Bridges Rising to Occasion as Suns Defensive Focal Point

When the Phoenix Suns traded for Mikal Bridges on draft night, they noted his impressive two-way skillset and his ability to change the game on both ends of the court. The young wing’s style of play has not only translated well to the next level, but the rookie is currently performing as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.

“Since training camp, I’ve been saying how mature he is as a player,” Head Coach Igor Kokoškov said. “Most reliable defensive player on our team. I’m not saying he’s not making mistakes, but he knows when he makes mistakes. He’s very disciplined.”

With 90 steals on the year, Bridges ranks first among rookies by a large margin (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ranks second with 61) while also finding himself top 10 in total blocks with 30. Rookies aside, Bridges is tied for seventh across the entire league in steals trailing only Paul George, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, De’Aaron Fox, Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler.

“He has length. He has size. He has versatility on the defensive side and he’s a rookie,” Devin Booker said. “He’s been thrown in the fire and guards usually the most talented player on the other team. He’s up for the challenge.”

Bridges (1.6) and teammate De’Anthony Melton (1.5) rank first and second among first-year players in steals per game as they each have the most by a Suns rookie since Ron Lee averaged 1.9 in 1976-77. They are also the first pair of rookie teammates to average at least 1.3 steals per game since the 2001 Golden State Warriors when Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson accomplished the feat.

Both Bridges and Melton held five-game streaks this season with at least one block and one steal in each game. No Suns rookie has recorded such a streak since Dan Majerle did so in 1988-89.

Bridges’s early success goes beyond just the fundamentals, as Kokoškov has noticed his elite reaction time on the defensive end is not only impressive for a rookie, but across the league.

“This is a game of reaction,” Kokoškov said. “A lot of guys understand the concept. They understand the game plan, but they can’t execute. Not just on our team, in this league, because the game is too fast. For him, he’s processing very fast. He’s reacting really fast which is very impressive. As he grows, we will grow as a program.”

Bridges’s effort and tenacity on the defensive end has played a critical role for the Suns this season as there looks to be a direct correlation with his increased playing time throughout this year and the team’s overall defensive rankings.

Since Dec. 1, Bridges is averaging 11 minutes more per game than the first month and a half of the season and has now become an every day starter for Phoenix. In that same span, the Suns rank second in the NBA averaging 9.8 steals, first in deflections with 16.6, fourth in blocks with 5.6, second with 16.8 turnovers forced and third with 19.3 points off turnovers. Overall, the Suns are second in the NBA this season with 9.02 steals per game, the team’s highest average since 2000-01.

Bridges’s defensive prowess, mixed with his offensive efficiency place him in elite company and bodes well for his future in the NBA.

In the last 15 seasons, only four rookies have had a True Shooting Percentage of at least .550 and 2.5 steals per 100 possessions as he joins Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala (min. 1,500 minutes). If you replace True Shooting Percentage with Effective Field Goal Percentage, Bridges’s .538 ranks him among just Ben Simmons and Stephen Curry as the only rookies averaging at least 25 minutes per game to do so over the last decade.

At just 22 years old, Bridges has already created a reputation for himself as he goes head-to-head against the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. It’s just the beginning for the young wing as he continues to transition to the league and further develop his game at the NBA level. The future looks bright for Bridges as the Suns young core continues to grow.