Fifth in an occasional series looking at some of Philadelphia’s men’s basketball players to watch.
When Jay Wright and his staff recruit high school players, “we always look at what would be their greatest potential,” the Villanova coach said. “You try to explain how hard you are going to have to work to get to that point. If you look at what’s their greatest potential and you reach just short of that, you’re still a pretty good player.”
“I have to say with Mikal, he’s approaching meeting his best potential,” Wright said. “I think we’ve got a shot to see that this year.”
This from a player who has played only two college seasons after taking a redshirt following terrific numbers in every category during his high school career at Great Valley.
It is why Bridges, despite not having averaged double figures in his college career, is the best NBA prospect in the city, his name in the first round of most mock drafts, if he decides to make his third season on a college court his last.
“What’s really interesting about him is that if he’s not at his best this year, he’s got another year to do it,” Wright said. “He’s in a really good spot because he’s been very coachable and very committed for three years. It’s been a joy to work with him.”
Bridges is an NBA-level defender right now. He’s 6-foot-6 with extremely long arms, quite capable of defending any perimeter position in a league that has become perimeter-dominant.
“When I was young, I used to pick up full court and try to pick-pocket people,” Bridges said. “That was the big thing.”
In high school, he was just better than everybody else, so defense was not a concentration. When he got to Villanova, he remembered those early days.
“I have length,” Bridges said. “That helps me out big-time — and just being quick off my feet for my size.”
His menacing presence at the top of the Wildcats’ 1-2-2, three-quarter-court trap can be frightening for any ball handler. He has 102 steals in just 76 games, but there is no telling how many turnovers he has caused by forcing bad passes into no man’s land.
Where does he rank as a defender in the years Wright has been associated with the program, going back to when Wright was with Rollie Massimino?
“He’s the best I’ve seen here since I was an assistant with Gary Massey,” Wright said, referring to the 1987-88 Big East defensive player of the year. “He can get so many things done. … Just his ability there defensively at the next level makes him valuable.”
But his defense is not close to the whole story: Bridges rarely takes bad shots. In fact, he shot 54.9 percent from the field last season. He went nearly two months without missing a free throw, shooting 51 of 56 from the line (91.1 percent) — a huge jump from his first season, when he shot 78.7 percent.
“My mom used to make me do push-ups every time I missed a free throw in high school,” Bridges said.
He did the push-ups when he got home. That is no longer an issue.
Bridges’ three-point shooting went from 29.9 percent in his first season to 39.3 percent. And he is deadly on corner threes, which have become so in vogue in the NBA because they are just 22 feet, as opposed to the 23-9 beyond the corners.
Bridges is not unmindful of the NBA talk, but he is in no particular hurry, either.
“I really don’t look at stuff like that,” he said. “It’s a good thing to know people realize how hard I play. … I just focus on what can I do to make my team better. Looking at stuff like that is not going to help me or help us.”
At Great Valley, Bridges scored 1,340 points, grabbed 511 rebounds, and had 158 assists, 158 blocks and 97 steals. He was an athletic marvel then and now.
There was no plan to redshirt Bridges.
“In the summer before his freshman year, he was playing extremely well,” Wright said. “We were thinking, ‘This kid is going to play a lot.’ As we got into the fall, the grind of the fall preseason started to get to him physically; he started to get banged around. He was really thin. We were actually thinking he could get hurt. It was that drastic of a swing.
“He saw it. We saw it. He needed the year to get stronger. It wasn’t that he wasn’t talented enough or skilled enough — he was getting physically beat up. We just knew he needed to be stronger to be effective in Big East play. He knew it, too.”
Bridges has been more than strong enough since he took the court in a Villanova uniform, starting with the 2015-16 national-championship season.
The NBA scouts “really like him,” Wright said. “This summer, he went to the Nike camp and the Adidas camp and did really well. I really think he’s got the potential to be an even better NBA player. He’s reaching his potential, but he’s not there yet.”
Wright credits Great Valley coach Jim Nolan with “doing an amazing job of teaching him how to play without the ball.”
So he fit in immediately at Villanova, Wright said, “cutting, slashing, running the floor, and with a good jump shot.”
And Bridges has worked really hard on that jumper. It must be respected, which gives him opportunities to fly to the rim, where he is a devastating finisher.
Wright likes Bridges the person even more than his game.
“As humble and as coachable as any kid we’ve ever had,” Wright said.
Now, as a fourth-year junior, Mikal Bridges is one of the older players on a team that will once again start off in the Top 10. It is impossible to top the ending to his first Villanova season on the court, when the Wildcats won the national championship in Houston. But whenever it ends for Bridges, there likely won’t be doubt that he has played to his absolute maximum potential.