While the popular rookies in the 2018 NBA Draft class are already making their mark, one lottery pick in particular has quietly made his through two preseason games.
Miles Bridges, the 12th player taken in his class, has floored the Charlotte Hornets’ coaching staff and teammates with just one week of training camp under his belt.
“He picks things up quicker than I anticipated,” head coach James Borrego admitted at practice Monday. “His feel for the NBA game is much higher than I thought. He’s starting to figure out rhythms, screen action, terminology—and I think we saw that [Sunday] night on both ends.”
Taking on the Boston Celtics for the second time in the same weekend, Bridges brought a little bit of everything to the table. He put the ball on the floor and attacked the cup. He converted on four of six shots from beyond the arc. He defended at a high level, as the team had asked him to.
All of this was done while playing in multiple spots in the rotation, too. Borrego tried Bridges anywhere in the frontcourt, from small forward to center—and he thrived with each opportunity.
“Coach, he throws me in practice all the time he puts me in different positions,” Bridges said. “He’s put me at the three, the four. You’d seen last game he put me at the five a little bit. Because he knows I could play different positions, I could learn spots quickly—so that’s why I watched a lot of film with the coaches.”
Starting with floor spacing, Borrego pointed out that the pro game is completely different than what Bridges is used to as an individual defender. Playing in a Big 10 Conference rich with dominant big men, the interior was a logjam—so he hasn’t been quite exposed to a typical NBA scheme in the half-court.
“I think playing in his conference, everything’s packed in the paint,” Borrego said. “Right now, it’s a spread floor in the NBA. You’re asked to do more defensively. There’s more switching going on. So it’s a lot being thrown at him right now.”
Knowing how valuable versatility is in this league, Nic Batum is a huge fan of what Bridges brings to the table, especially on the defensive end. The rookie can switch onto any position with any of his teammates because of his rare ability and size.
“That’s the NBA right now,” Batum said. “He’s like one of those guys that we can do so many things with him in many positions… to have a guy like that on our team, it’s great for us.”
On the other hand, an open floor on Charlotte’s side allows Bridges to operate as a playmaker. Being a confident shooter—and showing why with his six made threes already—forces defenses to close out on the three-point line. The 20-year-old can make you pay as a driver, whether it be finishing with force or finding a teammate on a kick.
Batum foresees plenty of easy looks for Bridges on the outside, but he and Borrego understand how much knocking down shots opens things up for everybody.
“It changes his whole game,” Borrego said. “He becomes a totally different player. When you can close out short against a guy versus a guy you gotta close out to, now he can drive by ‘em. If you close short on him, he can shoot the ball. He just creates so much more offense for us if he’s making that shot.
“But I don’t want him to live in the three-point land. He’s got so much more game than that. If he can do both, we’ve got a heck of a player on our hands.”
Having seen his fair share of years in the NBA, Batum couldn’t agree more with his new head coach. The veteran forward was asked who Bridges reminds him of, and his answer was quite telling.
“He’s pretty unique,” Batum said while pondering his next words. “I’m gonna say a guy like Shawn Marion…with a better shot. Like a young Shawn Marion.
“Sky’s the limit for him. He’s young… We’ll be so spread. We’ve got no one in the paint, literally, like we used to last year. So the paint’s gonna be open for anyone, especially for him.”
The physicality and speed of the game are other areas that Bridges will need to get used to, but he’s already feeling good about it.
“I’m starting to get used to the pace, to the defense and getting adjusted to everything,” Bridges said. “The guys, they have me feeling comfortable with everything, so it’s not taking me long to get adjusted.”
Borrego believes, however, that Bridges will have the most difficult time adapting to the rigors of a seven-month NBA season. The talent level, the number of different sets to guard, the rotating assignments—those are the things that can’t be learned overnight.
Still, nothing has really surprised Bridges to this point. He knew it’d be more physical and a quicker game. He’s picking things up on the fly and applying that knowledge on a daily basis.
That’s why Borrego and Charlotte are truly excited. Bridges is grasping things at a rapid pace that wasn’t expected, at least at this high of a level.
“He can handle a little bit more,” Borrego said. “I still gotta keep it simple. We gotta keep it simple for him because this is all new to him. But at the rate he’s learning, he’s picking things up, I’m gonna go with it, and the more he handles, the more I can throw at him.”
Bridges was a consensus lottery pick in most mock drafts two years ago, with some even going as high as inside the top 10.
Staying an extra year at Michigan State was beneficial for him, but the Hornets could ultimately be the real winners of Bridges’ decision back then.
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