Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego was wary of overwhelming rookie Miles Bridges this preseason. Specifically, Borrego didn’t plan to ask Bridges to branch off his base position of small forward.
Scratch that. Bridges has played so well so far, and is such a quick learner, the process has accelerated.
The 6-7 Bridges played small forward, power forward and even a little small-ball center in Sunday’s preseason game against the Boston Celtics. And why not? In the first two exhibitions, Bridges is averaging 16.5 points and shooting 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range.
The most eye-catching thing he has done was an explosive put-back dunk in the first game against the Celtics Friday in Chapel Hill. But shooting 4-of-6 from 3-point range (and 9-of-12 overall) in the rematch in Boston might be more consequential.
“He gets better every day. He picks things up quicker than I anticipated,” Borrego said after practice Monday. “His feel for the NBA game is much higher than I thought. He’s starting to figure out rhythm, screening action, terminology; I think we saw that (Sunday) night,” when Bridges scored 23 points off the bench.
“And we saw that on both ends; his shots were there and his attacks on the rim were there, but also his defense was pretty good.”
The Hornets play their third of five preseason exhibitions Tuesday against the Miami Heat at Spectrum Center. How does what’s happened so far affect Bridges going forward?
“He can handle a little bit more,” Borrego said. “We’ve got to still keep it simple for him, because this is all new to him. But at the rate he is learning, I’m going to go with it. The more he handles, the more I can throw at him.”
This is a potentially significant development in multiple ways. This new Hornets front office has to do better in the draft’s first round than previous versions have. Point guard Kemba Walker has become a star, but other high picks such as Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo (gone and back again) have underwhelmed. Bridges, the 12th overall pick out of Michigan State, already shows great promise.
Is he a starter this season? Unlikely, barring so many injuries the Hornets roster would be decimated. Nic Batum is the starter at small forward and Jeremy Lamb and Dwayne Bacon are both solid alternatives with NBA experience.
But if these first two preseason performances are any indication, Bridges will earn minutes in the second unit, and that is frankly where this team needs the most help. A major factor in the Hornets missing the playoffs the prior two seasons was how unreliable the bench was at maintaining leads when the starting unit needed a rest.
If Bridges is ready to have quick impact as a reserve, particularly if he can play multiple positions, that would make a difference.
Wait, then weight loss
Bridges did enough as a freshman at Michigan State to have been a first-round pick in 2017. Instead, he stayed in college a second season, and that entailed adjustment to playing with freshman big man Jaren Jackson, who went on to be the fourth overall pick in June by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jackson’s presence meant Bridges playing more on the perimeter for the Spartans. That likely benefited him in the long run, as his 3-point shooting at NBA range so far demonstrates. The knock on Bridges entering the draft was his limited productivity off the dribble; specifically that he didn’t generate many free-throw attempts.
Bridges’ agent, Fara Leff, got input from NBA executives before the draft suggesting Bridges would benefit from some weight loss. He dropped about 18 pounds, and it had a positive effect on his explosiveness at Las Vegas summer league and beyond.
“That’s definitely helped me with my conditioning,” Bridges said. “If I didn’t lose all that weight, I’d be tired as soon as I got in there. That’s what happened in college.”
Bridges has made six of 12 attempts from 3-point range so far. If he continues to reliably make 3s, that inevitably will change how opposing teams guard him, because his solid frame and jumping ability are givens. Also, he handles the ball effectively.
“If they close out, then I can get to the rim. And if guys draw in, I can get it to my teammates,” Bridges said. “I can create a lot of plays for my teammates just by hitting jump shots.”
Bridges had a “welcome to the NBA” moment in Chapel Hill, when the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown faked him out badly with a jab step resulting in an open 3-pointer and a free throw.
Such learning experiences are inevitable, but he has handled the transition with maturity and intellect so far.
“Nothing, really,” Bridges said when asked what has surprised him. “Coming into the NBA, I knew it would be a lot more physical, which it is, and a lot faster. Just trying to get adjusted to it.”
He has certainly impressed veteran teammates. Batum was asked who Bridges reminds him of, and he suggested Shawn Marion, an inside-outside forward who played 16 NBA seasons and won a title with the Dallas Mavericks.
“The sky is the limit for him,” Batum said. “Look what he did at the 4 spot (power forward). The way he plays and the way we’re spread (with shooters wide along the perimeter), Whoa!”