Basketball players learn almost immediately the value of scoring. Defense takes longer to appreciate.
Which sums up the next big step in Miles Bridges’ NBA career.
Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego sees big things for Bridges defensively if he better applies his physical gifts. Bridges was excited this week in relaying how Borrego told him he could be somewhat “Kawhi-like,” referring to now-Los Angeles Clipper Kawhi Leonard’s ability to guard everyone from a point guard to a center at least briefly.
“Every time we’re doing a defensive drill, he comes up to me and says, ‘No one should get past you 1 (point guard) through 5 (center),’” Bridges said. “Coach definitely has high standards and expectations for me.”
This reflects on the whole team — Borrego has made improved defense the theme of this training camp — but more so regarding Bridges because he has so much untapped potential.
There were sporadic flashes last season: Borrego mentioned a block from behind in a game against the Boston Celtics and another block of San Antonio Spurs star DeMar DeRozan that conveyed how Bridges can use his rare leaping ability to impact as much as a defender as he does as a dunker.
Bridges is at a logical place to take on more responsibility.
He looked confused off-and-on during the first half of his rookie season, particularly on defense. It was not uncommon to see veteran point guard Tony Parker barking at Bridges, correcting some defensive mistake. In the last 20 games, Bridges looked more relaxed and confident, as if the pace of the NBA was starting to slow for him.
Borrego announced before summer league that he wants the 6-7, 225-pound Bridges to play primarily power forward this season, after playing at least half of his minutes at small forward last season. The difference in responsibility isn’t huge, but power forward — matching up against bigger players’ brawn, rather than sleeker guys’ speed — is probably a better fit.
Still, as Bridges said, Borrego sees the second-season forward out of Michigan State as versatile enough to switch defensively onto almost any player. Improving in that regard will raise Bridges’ status and eventually his income.
“A lot of players don’t see that in themselves early. What you see every day out there is your numbers — the boxscore — and most of those are offensive,” Borrego said.
“But where you earn respect in this league — both as a team and individually — is on defense. Players are getting paid at a higher level right now if you’re a two-way player.”
The Hornets have abundant incentive to focus on defense this preseason. Last season’s top two scorers — Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb — combined to average 41 points, which was 37 percent of the team’s scoring.
The Hornets were bad defensively, finishing 23rd among 30 teams in points allowed per 100 possessions.
“We lost a lot of offensive firepower,” Bridges said. “We’ve got to depend on our defense. We have guys who like defense, who like to shut people down.”
Enjoying something is one thing, excelling at it is another. Now that Bridges is no longer a rookie, Borrego is redefining demands.
“Part of my job as the head coach is to set expectations, and I’ve set the bar high for him,” Borrego said. “He can be a two-way player, and we need him to be — he has the type of talent, athleticism and size.
“I want the mentality of being a professional: Coming to work every day, valuing every single day he steps on the floor. Valuing every possession.
“If Miles gets that, I don’t know what his limit is.”