Teammates immediately erupted with cheers as Mikal Bridges entered the visiting locker room inside Indiana’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse following the Phoenix Suns’ 125-117 Saturday victory over the Pacers.
Bridges stretched out his 7-foot-1 wingspan for high-fives. Instead, he was quickly greeted by a freezing-cold surprise.
As most of his teammates lured him into the center of the locker room, Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder showered the third-year wing with ice water in celebration.
“Bro, did they really need the ice buckets?!” Bridges joked a few minutes later. “When DA gets 25 (points) and 25 (rebounds) or Jae hits 10 3s, I’m gonna be the first person with a bucket waiting for them. Trust me, I’ll be waiting. I’ve got this in my memory now.”
Yet Bridges was the first Suns player worthy of such postgame high jinks. Bridges finished the game with a career-high 34 points — including 15 in the first quarter alone — on 12-of-18 shooting and 6-of-8 from beyond the arc to help lift Phoenix to a key road victory.
It was the highest point total for a Suns player so far this season, perhaps a surprise considering All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul headline this roster. But Bridges’ teammates are not shocked by his expanding offensive arsenal.
Bridges’ consistency on and off of the court, fused with his work ethic behind the scenes, has helped him become one of the NBA’s breakout players during the early season.
“His nickname should be ‘Every Day’ because he’s the same guy every single day,” head coach Monty Williams said. “Always has a great attitude, works his tail off, has a great edge about him, treats everybody with unreal respect. And yet he goes out there on the floor and plays like he’s a football player, a nut sometimes.
“I love the balance that he has. I just love to see guys who work hard and have the work pay off for them.”
Bridges ranks second on the Suns in scoring (15.1 points per game), six points higher than his average last season. He is shooting 45.3 percent from beyond the arc. The impressive output goes beyond just his scoring numbers, but rather, how he is scoring.
His 34 points against the Pacers came from cutting for a soft-touched layup, driving for a one-handed slam, draining catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and, one of the newest sights, putting the ball on the ground and making his defenders work for it.
“All the shots we worked on in the offseason, all translate in the game if I have the chance,” Bridges said. “So, I just feel comfortable with any of those shots I took today and just keep trying to get better.”
That approach is why teammates and coaches often crack a smile when given the opportunity to sing Bridges’ praises. Paul, who has been part of deep playoff rosters and paired with multiple All-Stars throughout his Hall-of-Fame career, already calls Bridges “one of the best guys I think I’ve ever been around.”
“To see him do well and to see his game blossom in the way it is, it’s nice because he deserves it,” Paul said. “… He’s just got a great spirit about him. He puts the work in.
“He’s one of those guys that when I kick it to him and he hits his shot, I feel like I made it.”
Bridges saw a similar growth pattern during his three seasons at Villanova. After primarily showcasing his defensive ability as a freshman and sophomore, Bridges put his offensive skillset on display as junior, averaging 17.7 points per game on the top team in the nation. Bridges capped his college career by scoring 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 4-of-5 from 3-point range in the national championship game as Villanova beat Michigan, 79-62.
That offensive upside mixed with his defensive prowess is what enticed the Suns to execute the draft-night trade and bring Bridges to Phoenix.
Bridges still wasn’t satisfied with his own game, driven by his mentality that, “When it's all said and done, I was the best player I could possibly be.”
After arriving in The Valley, Bridges stepped into the gym and has practically never left it. That’s why Williams calls Bridges a “flagship for our player development program.” Just like at Villanova, Bridges made a name for himself on the defensive end throughout his first two seasons in the league, but was continuously grinding away and growing his offensive repertoire behind the scenes.
That extra time on the court helped build his confidence, and is now paying off when the clock is ticking.
Suns fans witnessed a sneak peek of what would come during the Suns’ 8-0 run in the Orlando Bubble. Bridges started all eight games, averaging 12.8 points while shooting 40 percent from deep. He debuted more cutting and driving ability to keep defenders guessing, and his 3-point shot began falling with more consistency.
While many players may have preferred to enjoy their condensed offseason away from basketball, the shortened time frame just meant fewer days off for Bridges. He worked on all aspects of his game, including shooting at a higher clip and playing off the dribble and ball screens.
"It wasn't just one thing,” Bridges said. “It was everything.”
That offseason dedication has immediately translated to the court. He is still using his long arms and quick instincts to guard the opponent’s best perimeter player, including leading the team with 1.3 blocks per game. Yet Bridges’ aggression on offense is what is propelling him to another level.
He scored 18 points in the Suns’ season-opening win against Dallas. He drained at least four 3-pointers in five of Phoenix’s first 10 games. And after three tough shooting performances in a row last week, teammate Cam Johnson assured Bridges on the flight from Detroit to Indianapolis that he was “due for a big one” against the Pacers.
“I knew it was coming, so it’s no surprise to me,” Johnson said. “But I love it. He works so hard. He deserved that, for real. I’m proud of him. He really stepped up in a big way and really pushed us towards this win.”
Bridges said his comfort on the court also stems “Coach just giving me that freedom to play.” He has earned that respect within the organization because of the way he treats each day the same way, with the same grind-it-out mentality and positive attitude. He embodies the culture Williams has been preaching since he became the Suns’ coach.
“He’s one of the guys who doesn’t leave the gym without telling everybody, ‘Good day,’ Williams said. “… I attribute it to he’s just a good dude.”
Added teammate Jevon Carter: “That’s all we do is work, work, work. So, when you go out there and you see your guys produce, that’s just hard work paying off. That’s all that is. He goes out there, he works every day and all he’s doing is making the shots that he worked on. We expect that from him.”
Bridges is quick to deflect his personal success to teammates, which is perhaps why he highlights playmaking more for others as one of his next developmental steps. But there’s a reason why he was the first Suns player to receive an ice-water shower during the 2020-21 season.
Bridges has already made tremendous strides during his short career. He has become one of the NBA’s early-season breakout players.
And he will continue to work at improving every part of his game, every day.
“I'm just going to keep going,” Bridges said. “I've got long way to go.”