On the surface of things, Miles Bridges didn’t really accomplish anything he set out to do when he decided to return for his sophomore season at Michigan State. After withdrawing from the 2017 Draft despite being a projected top-10 pick, Bridges didn’t really improve his stock in terms of draft position. Some projected him to be a potential top-five pick at the beginning of the year, but he currently sits around the same spot as last year in big boards and mock drafts - around ninth or tenth. He also didn’t get to contend for a national title for the Spartans as initially planned, thanks to a second round exit against Syracuse in one of the least watchable games of the NCAA Tournament.
By the numbers, Bridges also didn’t really improve statistically in his sophomore season, which is a mild red flag.
However, Bridges’ numbers and draft stock mask the improvement he made as a sophomore, particularly in one aspect - shooting. Bridges’ outside shooting numbers regressed in 2017-18, but his performance actually improved. He now heads into the 2018 NBA Draft as one of the more polished shooters in the class. Confused? Let me explain.
To start, the biggest reason for regression in his percentages is volume. While he isn’t as strange a story as Hawks forward Taurean Prince, who went from shooting 41 threes as a sophomore to 152 as a junior at Baylor, Bridges did shoot 55 more threes this season than last, and this uptick in volume on a team with less overall spacing naturally led to a downtick in his efficiency. That he lost 2.5 percent on makes isn’t surprising.
Changes in the ways that Bridges got those threes also affected his percentage, but this change should end up making him a more valuable shooter at the NBA level. Bridges is considered to have potential to be a great NBA shooter because of the combination of his mechanics and the diversity of how he gets those three-point looks. Both of these aspects of his shooting improved this season, and you can see it clearly in the film.
First, there are the mechanical improvements. Bridges has always had the makings of a solid shot from a stand-still, and has flashed the ability to shoot off movement. However, his release last year was a bit slow. He was somewhat between a one-motion and two-motion release, and there was a bit of a delay in his wrist motion as he extended on his jumper.
This year, Bridges has tightened his release. This step has made his upper body motion quicker, and this has helped him improve under pressure. As a player who projects as at least a part-time four at the NBA level, this is very key for him, and will help him get clean shots off against close-outs in the corner or on pick-and-pops.
His upper body mechanic improvements also manifested in his free throw shooting, which shows promise for his projection forward. His shooting at the line jumped from 68.5 percent to 85.3 percent on 17 more attempts, and that has shown to play a role in extended improvement into the NBA as his changes become more concrete. Improving jump shot mechanics often takes multiple years to fully solidify, and there were points where Bridges still had that two-motion release. But the improvement we saw this year looks strong, and he has what appears to be a very strong jumper heading to the next level.
Bridges also changed the ways that he got his looks from the three-point line, diversifying the types of possessions he’s capable of being used in. As a freshman, most of his attempts came off the catch or off simple moves off screens.
Bridges has always had interesting footwork in squaring up to the basket, and he really started to put that to use consistently this year. His movement coming off screens has improved, and he is able to set, square, and catch off screens very quickly, and under pressure now.
Playing the three more this season, Michigan State let Bridges flesh out his shooting off the move. One of their more common out of bounds sets was having Bridges curl off a high screen, catch on the move, and then stop on a dime to fire from the corner. This is a common NBA set, and Bridges looks like an NBA shooter coming around the wing. This gather is a special trait that he really improved at this season.
He also explored more off-the-dribble moves, hinting at a higher ceiling for on-ball creation than what he was able to show in his freshman season. His stepback isn’t at Andrew Wiggins level yet, but it’s much better than what we saw in 2017.
We also saw more NBA three-point attempts from Bridges this year, as he rose from 101 attempts to 131, and he also adapted to shoot from the corners more as a result of his shift down to more of a full-time three. These are also important to note, as they represent better the shots he’ll be taking in the NBA. Part of the struggle with evaluating Bridges has been the decision of whether he fits better as a primary three or four in the NBA. His frame (a solid 230 pounds with a near 6-10 wingspan), rebounding, and defensive strengths translate to the four, but at just 6-6, and with excellent speed and slashing ability, he may be better served early on as a three. After last season, he looked more like a full-time four, but this shooting improvement should allow him to be utilized well in either capacity.
Bridges is a very strong shooting prospect, and it’s the key to his versatility. He’s always going to have a height disadvantage for his role, but he’s one of the better athletes in this draft, and the combination of his rebounding, shooting profile, and finishing ability puts him at the top of the 3⁄4 hybrid crop in this class. He’s much more polished than Kevin Knox on offense, even if his ceiling isn’t as high. He isn’t the level of shooter that Kevin Huerter is, but he’s much better as a defender and finisher. He brings a solid baseline of ability in many aspects of the game, and does so at what will be one of the most important positions in the NBA for as long as LeBron James and Kevin Durant are in their primes. He should be a coveted player in this range of the draft.
His shooting, though, is what truly puts him over the top. His mechanics are among the best in this class, and his potential as a diverse shooter in the NBA will make him an incredibly valuable player, in ways that his other strong skills, like slashing and rebounding, can’t. He’s a very strong shooter who isn’t one-dimensional, which is why he’s a potentially top-10 prospect. Even if his numbers didn’t look that way this season, he is a player who will find a way to impact the game in the NBA because of his floor spacing. If he falls to the Clippers, or if they trade up into the back half of the top 10, he should be a very useful player at a very valuable position.