So, the dunks.
It’s next to impossible to evaluate Charlotte Hornets rookie forward Miles Bridges without at least some inclusion of his aerial acrobatics. His arm cocked back, the full leap, almost flying or floating for a second on the way up to punish the rim? Yeah, through the first 40-plus games of his NBA career, that’s been Bridges’ calling card.
And sure, that athleticism was once again on display Thursday night in the Hornets’ first game back at Spectrum Center after a six-game road trip. Bridges added at least two more slams to his rapidly-expanding highlight reel, including one in the first quarter where he sprinted through the paint and threw down right as the shot clock expired.
And when someone throws all 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds of themselves into motion like that, it’s hard to ignore.
But for a second — to understand the full scope of Bridges’ impact in Charlotte’s 114-95 win over the Sacramento Kings, and how he’s quickly becoming a major part of coach James Borrego’s rotation — do just that.
Ignore all of Bridges’ vicious dunks, the highlights and the jaw-dropping feats. Instead, do what he does: Check the film.
“He’s a real bright kid. He picks things up quickly,” Borrego said after Thursday’s game. “He’s really good in the classroom, as I’ll say. On video when you talk to him one-on-one, he’s a very cerebral player.”
Therein lies the real key to understanding Bridges’ recent growth: his ability, and his willingness, to study film.
“You’ve gotta be able to watch film, especially as a rookie,” Bridges said. “If you don’t watch film, you don’t know what you’re doing out there, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to get taken out right away.”
Bridges said his experience watching and evaluating game film dates to his two seasons at Michigan State under Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo. Despite his position as an elite high school recruit and obviously gifted athlete, Bridges said Izzo’s relentless commitment to watching film has given him an edge during his first professional season... even if that isn’t always his favorite thing.
“Not a lot of people want to watch film. I mean, film isn’t fun,” Bridges said grinning, “but once you start watching it, you’re good.
“When I watch film, I see places that I could get open on offense, and even on defense.”
Borrego reiterated after Thursday’s game that Bridges has had that quick recall since the team originally acquired him on draft night from the Los Angeles Clippers.
Throughout summer league and training camp before the season began, Borrego admitted he was impressed at Bridges’ ability to put what he saw on film into practice. That has persisted, Borrego added, even as this coaching staff continues to throw a lot at him in terms of learning offensive and defensive schemes.
Now it’s just a matter of him executing what he sees on tape more consistently.
“He picked things up quicker than I expected, for sure, even from the minute we got him,” Borrego said. “He understands the game — now you’ve gotta translate it to the game. When it’s going 100 miles an hour, can I respond and react? And he has moments where he doesn’t react well, and others where he is growing.
“The game is starting to slow down for him.”
Thursday’s game certainly falls into the ‘growth’ category. Bridges’ 15 points were the second-most he’s scored in any game this season, and — despite the dunks being impressive, which they again were — he earned those points through more than just slams. Bridges was aggressive getting to the rim and forcing fouls, made a 3-pointer, and showed off several deft moves in the paint. Again, not to discount the high-flying athleticism, but the rookie’s scoring was much more... balanced, than the reputation his dunks have earned him.
Then there’s also the matter of his defensive effort, something Borrego said helped turn around Thursday’s game after the Hornets fell into a quick 13-point hole.
Veteran guard Tony Parker added that among the younger teammates he’s had throughout his career, Bridges is one of the more ‘advanced’ in terms of film study as a rookie.
“We don’t call a lot of plays for him, so it’s not easy,” Parker said. “Tonight we called plays for him, and he was very aggressive and got to the basket and got fouls, so that’s what we want. It depends on the games, but tonight I like what I saw.”
These sorts of performances by Bridges won’t be a nightly occurrence, especially not given Borrego’s constantly-shifting rotation. But that he can deliver nights like this, especially still midway through his first professional season, is encouraging for a Hornets team still fighting for its playoff life.
“I feel like I hit the rookie wall, but my vets, they’ve definitely been helping me,” Bridges said. “Like Tony, Kemba (Walker), Marvin (Williams), Jeremy (Lamb), they definitely helped me through it, so I feel like I’m more confident, back to how I was playing at the beginning of the season.”
No, film study and defensive exertion aren’t anywhere near as sexy as some of Bridges’ dunks. But those two aspects of the rookie’s game are much more important than flash or sizzle.
Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @BrendanRMarks