By: Trevor Booth
Perhaps the only thing longer than Mikal Bridges' 7-foot-1 wingspan is the amount of ground he covers in an NBA game.
According to the league's advanced stats, Bridges averages 1.30 miles traveled per contest on defense. He does so while ranking first in the NBA in minutes per game, guarding players ranging from an elusive Stephen Curry to a bulldozer like LeBron James.
The crazy thing, as his Suns teammates and coaches allude to, is that Bridges does not appear to get tired while doing so. It's why they feel he should be a lock for the league's Defensive Player of the Year Award, for which he is perceived leaguewide to be a leading contender.
"Any task or any job isn't too big for him," Suns guard Devin Booker said. "Never see him complaining, you see him with his head down working. I'm inspired by it."
Bridges' knack for the defensive end isn't anything new for him. As a young kid, he "always liked getting steals," a habit that allowed him to grow as a top-notch defender under coach Jay Wright at Villanova. Bridges was named the Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and helped the Wildcats win the NCAA Division I Tournament championship in 2016 and 2018.
Though he averages just 1.6 steals per game this season, Bridges' impact on defense is as valuable as ever. As JJ Redick said of Bridges last month on The Old Man & The Three podcast, "I don't even care what his counting stats are, he's been so good. In all the marquee games, he takes the marquee matchups and makes it tough on them."
According to BBall Index, he leads the Suns and ranks in the top-10 league-wide in matchup difficulty. While playing more minutes and covering more ground than any player, he has helped Phoenix rank second in the league in defensive rating (106.5).
Along with his length, Bridges has incredible habits that have contributed to his success. Working with Suns assistant coach Bryan Gates, he focuses on one or two keys for his defensive assignments. On some nights, it could be a pick-and-roll between the 76ers' James Harden and Joel Embiid. On others, it could be simply stopping the quickness of the Grizzlies' Ja Morant.
According to Gates, Bridges is a film junkie, continuously watching games around the league to get the best scouting report possible.
"He's always watching a game," Gates said. "He's got it on his phone all the time, he's got an iPad. He studies his craft. It's not all about getting shots up for him."
Bridges' peers also credit him with a high defensive IQ, allowing him to read opposing players' tendencies more easily. It allows him to get ahead of his assignment, making things easier for his teammates around him to stick with their tasks off the ball.
"It's just watching a lot of basketball, knowing what guys like," Bridges said. "Guys, they favor things that they love. Obviously, trying not to do a lot of things. Just kind of studying, knowing what they like to do, going left, going right."
For those efforts, Booker said there is "no doubt" that Bridges should be the league's Defensive Player of the Year. The Suns' starting point guard and nine-time NBA all-defensive honoree Chris Paul has been continuously impressed with his ability to guard multiple positions.
Bridges' impact makes things easier for the Suns' collective defense, which has made a significant impact for the second straight season.
"The young man loves to play, he loves to work and he's a winner," Suns coach Monty Williams said. "When you look at what he did at Villanova, he's doing the same thing here just on a much bigger stage. He guards the toughest guys every single night without a blink, and everybody in that locker room appreciates what he does every single night. But I'll say it again: He should be Defensive Player of the Year. He's guarding guys from the outside in; that is really hard to do. The guys that come to mind are Michael Cooper, Metta World Peace, Alvin Robertson. Those guys did it every night and he's just like that."
With the season winding down, the Suns are overwhelmingly likely to break their franchise record for wins (62) and they have clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Bridges will be required to expend a significant amount of energy for Phoenix to perform at its best, but Gates doesn't doubt the Suns will get their best effort from their starting wing.
"With Mikal's effort and IQ, I don't think you can go the extra mile with him…" Gates said. "He's such a good guy. He takes it all, he wants it all. He wants all the information he can get, and he takes it all in."