The Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot of enticing options with the eighth pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. They appear to have a chance at whoever is the odd man out among Trae Young, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter, and Michael Porter, and all of those options appear pretty exciting as potential All-Star level talents. However, each comes with their flaws - Young’s defense, Bamba’s court awareness, Carter’s agility, and Porter’s health all linger over the head of that ceiling.
Mikal Bridges represents the alternative to that high ceiling/low floor conundrum. The junior guard from Villanova ends up near the Cavs’ draft position on many mock drafts, and he represents a relatively safe player in a very valuable role in the NBA. Bridges basically was a three-and-D guard for the Wildcats last season, and helped them win their second national title in three years with his sound defensive play, threat from spot-up, and ability to finish at the rim. While he may not have the star potential that many of the players who will come before him do, he represents a safe, strong alternative for the Cavs, no matter where they head in the future.
Bridges is enticing as a three-and-D wing because his game fills the role very naturally. He stands 6’7” with a 7’1” wingspan, and that frame has helped establish his reputation as likely the best defensive wing in this draft. He has a great combination of speed, length, and strength that allows him to stay in front of most guards on the perimeter, and he’s incredible at denying passes and switches, even in the post. He should be this year’s O.G. Anunoby, a player who will come into the NBA and very quickly be able to fit into a defensive system and handle difficult assignments early.
Bridges also greatly improved as a shooter throughout his Villanova career, going from shooting 29.9 percent from three as a freshman on 77 attempts to knocking down 43.5 percent on a whopping 239 attempts as a junior. His mechanics have solidified over the past two years, and he’s now a very capable knockdown shooter from NBA three, hitting 38.1 percent on 152 attempts. He’s more than a standstill shooter as well, able to relocate to the corner, come off dribble hand-offs, or gather off-balance into a late-possession jumper.
Bridges couples that with being an effective slasher — you’d expect anyone with his baseline athleticism to be strong with backdoor cuts, but Bridges has a strong enough handle that he can take advantage of a closing defender by getting around him and getting to the rim. He’s also a strong finisher, converting 67.8 percent at the rim this season, and he uses his length to extend and finish against contests very well.
That handle also helps Bridges’s ceiling. Most of Bridges’s improvements this year came on the offensive side of the ball, and came because he took over more of a scoring load. He spent the offseason working on his handle, and there’s definite tools here that could potentially take him from strong role player to potentially secondary playmaker.
Now, Bridges isn’t considered to have star potential for a reason. At 21 years old, he may already be very close to the top of his development curve, especially when it comes to improving his handle, which is the shakiest aspect of his offensive game. He also doesn’t have the lower body strength to truly be a lockdown defender right now - he is very strong against backcourt players, but might struggle to defend fours on a switch at the NBA level. But these are not impediments to making a rotation in the NBA, even on a good team. Even if he stays what he is right now, that’s a rotation player on an NBA team.
That safety would make Bridges a very strong pick for the Cavs. Many other players the Cavs could grab in this spot would be very successful if LeBron has left, but would struggle to impact the team next season if he stays. For Bridges, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Of course, nothing’s guaranteed, but Bridges seems like one of the safer bets to translate well directly on a competitive team thanks to his age, skill set, and experience at a high-level competitive program like Villanova. Expecting him to come in and at least look like rookie Norman Powell for the Raptors as a baseline isn’t unreasonable in the way that it may be for most rookies.
His potential as a creator also means that he should still be valued even if LeBron bolts in the offseason. Even on a bad team, you can find and groom a strong three-and-d wing that can end up as your second or third-best player on a contender. At the lower end, Bridges can be Robert Covington, a valuable rotation piece on a playoff team you just happen to acquire while you’re racing towards a top draft pick. At the high end, he can be a Gary Harris, a player in a traditionally complimentary role who unlocks flexibility for you to build the rest of your rotation, in the way Harris’s defensive versatility and creation has helped the Nuggets fit the quirky Jamal Murray into their offense effectively.
Bridges isn’t likely to be a star. However, he is likely to be a very valuable NBA player, and there’s a good chance he starts adding value right away. The Cavs are in a unique situation where they probably need to swing for the fences to maintain their current level of competition as a franchise. But if the draft breaks in a way where they can’t get a player they value highly, Bridges is a very, very strong safety valve.