Miles Bridges did something you seldom see these days regarding the NBA draft. He deferred gratification.
Gratification, as in money. As in millions. As in deciding even though he would have been a likely first-round pick in the 2017 draft, he’d pass on the one-and-done option to spend a second season in college basketball with Michigan State.
That wasn’t some noble gesture. Regardless of what you sometimes read on college-basketball message boards, there is nothing unsavory about moving on to making millions by playing professionally as soon as the NBA says you’re eligible.
But Bridges, a Charlotte Hornets rookie who was the 12th overall pick Thursday, made a personal choice that a second season with Spartans coach Tom Izzo could refine him both in basketball and overall.
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“I definitely wanted to get more mature on the court, play the game the right way,” said Bridges, a 6-foot-7 forward who turned 20 in March. “Coming out for freshman year (in college) I’m still fresh from high school. There is a lot of isolation ball being played. Some bad basketball being played (prior to college). I definitely wanted to sit down, watch film, and learn to play the game the right way.”
The immediate fan reaction around Charlotte to draft night focused on whether new Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak did the right thing by passing over Missouri forward Michael Porter and trading the rights to Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to acquire Bridges. Those are legitimate debates, but there are no do-overs in the draft, so Friday was about figuring out what the Hornets have in Bridges and how that fits in what new coach James Borrego hopes to create.
Based on the two brief interviews I’ve done with Bridges, in Chicago during the draft combine and after the Hornets’ news conference Friday, he’s mature and realistic that he still has a lot to learn to be a pro. Kupchak believes Bridges can help some on defense immediately because he can guard multiple positions (definitely both forward spots and occasionally guards, too.)
He also knows he has work to do, particularly as a ballhandler creating more easy scoring opportunities. He averaged only one trip to the foul line for every 10 minutes played in college, which is a head-shaker for a player who averaged 17 points per game.
But he’s already demonstrated over the past few months he applies himself and takes critiques well. When his agent, Fara Leff of Klutch Sports Group, asked some NBA executives for input, the advice was Bridges should lose weight before pre-draft workouts.
After swearing off fried food, he showed up for the combine about 20 pounds lighter.
That second college season was useful in the way it challenged Bridges to adapt. He was playing with Michigan State freshman Jaren Jackson, who went fourth overall in Thursday’s draft to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jackson’s presence meant a position change for Bridges from power forward to small forward, where he had to work on his perimeter defensive skills. It also meant adapting to not being the team’s most featured player (similarly to Duke’s Wendell Carter playing with Marvin Bagley), which is good practice for what an NBA rookie faces.
“A lot of players go to the college where they’re basically playing by themselves; where they can score a lot of points and get all the assists,” Bridges said. “You’ve got to learn to play with great teammates because everybody in the NBA is good.
“There isn’t a lot of ego involved if you learn to play like that. So last year was great for me.”
Kupchak pictures Bridges playing some at either forward spot, but at 6-7 his most logical position is small forward. The Hornets’ starter there the past few seasons has been Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a fine defender who is offensively limited.
Can Bridges be a starter as a rookie? I doubt that, short of injuries ravaging the Hornets’ depth. But I bet he quickly fits in and blends what he does with others’ talent.
Why? Plenty of practice before he ever got an NBA paycheck.