Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Mikal Bridges shines bright on NBA-leading Suns

Phoenix's Mikal Bridges climbs to No. 2 in the latest ranking as Memphis' Jaren Jackson Jr. also joins the group.

The defensive versatility of Mikal Bridges has been on full display this season.

If these past two years of virus awareness have taught us medical amateurs anything, it’s the difference between therapeutics and prophylactics. One is meant to treat a problem once it takes hold, the other is intended to ward off such problems.

Mikal Bridges’ brand of defense is the latter.

Phoenix’s wiry wing works in a realm — denial — that would be ill-advised in most walks of life. His duty and determination to hound on a nightly basis the most potent scorers he and his team face not only have contributed to the Suns’ 46-10 record, best in the NBA. They also have thrust Bridges into discussions about All-Defensive acclaim and even the Kia Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Bridges, in his fourth season out of Villanova, barely missed landing on the honorary second team of top defenders in 2020-21. That seems to be a cinch this season, given the Suns’ profile and Bridges’ tightening grip on other teams’ scorers. He figures to get some votes, too, on the DPOY three-spot ballot.

So he surely has earned some attention here on the monthly Defensive Ladder.

Historically, Phoenix hasn’t been known for its defense, stretching back well before the Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni years of “7 Seconds or Less.” The Suns haven’t placed anyone on the All-Defensive lists since 2008 when guard Raja Bell made the second team.

But things have changed. The Suns rank fourth in defensive rating this season, yielding 105.4 points per 100 possessions, and first in net rating (8.2). They top the league in allowing the fewest points off turnovers (14.0), are fourth in defensive transition points (10.9) and are sixth in steals (8.5).

As for Bridges, he is Phoenix’s most important defender in a culture that stresses it under coach Monty Williams. The Suns’ net rating with Bridges on the floor is 9.9 points better than when he’s off, which ranks third on the team (10.8 with Jae Crowder, 10.5 with Chris Paul).

The secret to his success? “It’s a mix of everything,” Bridges told in a phone interview. “I think the biggest thing is just playing hard and understanding the game. Studying as well is a big help. My whole thing is knowing tendencies and being aggressive. I’m blessed I have a great team, a great staff, and they help me every time I’m out there.”

Bridges doesn’t rank high in traditional stats. His 1.2 steal per game is far behind the league leaders, as are his averages for deflections, loose balls recovered and contested shots. That’s where the denial comes in.

That’s also where being assigned to the toughest covers can make for a good night even when his man scores 20. Bridges’ range of matchups have included LeBron James, James Harden, Steph Curry, Brandon Ingram, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan and pretty much every offensive star this side of Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic.

“That’s the IQ part,” he said “Certain things you can do with some guys — with LeBron, you can be a little bit more physical. Steph, you have to guard him out a little farther, because of how fast he is with his handle. LeBron, deal with his strength. It’s just about taking pride and playing hard. But those two guys are unbelievable, NBA greats, they’re tough.

“So many, man. Like Dame, Luka, Harden, KD, they’re ridiculous. And guys coming in like Trae Young, my age or younger. There’s a lot of talent. I’m seeing guys every night.”

Bridges does it without fouling, too, which keeps his men off the line for easy points and keeps him on the floor to continue hounding. That’s important for perimeter or on-ball defenders, of whom Boston’s Marcus Smart, Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle, Toronto’s Gary Trent Jr. and San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray are among the very best.

“When I was young, I always liked getting steals,” Bridges said. “I had a pretty high [defensive] IQ as a kid, and I knew how to make kids do a right-to-left crossover so I could pick-pocket them and go get a layup.

“But the defense really came when I got to college. Whatever it took to be on that floor, and defense was part of it. I’ve kind of stuck with it ever since.”

Bridges was built for this. At 6-foot-6, 209 pounds, he is big enough, quick enough and agile and resilient enough to fight through picks and scramble to recover. Then there is his 7-foot wingspan, a trait he inherited from his mother, Tyneeha Rivers.

“Doesn’t really do much for me, besides I can’t buy fine coats and long-sleeve shirts to fit my arms,” Rivers told recently. “But at least I was able to pass it down and it went a long way for my son.”

The 25-year-old trained for this as well, from Great Valley High in Malvern, Pa., to his advanced education at Villanova under coach Jay Wright. He constantly was charged in Wildcat practices with checking teammate and current NBA guard Josh Hart. His school went 103-13 with two NCAA championships in his three active seasons.

Bridges’ masterpiece game came on Nov. 30 against Golden State. He logged almost 42 minutes in Phoenix’s 104-96 home victory and scored a mere two points. But Curry was held to 12 points and 3-for-14 from the arc (4-of-21 overall).

“He’s pretty disciplined,” Curry said. “He’s obviously got size and length. His wingspan’s crazy so he can clog up space when he’s either trailing the pick-and-roll or closing out. … They’re a very disciplined five-man defense, too, knowing where help is coming from. … He’s gonna do his job. He’s gonna be relentless.”

Of all past DPOY winners, Bridges’ build and style are most reminiscent of former Lakers stopper Michael Cooper (1987) and Sidney Moncrief, who won the first two awards in 1983 and ’84. The differences between those two? Cooper, at 6-foot-5, 170, averaged 8.9 points over his career and never toped 11.9 in a season.

Moncrief, 6-foot-3 and 180, made it to the Hall of Fame on the strength of those two DPOYs and five appearances on the All-Defensive teams, but also five All-Star and All-NBA selections in a span (1982-86) in which Moncrief averaged 21.0 points.

Bridges’ scoring game has noticeably improved. He is averaging 13.2 points on 52.8% shooting, but since Jan. 1 he’s up to 15.3 ppg, including 19.0 in February. He is shooting a lesser percentage of 3-pointers, mixing in mid-range, rim attacks and some post-ups.

One possible concern: More energy expended on offense might drain some from Bridges’ defensive game. But he doesn’t sound worried.

“I’ve got pretty good stamina. Pretty good nutrition and take care of my body,” he said. “And I’m pretty young. I know it takes a little bit more work, but I’d rather have that problem.

(All stats through Sunday, Feb. 13)

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last month’s Ladder: 1

Coaches love to talk about defensive activity. But the DPOY might get decided by inactivity, with some of the likely leaders missing considerable chunks of the schedule. Draymond Green, for instance, has played 34 of Golden State’s 58 games. Miami’s Bam Adebayo, 32 of 57. Rudy Gobert? He has been out 14 of Utah’s first 57. Gobert, by the way, won the award in 2018 while playing only 56 games, the fewest by percentage of schedule (68.3%). He ran away with it, too (89 of 101 first-place votes), in part because Utah was 37-19 when Gobert played, 11-15 without him. But he has missed 14 of the past 20 games, so we’re keeping Antetokounmpo (47 of 58)  here for another edition while the participation factor shakes out. The addition of Serge Ibaka should lessen the defensive load for “The Greek Freak”. In the meantime, the Bucks give up 105.1 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor vs. 110.3 when he sits. That’s the difference between third place and 17th in team rankings.

2. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

Last month’s Ladder: N/A

The pesky Phoenix wing started paying attention well before the Suns made him the No. 10 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. “I always watched Tony Allen,” Bridges said of defensive role models. “I loved watching him when he was on the Grizzlies. And I was a big [Rajon] Rondo fan, man. The things he did on defense and his IQ, reading and knowing other people’s plays.” Does Bridges try to rattle his opponents’ mental game as well as their scoring? “Not really. I’m just so zoned in, so locked in. And I’ve got so many good teammates, man, it makes my job so much easier. Just getting help and knowing to switch and communicating.”

3. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Last month’s Ladder: N/A

The fourth-year big man leads the league in total blocks (125) and is tied for third in blocks per game (2.2). The Grizzlies are 15-1 when he has three or more blocks. According to team stats, when an opponent attempts a shot within six feet of the basket, his field-goal percentage is 13.7% lower than when Jackson Jr. is not contesting. And one of his areas for growth as a defender has been staying in the game: This is the first season in which Jackson Jr. is averaging fewer than five fouls per 36 minutes played (4.4).

The Next Five:

(In no particular order)

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

• At 24 missed games and counting, early DPOY fave’s case slips.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

• Jazz are 30-13 when 3X DPOY winner plays, 6-8 when he doesn’t.

Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics

• Dervish in middle: 59 loose balls recovered, 525 shots contested.

Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs 

• Tied with VanVleet, Thybulle with 3.9 deflections, tops with 2.1 steals.

Jarrett Allen & Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

• Cavs’ tandem entry contest 24.1 shots per game, tops among duos.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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