Last fall’s free agency acquisition of former All-Star Gordon Hayward by the Hornets initially forced forward Miles Bridges to take on a slightly more reduced reserve role after starting virtually the entire 2019-20 campaign. Bridges then responded by making arguably the biggest leap of any Charlotte player this season, both on and off the hardwood.
Across 66 appearances – 19 of which were starts – Bridges averaged 12.7 points and career highs in rebounds (6.0), assists (2.2), steals (0.7) and blocks (0.8) this year. Perhaps most noticeable, he made vast improvements in his shooting efficiencies by connecting on 50.3%, 40.0% and 86.7% of his attempts from the field, three point and free-throw line, respectively.
Primarily used as a small-ball four, Bridges put up 19.7 points on 51.8% shooting, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 16 outings as a starter from April 4 to May 2 in place of the injured Hayward. The Michigan State product was also on pace to play in all 72 games before being placed into Health and Safety Protocols, causing him to miss six of the team’s final eight regular season contests.
“I feel like I can always get better at everything,” said Bridges during exit interviews, when asked about how to build on his big season. “For this team, I play a lot of positions, a lot of different roles. I want to get better at everything – my IQ mainly. Learn how to finish games better, creating shots for myself and my teammates. I can always get better at defense, so for me, it’s just the full package.”
He added, “It was a trying season and I learned a lot about myself and how patient and impactful I can be for this team. This season has been a blessing in disguise besides all the injuries. We got to see how [our] other players play. We had fun this season. I love this group of guys. I wouldn’t trade them for the world and I’d run it back with the same team. I feel like we’ll have a better chance of making the playoffs next year if everybody’s healthy.”
Bridges totaled 13 20-point games this season – more than he had in his previous two years combined – and took the NBA landscape by storm with countless highlight reel dunks, many of which were on the receiving end of passes from rookie LaMelo Ball. As mentioned, Bridges became a much more potent offensive threat with an evolved ability to shoot off the dribble and play-make, while also constantly putting heavy pressure on the rim at both ends.
“Miles has been tremendous. His vocal leadership has really stood out to me this year,” said Head Coach James Borrego. “He was one of our better players all season and in that stretch that he missed, it was significant, more than any of us could have imagined. I mean, those six games, we really felt his absence.” President of Basketball Operations and GM Mitch Kupchak pinpointed Bridges’ “tremendous growth” this season during exit interviews as well.
“I feel like everyone on this team has good work ethic and we’re going to work this summer,” said the now 23-year-old. “Coach has a good development program. I spent a lot of time with him in the summer. I feel like if anybody gets the work in like I did in the summer, they can definitely improve. This summer, I plan on improving and dragging some people with me.”
From the very beginning of training camp, Bridges was adamant that making the NBA Playoffs was the ultimate goal for this young Hornets team. Injuries and absences were likely the primary factors in the squad coming up just a couple wins short of its objective, which will remain at the forefront of everybody’s mindset heading into a long offseason.
“For me, it really wasn’t a surprise that we were playing well to begin the season and get to that fourth seed,” he said. “I saw everybody in the gym working and I know the type of players that we have. For us, we have to make the playoffs next year at this point. If we don’t make the playoffs, it’s just a waste of season.”
The final outing of their 2020-21 campaign – a 144-117 season-ending blowout road loss to the Pacers in the NBA Play-In Tournament – left a particular sour taste in the Charlotte players’ mouths, but Bridges seems to be approaching the bitter ending in a relatively positive light.
“I feel like it’s always good for teams to have that type of motivation,” he said. “For us to get embarrassed like we did, I feel like that’s going to fuel our fire even more next year. This summer, we just want to clear our minds, get better and get ready for next season. I’m just excited to get the work in.”