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May 20, 2018

Sixers Prospect Preview: Does Mikal Bridges do enough to justify top-10 selection?

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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.

First up on the list: the aforementioned Bridges, who played his college ball just down the road at Villanova.

The measurables

Age: 21 (turns 22 August 30)

Height: 6'7"

Wingspan: 7'0.5"

Weight: 209 lbs.

College averages (3 seasons): 11.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 52.5/40.0/84.5 shooting splits

The offensive package

Shooting that should translate

When he arrived on the NCAA scene in 2015-16 following a redshirt season, Bridges was an exceptional role player who still had a lot of work to do to look the part of a surefire NBA prospect on offense. He was more a bundle of energy and tools than anything during Villanova's first championship run, a bench figure on a team loaded with upperclassmen and well-rounded players.

A lot has changed since 2016, and the most important progression for Bridges' NBA hopes has come in the three-point department. He was not much of a shooter in either volume or accuracy during his first season with Jay Wright, but over the course of the two seasons since he has turned himself into a high-volume marksman from beyond the arc.

 Season 3PA/G3P% 
 2015-161.9 (77 total) 29.9 
 2016-173.1 (112 total)  39.3
 2017-186.0 (239 total) 43.5 

If you're not so good at the reading numbers thing, Bridges has only gotten more efficient as his responsibility and volume of shots has gone up. That's what you'd expect from a college player older than many of his teenage peers, admittedly, but rapid improvement of any kind should be celebrated, particularly when it's in a department as important as three-point shooting.

What's even more important for Bridges' NBA hopes are the types of shots he is making combined with a high release point on his jumper and the other tools in his war chest. He's probably never going to be a big threat as an off-the-dribble shooter, but in pretty much all the important off-ball looks wings need to thrive in at the pro level, Bridges has excelled as an amateur.

Bridges' shot can be a bit mechanical in spots, but overall he has the base to be an excellent shooter in all the ways the Sixers need from their wings. One of his biggest areas of improvement has come as a threat coming around screens. Not every guy with Bridges' length utilizes it enough as a shooter, but he has developed a release that makes his jumper very hard to contest or bother on the perimeter.

Go through Bridges' shooting clips from the last two seasons at Nova, and you see success out of all sorts of sets. Wright had Bridges coming out of pin-downs, flare screens, and even sometimes as just a corner shooter. Bridges succeeded at almost all of it, and showed a lot of offensive versatility as one of the alpha dogs of this past season's title team.

If we ended Bridges' offensive profile right there and just combined that with the three-point numbers, you would already have a strong case for an excellent fit. Where Bridges can set himself apart from Philadelphia's wings/shooters, to say nothing of how he compares to his peers in the draft class, is his combination of that shooting with above-the-rim elements on offense.

Bridges' percentage at the rim while at Villanova was extremely high up until this season (81.7% freshman, 79.8% sophomore), a result of him having to create more of his own offense. When he's not asked to beat guys in isolation, Bridges has both the length and the touch to finish in traffic at the basket. He doesn't have the highest end hops you're ever going to see, but he would immediately be the best-combined shooter and finisher on Philadelphia's roster.

If you draft Bridges in the top-10, you're banking heavily on his ability to shoot at the next level. His free-throw numbers and drastic, constant improvement there bode well at the next level.

But does he do enough else on offense?

The bad news for Bridges, both within the context of the Sixers and the league at large, is that he doesn't project to have a ton of creation equity from the wing. That inherently caps his ceiling, just as it has for the dozens of three-and-D players who have come before him.

Many Sixers fans unhappy with Robert Covington seem excited to project Bridges out as an upgrade over the veteran wing over the long-term. The problem with that projection is that their skill packages aren't wildly different when comparing performance during equivalent college seasons.

The same ballhandling trouble that has capped Covington's offensive upside in the NBA has been present dating back to college and his early D-League years. Bridges has a lot of the same problems with the ball in his hands as Covington does and did, and his ceiling will be ultimately be determined by his development there.

It's also reductive to boil it down to, "He's not that good at dribbling." That is indeed the case for Bridges, who struggles to navigate with bodies around him and the ball in his hands. But on-ball limitations extend to a lack of passing vision out of those same plays, which can lead to stalled possessions or live-ball turnovers teams can punish going the other way. At his worst, he's mechanical with his decision-making and just doesn't see open teammates on the perimeter. 

For a player with as much responsibility as Bridges had in his final college season, he also didn't get to the line as you'd like to see for a high-level prospect. That too is tied to his handle and a strength issue which isn't going to get less noticeable against NBA athletes.

Comparisons to Covington certainly don't work on a one-to-one level. Bridges had to deal with a much higher responsibility as a handler in college, and Covington was used a ton as a four and even a five at Tennessee State, limiting his reps as a pick-and-roll handler. He's also been a much, much more efficient passer than Covington was in college.

But if a focus on shooting improvement was the key to him solidifying his NBA future, his improvement when on the ball on offense is the key to how his career will unfold from here. The Sixers could especially use more players who can put the ball on the floor and attack defenders, which they found out the hard way after being blitzed by Boston's defense in round two.

The defense

Long and switchable is always good

If you were judging Bridges' defensive contributions on reputation alone, you'd start throwing him into future Defensive Player of the Year discussions. His college head coach has called him the best defensive player he has ever coached, and he certainly has all the tools to create havoc on the defensive end.

His reputation probably outstrips his ability by a bit right now, but he's shown a knack for jumping into passing lanes and disrupting an opponent's offense away from the ball. That's where he'll probably be able to make the biggest difference as a defender right away, following in the gambling footsteps of Covington and Ben Simmons. As he gets up to speed on defensive concepts and gameplans, he can still create turnovers through effort and athleticism.

At his best, Bridges will flash lockdown on-ball defense that combines the necessary physical tools with a keen awareness of where the physicality line is. Even while dealing with whistle-happy referees at the college level, he was able to hover on that line between physical enough to warrant a foul and soft enough to allow a clean look. Bridges' best defensive possessions are up there with anybody on the wing in college basketball.

Put him on the Sixers, and suddenly you have all sorts of matchup possibilities with your best lineups and an increased toughness in your worst lineups. When the Sixers had to sit Covington for spells last season, their defense tended to crumble because they didn't have a like-for-like player to spell him. As it turns out, Marco Belinelli snagging a larger role in your rotation is not going to improve your defensive fortunes.

A higher-end outcome for Bridges would allow him to join that starting (and closing) group for Philadelphia, sharpening the defensive edge that powered them for much of their 52-win season. The Sixers had a dire shortage of two-way players in 2017-18, and even if he doesn't reach his theoretical ceiling Bridges should be able to offer you something on both ends of the floor.

Can he bulk up enough to deal with bigger wings? 

Before you go slotting him in as an elite defender at the next level, however, there are a few warts to consider. It all starts with his frame, which might inherently limit the sort of defender he can be.

It's not the biggest slight in the world to acknowledge Bridges might only be a 2-3 position defender at the next level. He's simply not big enough to credibly guard some of the oversized wings of the world — LeBron James would make him look like the Monstars before they stole NBA players' powers — and it's hard to see him adding enough bulk to be able to close that gap over time. Post-ups are not as big of a concern in the modern NBA as they might have been around the turn of the century, but Bridges didn't cope all that well when he was forced to switch onto bigger offensive players in college. They only get bigger from here.

Bridges will likely be capped as a good team defender and capable of dealing with the small-to-medium two's and three's of the world. Point guard defense was left out there for good reason — Bridges may be a fairly good athlete, but he doesn't necessarily have the side-to-side athleticism to play stretches of games guarding opposing point guards. 

Lateral movement is one of the keys to elite perimeter defense at any level of basketball and Bridges let guys who will be lucky to get a shot playing overseas leave him in the dust at times. Brett Brown likes to refer to smaller, quicker guards as "waterbugs," and while Covington often draws that assignment it seems unlikely Bridges would be up for that task in extended minutes.

The argument for Bridges as an impactful defender in the NBA rests on his ability to play good team defense. That may be something the Sixers are happy to live with — by all accounts he is engaged on or off the ball, won the admiration of his college coach, and at the very least will be a strong link in the chain, if not a scheme-changing player by himself. 

The playoffs always highlight players who are a weakness on either side of the ball, and series get turned into extended answers to the question, "Who on their team can we make unplayable?" Bridges should not be susceptible to such an issue.

Still, a lack of strength is something that rears its ugly head for Bridges on both sides of the ball. Past features on Bridges have detailed how his freshman redshirt year helped shape his body in ways that aided him moving forward. A steady diet of baked potatoes and grilled chicken reportedly helped him add over 30 pounds since he left high school. 

You can interpret that one of two ways: either he has shown a propensity for adding weight and would further benefit from NBA conditioning programs, or he could be nearing the maximization of his strength potential. Given his advanced age for a high-level prospect and what we can glean from his current, wiry stature, odds would favor the latter.

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

What you see in Mikal Bridges ultimately reflects how you think about several big-picture things: what are the Sixers' most glaring needs, and what should teams be doing with good, but not great draft picks?

Were there more evidence to suggest Bridges was on the verge of transforming his handle and thus his NBA prospects, this would hardly be a conversation right now. A capable defender who can shoot the ball and score on a variety of off-ball action would be a boon for the Sixers either way, even if he doesn't hit his 99th percentile outcome.

But can the Sixers build around another player who might never be able to create his own shot at the next level? More importantly, should they use one of their last high-value picks in a while to do so? The Lakers handing Philadelphia a top-10 pick has given them a unique opportunity to take one more big swing before they (all things going to plan, of course) push their own picks into the 20's for years to come. 

Bridges seems like a safe, but somewhat uninspiring pick within that context, especially when you consider some of the other players who will be available when Philadelphia's other first-round pick is up in June. Cincinnati's Jacob Evans might be a step below Bridges as a shooter, but he is an excellent team defender on the wing who also played de facto point guard for the Bearcats last season. If you can get a guy like that later in the first, is it worth investing No. 10 on Bridges?

I would still ultimately say yes, but I don't view Bridges as the slam-dunk pick many in Philadelphia (and around the country) view him as for the Sixers. He's the right blend of talent and fit for a team that needs both, and that will likely earn him a workout and plenty of attention from Philadelphia's front office. But enough holes are there to open the conversation to a variety of other options at No. 10.

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