal with the repercussions and blowback from the shocking decision, dealing with the tabloids will be a layup.
New York’s core of young guys shared this mental strength. Porzingis handled boos on draft night. Ntilikina received a warmer welcome, but had to deal with struggles of his own and remained confident. Bridges would bring a similar mindset and add to a locker room that has the potential to grow into something special.
Where Does He Fit?
Let’s assume Bridges is the pick at nine. Where does he fit with this current roster?
From day one, David Fizdale has preached a shift towards position-less basketball. That makes Miles’ fit more preferential than a necessity. Fizdale could choose to start him at the small-ball four from the jump with Porzingis out. When Porzingis returns, Fiz could opt to play Bridges at the three in a more traditional lineup.
The Michigan State star believes he could play the two, three, or four. Given his physical gifts and understanding of the game, that should not be ruled out. Given next year will be a wash, Fiz could experiment with B ridges playing the five in super small lineups.
The great thing is no matter where he plays, Miles will know his role. Fran Fraschilla summed it up best when talking about both Bridges:
“They are high-character, no-maintenance guys who’ve been coached hard in college. The great thing about those guys, it’s not all about them. While they were two of the best college players in the country the last two years, it’s clear they know how to be a piece of the puzzle. In the NBA being a piece of the puzzle as a role player is critical. And neither of these guys are one-and-done.”
He doesn’t have to be the savior of the franchise. The Knicks have (hopefully) addressed that need already. What they really need is a supporting piece to their puzzle. Look around at the truly successful teams, and you will see the high-impact role players like Draymond Green, Marcus Smart, and Trevor Ariza. Miles Bridges could be that guy. Or he could be much more. His floor is one of the highest in the lottery. As for his ceiling, could he become a star? Possibly. But let’s cross that “bridge” when we get there.