NovaIllustrated - Mikal Bridges Introduces Himself To The Country
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Mikal Bridges Introduces Himself To The Country

It started innocently enough. Mikal Bridges received the ball on the wing as Villanova held a 13-point lead over #12 Gonzaga with just over eight minutes to go. He dribbled to his right and slashed into the paint, and by that point it was too late for anyone to stop what was coming next. Bridges took to the air and delivered a thunderous dunk over two Gonzaga defenders that brought the crowd at Madison Square Garden to its feet. And he was just getting started.

If the dunk put an exclamation point on Bridges’ career-high 28-point night, the ensuing Gonzaga possession bolded the font. Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins drove the lane looking to quell the energy generated from Bridges’ dunk. Instead, Bridges empathically swatted Perkins’ shot, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Bridges’ national coming-out party now not only had an exclamation point, but a signature sequence.

The sequence was a perfect representation of the type of player Bridges has always been, and of the type of player he has become.

He came to the Main Line as an unpolished athletic specimen with incredible length. Those traits would allow him to make an immediate impact on the defensive end, and he did just that in his redshirt freshman season, becoming a key role player on Villanova’s national championship team. He averaged 3.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals, becoming a versatile weapon in Villanova’s defensive scheme.

The potential was there. You could see it oozing out of him. He had the look of an NBA player. But there were questions. Could he develop a consistent jump shot? Could he create offense for himself? Would he be able to make the transition from superb athlete to complete basketball player?

In his sophomore season, there were hints that the answer to those questions would be yes. His three-point percentage improved from 29.9% as a freshman to 39.3%. He looked more comfortable handling the ball. He went from very good at the free-throw line (79%) to elite (91%). But he was still a role player, deferring to Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart and national championship game hero Kris Jenkins.

Now, as a junior, his transformation seems complete. As one of the more experienced players on this year’s team, Bridges became one of the top options in the Villanova offense. And he has answered the call, and all those old questions, emphatically.

On Tuesday, in front of a primetime national TV audience, Bridges announced himself to the country, showing the college hoops world what Villanova fans had been seeing all season long. He shot 8-14 from the floor and 5-9 from three en route to his career-high 28 points. He added six rebounds, two blocks, and a steal. His signature sequence had Jay Bilas saying, “Mikal Bridges is making a case for first-team All-American this game,” as Bridges helped lead Villanova to the statement victory.

But it’s what Bilas followed up that statement with that truly captures the kind of player that Mikal Bridges is. “Talk about a player that plays on both ends,” said Bilas. Bridges started his career earning minutes with his defensive contributions. As he worked to improve his offensive game and his offensive role grew, his defense never suffered. Whether he was taking one shot a game or 15, scoring two points or 20, his focus on defense never waned. He kept defending, he continued to rebound, he never became unwilling to get on the floor, and he remained a disruptive defensive force. Now, he’s doing it all.

As good as he has always been on defense, Bridges is having his best season on that end of the court. He’s averaging 2.3 steals and 1.4 blocks. He can guard 1-4, and is incredibly valuable in Villanova’s press. And he can have an impact defensively on the ball, in the passing lanes, and as a help defender. But we knew all that already.

What we didn’t know was that he could lead the team with 19 points per game. Or that he could shoot 51% from beyond the arc. Or that he could show the aggressiveness that was on full display Tuesday night in the Garden. Now we know.

Bridges’ offensive transformation has been a joy to watch. From an offensive afterthought that averaged 6.4 points while shooting 52% from the floor and 29.9% from three on a national championship team, to a sophomore who averaged 9.8 points on 55% shooting and 39% from three, to a junior who has taken his increased role and run with it to the tune of 19 points per game on 57% from the field and a once unthinkable 51% from three.

Consistent jump shot? Check. Ability to play off the dribble and create offense for himself and others? Check. All while not missing a beat on the defensive end and continuing to affect the game in a number of ways? Check.

Mikal Bridges has become a complete basketball player. And now everyone knows.