Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Philadelphia transplant Mikal Bridges helping Suns after shocking draft-night trade

1 Comment

Mikal Bridges lived near Philadelphia his whole life. He was born there. He grew up there. He played collegiately at nearby Villanova. He even got drafted this year by the 76ers, the organization his mom worked for!

But while he was explaining his joy about joining the 76ers, they were trading him to the Suns.

It was a stunning development – one the 76ers insisted even they didn’t foresee when they picked Bridges No. 10. The Suns just made too good of an offer – the No. 16 pick (Zhaire Smith) and an unprotected 2021 Heat first-rounder. Everyone watching sympathized with Bridges having his storybook career derailed.

Yet, Bridges insists he wasn’t bothered.

“It was good to be home. It would have been good,” Bridges said. “But I wasn’t mad about not being home, either. So, it was the same thing.”

Even now, Bridges struggles to pinpoint differences between living near home in Philadelphia and living across the country in Phoenix.

“Just the weather, I guess,” Bridges said.

Bridges has shown tremendous ability to roll with the punches. That’s why he’s one of the NBA’s top rookies.

“We love his poise,” Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said. “And we call him, he’s a ‘vet-rookie.'”

Bridges has moved into Phoenix’s starting lineup. He’s averaging 7.1 points and a rookie-high 1.4 steals (minimum: two games) per game.

He also leads rookies in real plus-minus. Here’s the leaderboard (minimum: 10 games):

image

Bridges isn’t the best rookie. That’d be Jaren Jackson or Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton. But Bridges handles his limited role well. The 6-foot-7 forward defends versatilely, knocks down open 3-pointers, attacks closeouts and doesn’t try to do too much.

He’s exactly the type of 3-and-D wing Philadelphia could use.

But Bridges tries not to dwell on that. It helps he didn’t grow up a 76ers fan, instead rooting for whatever team had Tracy McGrady.

He can’t completely escape the difference between Philadelphia and Phoenix, though. The 76ers are 14-8 while the Suns are an NBA-worst 4-16. Bridges’ worst record at Villanova was 33-5 – and the Wildcats one the NCAA championship that year, one of two Bridges helped them win. He said he never played for a losing team growing up, either.

“The real you comes out when you start losing, when it’s a tough situation,” Bridges said.

This isn’t the first time Bridges’ composure has shined amid difficulty. Because he was so thin, he redshirted his first year at Villanova. Instead of playing, he spent days working out. He called it “one of the toughest years of my life.”

“I was in pain throughout the whole year,” Bridges said.

That early setback also seemed to signal Bridges would never make the NBA. Nearly anyone who becomes good for the NBA is good enough to play early in college. Just 12 active NBA players redshirted (excluding due to transfer, academics or medical): Bridges, Kent Bazemore, Garrett Temple, Dewayne Dedmon, Jerian Grant, David Nwaba, Hamidou Diallo, D.J. Wilson, Justin Patton, Ron Baker, Johnathan Motley and George King.

Bridges turned pro after his redshirt junior year, letting that saved season of eligibility go to waste. But he says redshirting was still the right call for him, as he developed a stronger work ethic that year.

The 210-pound Bridges still hasn’t grown into the NBA’s strongest or most athletic player. But, even after his difficult experience acclimating to college basketball, Bridges wasn’t worried about a bumpy entrance to the NBA.

“There’s always transition every step you go to. You’ve just got to get used to it,” Bridges said. “I adjust pretty quick.”

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

Leave a comment

The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.

Magic reveal orange uniforms

(Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
2 Comments

It’s already difficult enough to flip on an NBA game and quickly determine which team is which. The home team could be wearing any color, so the same is true of road teams. Each team has had so many alternate jerseys in recent years. It’s disorienting.

Now, the Magic – whose primary colors have always been and remain blue, black, white and gray – might be wearing orange?

At least Orlando, because of the fruit (and, I guess, if you want to stretch it, sunshine), has a real connection to orange. That’s why these are the “orange uniforms,” even though they’re mostly gray.

I just beg of the powers that be: Please don’t have the Magic wear these against the Suns. I’ll never figure out which team is which.