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Prospect Breakdown: Miles Bridges

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Michigan State Spartans vs Syracuse Orange Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Another edition of Prospect Breakdown is here, this time putting on the surgical gloves to dissect Miles Bridges, the two-year wing out of Michigan State. Bridges was a projected lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but opted for an extended stay in East Lansing, hoping to win a national title while simultaneously improving his draft stock.

Although unable to truly achieve either objective, Bridges is assuredly a more complete player following his sophomore year, sharpening the edges in his game that once made his NBA fit blurry.

In 62 games as a Spartan, Bridges played 31.6 minutes per night, averaging 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks on .470/.375/.776 shooting splits. So, without further ado, let’s dive into some analysis.

Offense

Bridges has a near-ideal frame for today’s NBA as a 6-foot-7, 229-pound forward with range. It was tough to get a perfect read on his offensive game while at Michigan State, mostly because Tom Izzo and Co. grossly misused him.

He was treated as a floor-spacer and slasher with the occasional pick and roll splashed in. In the NBA, he projects as a secondary or tertiary creator with explosive off-ball tendencies and complementary shooting.

The Flint, Michigan, native is powerful and swift with the ball in his hands, often utilizing a twitchy left-to-right rip-through move to beat his defender off the dribble:

Despite shooting 38.9 percent beyond the arc on 144 attempts last season, Bridges’ outside stroke was a looming question mark, in large part due to his paltry free-throw shooting at 68.5 percent.

This season, however, he quelled many of those concerns, raising his free-throw shooting to 85.3 percent and displaying some added confidence and fluidity as a pull-up shooter. He also boasts deep range, netting 35.8 percent (47 of 131 in two seasons) of his looks beyond the NBA 3-point line, per The Stepien’s shot chart.

Nonetheless, Bridges was still forced into a misguided role as a Spartan. Per Synergy, he ranked in the 58th and 66th percentile on spot-ups and off screens, respectively, two hallmark playtypes of snipers. He actually graded out significantly better in isolations (73rd percentile) and as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (93rd percentile), actions well suited for a creator.

Tossing the ball out and simply empowering Bridges to catalyze good looks might have been Michigan State’s best source of offense (at times):

There’s a very real path to Bridges becoming a high-level secondary playmaker in the NBA, part of which is buoyed by his heightened assist percentage and lowered turnover rate from year one to two.

Bridges has a bit of a loose handle — though it’s no less of an issue than his wing contemporaries in this class — but circumvents tunnel vision on drives and is comfortable making entry passes:

In the NBA, where switch-everything schemes have become the league’s version of avocado toast, Bridges might find himself matched up with smaller, quicker wings as teams aim to negate the advantage that would arise against slower 4s. While that might work, he flashed a budding post-up game (56th percentile on 37 possessions), showing that he’s capable of bullying smaller players and finishing with either hand.

Off the ball, Bridges has encouraging tendencies that didn’t always pop off the screen due to some limited playmaking around him. He’s a perceptive cutter, balancing when to use screens and dart backdoor if his defender overplays, and he fills the wings well in transition.

Michigan State’s starting point guard, Cassius Winston, while no slouch as a facilitator, is just 6 feet tall, which hindered some of the reads and passes he could make. Pairing Bridges with someone who has the frame to create those plays, say Sixers youngster Ben Simmons, would transform some of those hypothetical baskets into tangible ones.

When he wasn’t slicing to the rim or bolting down the floor, Bridges had a nasty habit of floating on the perimeter, going long stretches without impact plays. The overarching question for NBA teams is whether or not that was primarily a product of serving as a spot-up shooter or if it’s a sign of things to come, where Bridges doesn’t consistently act as an off-ball weapon.

And while he teased some really nice passes off the dribble and out the pick and roll, he tended to jump in the air before knowing exactly where the ball was traveling, often bailed out due to his superior athleticism:

With a thick build, Bridges displayed the ability to finish through contact, but regularly opted for acrobatic finishes, which was a contributing factor in his troublesome free-throw rate of 24.5 percent over two seasons, and led to his subpar 64.3 percent mark on shots around the rim.

The most glaring hole in his offensive game, however, is a steady diet of contested 2s and 3s, ignoring his explosiveness and burly frame in favor of some of the game’s most inefficient shots:

Bridges should find easier shots at the next level with more talent around him and a smaller burden as the primary scorer. But if his lesser role ends in ugly jumpers rather than a comfortable union of looks at the rim and beyond the arc, his scoring potential dissipates. In Philadelphia, he should have a creative and well-defined job off the bench that’s tailor made for his offensive talents.

Defense

Jotting down a list of Bridges’ offensive strengths trails on far longer than his weaknesses. The opposite, though, can be said of his defensive capabilities to this point.

He’s a putrid off-ball defender anyway you slice it, but most glaringly, it’s his inclination for tracking the ball-handler, losing sight of his man at every passing moment. Usually, he’s a step late once the off-ball motion starts, leaving him trailing the play for its entirety. Other times, he’s just generally apathetic:

The final clip in that sequence is what’s most concerning, delving deeper than just spacey off-ball defense and extending into a shortage of IQ and recognition. Bridges has to identify that his teammate, Jaren Jackson Jr., unequivocally the top shot blocker in this year’s draft class, is the man to crash down and help protect the rim. Rather than rotate over to the perimeter and take away that safety valve, he grows enamored with the ball-handler, dives into the paint and surrenders an open 3.

It’s more than just lapses in focus with Bridges. His approach to navigating screens needs fine-tuning as he’s often caught taking poor routes and angles — maximizing his travel distance. Other times, he fights over when he needs to play under and vise versa.

He doesn’t necessarily struggle to fight through picks; it’s that his philosophy as to how to manage them is flawed. I generally subscribe to the belief that physical skills (strength, quickness, etc.) are far easier to build than technique-based skills (defensive positioning, shooting mechanics, etc.). Bridges’ struggles with off-ball screens fall under the latter category and will be a sizable investment to correct. It’s one that the Sixers can undertake, but one that they might not want to, given their status as a perennial playoff team at this point, hoping to land postseason-ready prospects instead.

While Bridges boasts the skill set to thrive as a small-ball 4, his 6-foot-9 wingspan will leave him struggling to contest shots as a tweener — a player stuck between true positions — against traditionally sized power forwards, mitigating some of the allure that comes with his role as a big.

There’s a wide chasm between Bridges’ on- and off-ball defense, the former of which is a badge that proudly rests on his jersey. He moves his feet well, rarely fouls (2.1 fouls per-40 minutes in two seasons) and remains locked in his defensive stance — a trait many perimeter-oriented prospects don’t exude prior to the NBA.

It didn’t necessarily manifest in an eye-popping block rate, but Bridges seemingly always contested shots near the rim as a help defender, perhaps his lone positive in that area.

As a defender, Bridges might as well be dubbed Two-Face. He has some deep-rooted deficiencies off the ball, ones that likely won’t dissipate with just a year of tutelage, but is effective and impactful on the ball. Bridges improved his game in multiple areas between his freshman and sophomore seasons, which is a good omen for those who believe his struggles as an off-ball defender can eventually be a mere footnote in his game.

Positional Fit

Early on in his Sixers tenure, Bridges projects as a rotational piece off the bench, possessing the versatility to play both forward positions. He might not have a singular positional designation, moving up and down the lineup card depending on matchups.

As a scorer, Bridges can be a dangerous off-ball slasher while also providing perimeter shot creation, a glaring hole in the team’s current roster. He can space the floor beyond the arc and make plays out of the pick and roll when called upon.

The Boston Celtics exposed the limitations of pure 3-and-D wings in the playoffs, regularly forcing Robert Covington to put the ball on the floor and make plays for himself or others — parts of his game that don’t really exist right now. While Bridges doesn’t come to close to matching Covington’s defensive acumen, he possesses far more off-the-bounce juice.

Drafting Bridges could potentially round out Philly’s starting five of the future with Fultz-Simmons-Bridges-Saric-Embiid, given the fact that Covington is 27 and currently enjoying his prime. With an NBA body and enough game to bring a spark off the bench as a rookie, Bridges should be one of the team’s main targets on Thursday.

Draft Projection

Bridges owns one of the steepest differences between his ceiling and floor on draft night, having been projected as high as No. 7 and as low as 15. He isn’t the top player on my Sixers-centric draft board, that spot belongs to hometown hero Mikal Bridges, but he’s firmly entrenched just behind him.

The Sixers desperately need a wing with some shot diversity and facilitating ability, both of which Bridges can bring to Philadelphia. There aren’t many players who blend athleticism with refined skills like Bridges in this draft, especially those who are comfortable playing off the ball. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons already dominating much of the usage — and Markelle Fultz potentially projecting to as well — Bridges’ aptness as an off-ball player would be a comfortable and worthwhile fit.

There’s been a lot of noise surrounding Philly’s plans on draft night, but assuming the club stays put at 10th overall, profiting the former Michigan State Spartan — a forward who can shoot, dribble and pass, premium traits for wings in the modern NBA — should bring a smile to the face of Process Trustees across the globe.