SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Look at Villanova’s box score from its Saturday night win over Kansas in the national semifinal game and try to find the NBA lottery pick on the roster.
Was it the guy who went 10 for 11 from the field, including 4 of 5 three-pointers, and finished with 24 points in 29 minutes?
No, that would be Eric Paschall. He’s a transfer student from Fordham, usually the third scoring option.
How about this guy? He had 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.
Nope. That’s Omari Spellman. He’s a redshirt freshman. Tremendous upside, but not there yet for the next level.
OK, got him. It’s the point guard with 18 points, six assists and a steal. He was 4 for 6 on two-point shots, 3 for 8 on three-point shots, dead solid.
Sorry. Jalen Brunson is an NBA player, but the lottery will be long over when his name is called, and it might not even be this year.
Wait a minute. There’s another guy, but he doesn’t really jump off the sheet. Made a couple of three-pointers, finished with 10 points. Had some rebounds, got some blocks and steals. Him?
Bingo. Mikal Bridges will be taken somewhere in the first dozen picks of the NBA draft if all the projections are accurate. Expecting him to always stand out within the confines of the Villanova team would be inaccurate.
It isn’t that he can’t. NBA scouts have seen enough during his three seasons to know what Bridges can do. He can shoot, he can dribble-drive, he can defend with incredible length and speed. If those same scouts were only paying attention now, however, their reports might not be the same.
In the five games Villanova has played since the NCAA tournament started, Bridges has only scored 20 points once. He has blended into the share-the-ball offense for a very good reason, and that is because opponents put his name at the top of the list of players that must be stopped. Bridges takes that respect as a compliment.
“Most definitely,” he said. “I love being unselfish. I play with four other guys on the court. So it’s not just about one person going out there trying to get numbers or anything like that. We just love … trying to find each other and keeping the ball moving.”
The Wildcats rang up 95 points in beating Kansas and, yes, Bridges only had 10 of them. Other guys with one foot already in the NBA might not accept that, or might worry that a quiet NCAA tournament would hurt their draft standing. He’s not one of those guys.
“He’s so talented. He’s a freak,” Brunson said. “He has length, he has athleticism, he has game, he has everything. To play with someone like that who doesn’t even acknowledge how good he is, is a very fortunate situation.”
That’s one way to put it, particularly when teams load their defenses against Bridges and rush to help when he has the ball and is being guarded one-on-one.
“With what he can do and all the attention he receives, if he wanted to he could just go off of on his own and do his own thing,” guard Phil Booth said. “But he’s unselfish. He doesn’t care about points. If he sees two guys in front of him, he skips the ball. And we feed off that. If he can share the ball, then we can all share the ball.”
Booth said a good example was an early season game against Tennessee. The Wildcats trailed by 12 at the half and Bridges was the only player doing anything offensively.
“At halftime, he said, ‘Hey, you guys go get the points. I’ll play defense, get blocks, get rebounds,’” Booth said. “That’s the kind of person he is.”
Villanova outscored Tennessee by 21 points in the second half, a great story. But all the stories about Bridges at Villanova come to an end Monday night when he plays his final game. If form holds, he will join the very short list of lottery picks who not only redshirted in their freshman year but played three full seasons and failed to score 30 points in any game of their college careers.
“It’s a matter of humility and intelligence,” coach Jay Wright said. “He’s humble enough that he doesn’t have to be the star, and smart enough to know that his presence on the floor is … affecting the opponent more than anyone knows.”
In other words, Paschall wouldn’t be open to score all those baskets if Bridges weren’t drawing so much defensive attention. Spellman wouldn’t have all those rebounds if Bridges weren’t playing defense on the perimeter that forces opponents to take bad shots. Brunson wouldn’t have the assists. Donte DiVincenzo wouldn’t get the wide-open looks. And on and on, with every player on the floor.
No, you often can’t find the lottery pick in the Villanova box score. But watch the game and there he is. Monday night, for the Wildcats, Mikal Bridges will be there for the last time and that is a passage worth savoring.