By Christopher Boan
A draft night trade sent prodigal forward Mikal Bridges to the Valley in 2018, in a move that sent shockwaves across the league.
Fast-forward two years, and the swap, which sent the Overbrook, Pennsylvania, native and Villanova University star to Phoenix in exchange for Zhaire Smith and a future draft pick, has paid dividends for the local squad.
Bridges, who was selected with the 10th pick of the 2018 draft, has averaged 8.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists in his sophomore season.
More importantly, Bridges’ shooting stats had jumped this season, with the 6-foot 6-inch forward shooting 50.3% from inside the arc, as well as 33.1% outside of it, before coronavirus cut the games short.
Bridges discussed his sophomore surge and several other topics, ranging from his favorite Phoenix landmarks to his thoughts on his college coach, Jay Wright.
Bridges had plenty to say about Wright, with whom he won two national championships in three seasons.
He believes Wright, who has led the Wildcats since 2001, shares a lot in common with his current coach, Monty Williams.
“Coach Williams preaches the same things that coach Wright really does,” Bridges says. “It’s all about playing hard and being together—and we’re one team and we’re all together—so they kind of preach the same things.
“Coach Williams reminds me a lot of coach Wright, about how he preaches work ethic and playing together.”
The respect between Bridges and his coach is mutual, with Williams heaping praise on the second-year forward for his growth as a player this season.
“He keeps improving month by month, like our team. He’s been a guy who, from September until now, just looks like, not a totally different player, but an improved player,” Williams says. “His ability to adapt to situations, whether it’s guarding 2s, 3s, 4s, sometimes 5s—we put him on the ball, he guards all 94 feet some nights. He’s been able to hit shots and slash and he’s just grown as a player. We hope it continues.”
It’s that growth that’s allowed Bridges to thrive in his second season in Phoenix, gaining greater trust from the coaching staff, by way of minutes on the floor.
The 23-year-old has seen his minutes per game increase with each month of the season, from 18.4 minutes per game in November to 32.0 minutes in March.
Bridges has rewarded Williams’ trust, scoring more than 10 points in five of the Suns’ first nine March contests.
His magnum opus came on January 18, when Bridges scored a career-high 26 points in the Suns’ 123-119 victory over Eastern Conference powerhouse Boston.
Bridges’ humility shines when asked about his recent surge in production, shirking the limelight in favor of propping up those around him.
“Coach (Williams) is staying confident in me and has trust in me, and I’m getting more confident in myself,” Bridges says. “I’ve been putting extra work in on my jump shot and everything, just trying to stay fluid and go out there and play hard.”
Draft night decision
Bridges doesn’t mince words when asked about his infamous draft night trade, pointing out the realities of being a professional athlete.
The trade was especially tough for Bridges, whose mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is the vice president of human resources for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, which handles a range of human resources tasks for the 76ers organization.
Bridges isn’t bitter about the move, however, as he understands that nothing lasts forever in the league, with few fairy tale storylines to go around.
“It just shows you what the league is like from the jump,” Bridges says. “But it was a tough mix of emotions that night, because you think you’re about to go home and then you get traded.
“So, it was different. But it kind of helped me just knowing what the league is about.”
Learning to love Arizona
Bridges has come into his own in the Valley, using the hard-knock playing style that he learned in the Big East Conference in the up-tempo NBA.
He’s also learned to love the unique beauty of Arizona, despite never stepping foot in the 48th state before the 2018 NBA Draft.
“I love Phoenix,” Bridges says. “It’s just beautiful through all months. I think the nine months are the best, and then summer gets really hot, but in the season it’s just beautiful out.”
As for favorite locales, Bridges says he’s partial to the gateway to the Southwest itself, Scottsdale, given its unique mix of shops and social hotspots.
Before the crisis, the hard-charging forward was doing his best to make a name for himself in a cutthroat sport, taking advantage of the easygoing nature of the region, as compared to the hustle and bustle of the mid-Atlantic region.
“I’m a simple person. I don’t ask for too much and don’t do too much,” Bridges deadpans. “I try to relax and have fun and play basketball and chill.”
Playing for Kobe
Bridges, like many players of his era, grew up watching Kobe Bryant, who played high school basketball at Lower Merion in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
He remembers playing against Bryant’s high school alma mater, which is around 19 miles away from where Bridges went to school.
Bridges remembers playing at Lower Merion during his junior year and said it was humbling to play at the Staples Center in February.
He remembers how he wanted to go out and play hard in honor of Bryant, who passed away in a helicopter crash on January 26.
“It’s just a blessing,” Bridges says of playing on the same NBA court as Bryant. “Everything that he did, growing up in the same area that I grew up and knowing that he’s a legend over there.
“How much he’s done for the game of basketball and for everybody, especially my age and younger, it’s just a big role model for a lot of people and it’s just different without him.”
Bridges—who idolized 76ers guard Allen Iverson growing up—remembers how his family members would point out Bryant’s roots whenever he’d play the hometown team.
He remembers how cool it was to see a local player take the world by storm and says he, like so many others, has been at a loss for words in describing what his premature death means to him.
“I remember how unbelievable he was when he was playing, so you just watch him and look up and try to learn from him,” Bridges says.
Lending a hand
Bridges has adapted to his new hometown. In early April, Bridges delivered a message to Banner University Medical Center Phoenix workers when Chipotle surprised the staff with lunch.
“I want to thank the front-line workers for your hard work, dedication and sacrifice,” he says. “It definitely didn’t go unnoticed. I want to give you something I truly love, and I hope this Chipotle lunch delivery will help you get by in these tough times.”
Spearheading the luncheon, Phoenix Suns Charities also gave the hospital $25,000 for its COVID-19 response fund for crisis supplies.