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June 18, 2018

Sixers prospect preview: Where does Miles Bridges fit in Philadelphia's lineup?

In advance of this June's 2018 NBA Draft, the Sixers have a lot of preparation to do in order to narrow down the field of candidates who will be available at the No. 10 pick. They haven't asked for our help, but I will provide it for the fans in the form of scouting reports on a mix of players who (realistically) could be available when the Sixers are on the clock at No. 10.

Not every one of these players we will profile at PhillyVoice is someone I would advocate drafting, and in fact, a large part of this exercise will be forming and explaining my personal view on players who exist on either end of the plausibility spectrum. You will (hopefully!) read about guys like Mikal Bridges, viewed as a near-consensus target, and wild-card picks like Zhaire Smith, raw but talented young men who might represent a bigger home-run swing.

By the end of this process, my hope is that you feel a little bit stronger about whatever beliefs you have about these guys, or that I have challenged what you thought you knew about the various players on the board.

Up next on the hit list: Michigan State's Miles Bridges, a presumed lottery pick last season who returned for an uneven sophomore campaign in East Lansing.

The measurables

Age: 20 (turns 21 in March 2019)

Height: 6'6.75"

Wingspan: 6'9.5"

Weight: 220.4

College averages (2 seasons): 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 45.7/37.5/77.6 shooting splits

The offensive package

Enough offensive versatility to warrant a closer look

With his stock firmly in the lottery following a productive freshman year under Tom Izzo, Miles Bridges shocked a lot of people when he returned for another college season. Players don't often stand to gain a whole lot if they can get drafted that high, and another year under the spotlight forces people to look at flaws a little more critically — assuming they still remain from the year before.

Of the players we're examining to potentially go to the Sixers at No. 10, Bridges was arguably the most productive out of all of them at the college level. And most importantly from a Philadelphia perspective, his biggest red flag in the shooting department was rectified between his freshman and sophomore seasons. After shooting just 68.5 percent from the free-throw line his first year in school — a bad omen for NBA-range shooting — he improved that number to 85.3 percent this past season on more total attempts.

That makes you feel a little more confident in Bridges' ability to space the floor and hit shots playing off of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. He has smooth, repeatable mechanics as a shooter, and did showcase a bit more shooting variety this season than he'd shown previously. Bridges shot on the move a bit more than he did in year one, in part because of how Tom Izzo structured his lineups.

This is obviously a positive for the Sixers, who need more guys they can run around screens and design looks for. Bridges is certainly no JJ Redick, but the Sixers need all the shooting diversity they can find.

Where Bridges' ultimate upside falls depends on how you feel about the rest of his game. His athletic tools are top shelf, and that's part of why he's been able to excel as a rebounder and finisher throughout his college career. He's definitely a weapon as a cutter, because he doesn't need much space to load up and make above-the-rim plays in traffic. The Sixers have desperately needed more guys who can go into the teeth of a defense and make things happen, so Bridges fits the bill there.

There have been subtle improvements in some of his deficiencies which should be taken into consideration. After posting a negative assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman, Bridges cut his turnovers and slightly bumped up his assist total in 2017-18. The volume there isn't especially impressive, but they look a little better with context: the Spartans played a ton of two-big lineups, and though Jaren Jackson Jr. offered floor spacing it still makes playmaking a little wonky for a wing player to effectively play alongside two centers.

However, it's examining that dynamic and where Bridges plays at the next level that will ultimately determine how successful he is as a pro.

Will he be able to translate his game matched up against NBA 3's?

Moving Bridges to more of a true "3" role this season could be looked at as proof that's where his future lies at the next level. But due to a combination of size/skill (or lack thereof) he could find himself a man without a country at the NBA level.

Bridges' measurements at the NBA Draft Combine were a little underwhelming, and ultimately it leaves you wondering how he's going to routinely exploit matchups in the pros. When he's simply attacking big men with his handle, Bridges is plenty adequate at turning the corner and getting the job done. But bigs get stronger and quicker at the next level, and his lack of a dynamic handle is going to make it harder to generate shots for himself and others.

That goes double for when he's not attacking switches. Bridges' handle becomes a bigger problem against wing players or even power forwards because he simply isn't a good enough pull-up shooter to offset his issues getting to the basket. He made just 33.7 percent of his pull-up jumpers as a sophomore and shot a combined 26.3 percent on them in his two college seasons. He would have to take a tremendous leap forward in that department to be a plus player on offense, at least using any realistic set of expectations.

If Bridges was going to be any sort of secondary creator at the next level, that likely would have shown up by now. His small improvement as a passer notwithstanding, he hasn't served as a consistent playmaker and shouldn't be expected to magically turn into one now. The modern NBA demands players who can create for themselves and others all over the floor, and Bridges isn't going to help raise a team's ceiling there.

Versatility, in fact, is the name of the game these days. In theory, Bridges offers a lot of different components that could add up to a productive player. But he's probably going to be undersized at either position he'll be playing, and that makes it a bit more likely he'll end up being a jack of all trades, master of none.   

The defense

Athleticism that can theoretically be turned into an asset

The aforementioned two-big situation at Michigan State took away some of Bridges' defensive value this season through no fault of his own. When he was able to play more power forward minutes as a freshman, his block totals and weak-side presence lent hope that he'd be able to translate his physical tools to production in the NBA.

At his best, Bridges looked like a multi-position defender who uses quick feet, excellent lateral movement, and a combination of weight/explosiveness that helps disrupt players on the perimeter. He guarded all the way down to the point guard spot at Michigan State, which is pretty impressive even if you take into consideration the athletic difference between NCAA point guards and their NBA counterparts.

Bridges' steal and block numbers are largely unimpressive, but you could make the case that this is scheme-based rather than a full-on indictment of his ability to impact the game there. Michigan State plays one of the more conservative defensive systems in the country, so his ability to create defensive "events" are artificially limited in a way they wouldn't be at the next level.

Playing within the framework of Philadelphia's defense, there would be a considerable jump in freedom to take risks for Bridges. As we've seen Robert Covington do to great effect, Brett Brown is okay with his wing players taking gambles for steals, predominantly because it's more palatable to do so when Embiid is a human safety blanket behind you. So there's some untapped upside here, assuming you can get Bridges committed to the defensive end of the floor.

Inconsistent motor, and more matchup problems

Unfortunately, that might be a little easier said than done. His low steals numbers are a product of scheme, sure, but they're also a reflection of his own habits and limitations on defense. Bridges falls victim to a lot of ball-watching away from the play, and when combined with his lack of "production" on defense it suggests there is a lack of defensive IQ there.

The assumption with a lot of guys who have athletic tools and maybe not the focus/intelligence on defense at a young age is that if they just put in more work, they will eventually be impact defenders. That tends to be a reckless belief, as there are countless examples of athletic phenoms who never overcome their apathy on that side of the ball. Here's looking at you, Andrew Wiggins.

On top of that issue, Bridges also isn't exactly an across-the-board winner in the physicality/tools department. His combination of height and length would be just fine if he were a shooting guard, but his best shot is guarding threes and fours at the next level. As with the offensive side of the ball, he's going to end up undersized for a large percentage of said matchups, and doesn't have a lot of counters to turn to in order to overcome this disadvantage.

I would not go so far as to call him a lost cause on that end of the floor, because he does have plenty of moments where he competes and has learned to use his frame well for such a young player. What he lacks in length he makes up for by crowding shooters and would-be drivers, using his thick frame functionally. Using the tools at his disposal well is a positive sign, and suggests there may be untapped potential if a team can find him a long-term defensive role that makes sense.

But I'm not generally in the business of assuming players who can't stay engaged on defense are going to figure that out over time. The path for him to be an impact defender is hard to see from a bird's eye view. 

Does he make sense for the Sixers at No. 10?

If the burner accounts tied to the Colangelo family are to be believed, Miles Bridges will absolutely be in the mix when the NBA Draft takes place this Thursday. Conceptually it's not the worst idea in the world, as he represents a combination of present-day talent and future upside that is hard to sneeze at.

A lot of the problems I can foresee with his offensive game could be mitigated by the increased space he'll have in the NBA. His handle is not a total disaster and he has the physical talent to take small windows of separation and turn them into baskets.

Unfortunately, his concerns as a pull-up shooter will likely offset that and give him a steep hill to climb to be an impact player. His size and defensive limitations sort of just are what they are, and barring a wild leap in defensive attentiveness he's probably not going to be able to close the gap. Upside is there, it's just a question of whether it's reasonably likely for him to reach his top percentile outcomes.

I think there are better options to be had in this range, either because they offer more potential in the shot-making department, more playmaking equity, or a more solid base of defense and IQ to fall back on. All of those are things the Sixers need and should be prioritizing, even if Bridges seems to offer an intriguing combination of talents.

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