Charlotte rookie Miles Bridges is playing basketball these days, but he’s also working at it. And that combination is giving Hornets fans another reason to get excited about a team that is squarely in the playoff hunt.
First, the fun part. Bridges confirmed to me Monday night that he has “unofficially heard” he has been invited into the NBA’s slam-dunk contest Feb. 16 during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte - and that he plans to participate.
What sort of thing does he plan for the home crowd?
“I’ve got some dunks up my sleeve,” he said, smiling. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
As for the “work” part of basketball: It’s not as dynamic as a tomahawk jam, but Bridges is improving at it. His teammates have noticed.
“The biggest thing for him,” Hornets forward Nic Batum said of Bridges, “is to learn to play without the ball. All those guys coming out of college, they know how to play with the ball. ... But when you have a guy like Kemba Walker on your team, you have to understand how to play without it. He’s getting better at that.”
Only 20 years old, Bridges was the No. 12 overall pick of the 2018 draft out of Michigan State. The 6-foot-7 forward has shown himself to be a quick learner and has firmly established himself in the rotation, coming off the bench to provide energy while playing about 19 minutes per game.
Bridges played 24 minutes Monday night in Charlotte’s 101-92 win over the New York Knicks, grabbing eight rebounds and scoring 11 points despite taking just five shots. His plus-minus was a plus-19, which led the Hornets.
“The biggest thing about Miles is he’s a smart kid,” teammate Marvin Williams said. “He’s been taught well how to play basketball. ... He’s so much more physically developed than most rookies. He listens. He learns. And when he makes a mistake, he usually doesn’t do it again.”
Bridges has already played far more than a full college season’s worth of games with the Hornets, and that has been an adjustment. “I felt like I hit the rookie wall earlier in the season, a few games ago,” he said.
He pushed through it, Bridges said, mostly by “getting to the basket and playing defense.”
“I was settling too much (for jump shots),” he said.
Opposing teams prefer that Bridges shoot from outside right now. When he is driving under a full head of steam, players tend to get out of the way. But Bridges is only shooting 30 percent from 3-point range, which will need to improve if he is to become a more complete NBA player.
But, again, he’s only 20 years old. He seems to have good basketball maturity for 20 - two years under Tom Izzo obviously helped - but he’s doing all of this for the first time.
Hornets All-Star guard Kemba Walker, who also shot 30 percent from 3-point range as a rookie, sees Bridges’ potential. His advice to Bridges these days has nothing to do with shooting, however.
“At this point, it’s not even about basketball,” Walker said. “It’s about him eating healthy. It’s about him getting his body together. Make sure he’s getting treatment. Make sure he ices his knees - injury prevention-type stuff.”
All of that makes sense. Each NBA season is a very long journey over land and sea. The Hornets are glad this one includes Bridges.
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler