On the night of the 2018 NBA Draft, it was hard to fight the magnetism of Mikal Bridge’s story.
A once redshirt freshman at Villanova University turned two-time NCAA Champion that was born, raised and went to high school in Pennsylvania, drafted by his hometown Philadelphia Sixers with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
What sweetened Bridge’s account, even more, was the fact that his mother, Tyneeha Rivers, serves as the VP for the Sixers’ HR department and would’ve been working in the same building where her son would have played his games.
Bridges’ dream of being the hometown bred baller slotted next to the likes of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz were dashed as he was swiftly shipped to the Phoenix Suns for Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith and a future 2021 first-rounder from the Suns by way of the Miami Heat.
Fans who had become invested in the cinematics of it all were upset, and rightfully so. Bridges story was unfolding like a movie, and the fans of Philadelphia were ready to be the film’s first audience.
Bridges is billed as the ideal “three-and-D” archetype for the modern NBA, as he can pester players on defense across multiple positions, is a reliable shooter from downtown and seems to be what I like to call a “Plug-N-Play,” guy: someone you can place anywhere and they’ll be able to find success within the workings of that respective team.
He would’ve been so great for the Sixers, providing them with either:
- A reliable, defensive wing off the bench capable of makings shots from the perimeter, something they lacked in the postseason this year.
- Insurance when it comes to potentially trading Robert Covington for a superstar. Bridges is capable of doing a lot of the same things as Covington, and at this point in his career at a cheaper rate.
Right away, Bridges was introduced to the business side of the NBA: a sphere of the league that’s cutthroat, unapologetic, surprising and devoid of loyalty. All NBA players encounter this side of the game at one point or another, it’s just that Bridges’ experience came sooner than that of his counterparts.
The hometown wrinkle just made the entire episode more shocking for Bridges, who for about 45 minutes got to bask in the glory of being a “Processer.”
Bridges’ first lesson in the school of NBA basketball was that the league is a whirlwind, where stability is granted to only the greatest of superstars, and even then fates still prove to be fickle.
This entire ordeal is a tough pill to swallow for both parties and put’s Smith in an awkward position amongst fans.
Smith, who worked out twice for the Sixers along with the University of Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, who eventually went No. 9 to the New York Knicks, is a relative unknown amongst the Philly faithful, and he’ll have an uphill battle in terms of securing a respectable reputation amongst Sixers fans.
Landing Smith came at the expense of having Bridges lacing ’em up on Broad Street every night, and that’s something fans still aren’t thrilled about.
Smith didn’t have the luxury of performing on a stage as grandiose as the Final Four or the National Championship not only once, but twice. Couple that with the fact that Bridges had already carved out a soft spot in Philly sports fans’ hearts for his work with the Wildcats, and well, you have a basketball love affair that would prefer no intrusion.
In no way am I trying to indict Bridges for his success at Villanova. It would be foolish to vilify him for that. All I’m simply saying is that fans’ allegiances here in Philadelphia are going to lie with the hometown kid they’re familiar with. It’s a simple concept.
Fans that accuse the Sixers of fumbling away Bridges fail to realize what they’re getting in Smith, who will furnish Philadelphia with versatility on the wing as well as some additional savvy in the basketball IQ department. Smith plays with fury and is an exceptional athlete who boasts an underrated ability to make plays, all things that will prove to be helpful to the Sixers.
With all of this being said, it’s no secret that Smith needs to work on his shooting touch. While his mechanics are encouraging and infer that he could become a respectable outside shooter in the future with some grooming, teams will concede open shots from behind the arc to Smith, and his ability to knock those shots down will dictate his role with the Sixers this upcoming season.
Smith will be gifted a lot of open three-pointers by virtue of playing next to Simmons, and teams collapsing on Embiid in hopes of stopping him from terrorizing their defense. With Fultz’s shooting already in question and uncertainty surrounding the free agency cases of JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli, the Sixers would be handicapped offensively by trying to play another non-shooter for long stretches alongside Simmons.
Smith has got to get himself right in that regard.
However, this past season at Texas Tech, Smith managed to put himself into a rarified air, notching an accolade that no freshman had been able to accomplish in over 25 years.
Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith is the only qualified player this year to shoot above 55% from the field and 40% from deep while averaging above 1 steal and block per game.
He’s also the first freshman in the last 25 years to do that.
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) March 12, 2018
We’ll hear analysts, fans + Sixers coaches and personnel gush over Smith’s versatility all summer long and going into training camp, and that’s a strong stat to encapsulate the rookie’s adaptability on a basketball court, although the three-point percentage is skewed by a small sample size (Smith only attempted 40 three’s last season at Texas Tech).
As for the Suns, they’ve now got the makings of a young core that could be scary in a few years with some growth and the peppering in of an additional star and or a few veterans. Devin-Booker, 2018 No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton, Josh Jackson and Bridges is a quartet loaded with upside.
How these talents coalesce and how the coaches choose to collectively harness their skills are the next questions that need to be answered for the Suns.
Bridges and Ayton will be tasked with shifting the defensive culture in Phoenix, where they ranked in the bottom half of the league in most defensive metrics last season.
Things have been horrid on that side of the ball for the Suns over the past several seasons, and if they’re serious about trending upward in the battleground that is the Western Conference, they’ll need to embrace a more resistive defensive identity.
Bridge’s will not only help defensively, but he’ll also improve the overall vibe in Phoenix. From the Morris Twins to Goran Dragic to Eric Bledsoe and the franchise thumbing through their head coaches like it’s the trendy thing to do, the climate around the Suns hasn’t always been the best.
If they want big-named free agents to take them seriously going forward, they’ll need to prove their domain is a healthy one. A young man as balanced and mature as Bridges will only help to foster a more cooperative environment.
Having known Bridges for over a decade, I can only image how jarring the whole situation must’ve been for him.
Luckily for me, NBA League Pass will afford me the opportunity to check in on my ol’ friend every once in awhile to see how his rookie year is unfolding. It’s something I plan on doing quite often.
When the Suns visit the Sixers, best believe I’ll be in attendance, watching stoically, eager to see Mikal Bridges torment the Sixers with one of his best performances of the season.
At the end of it all, he should turn to the bench and say “it’s just business.”
That’s essentially what the Sixers did to him on the night of the draft.