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):
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.”