If the Cleveland Cavaliers are uncertain of LeBron James’ intentions on draft day, it puts them in a difficult position. If he leaves for another team, a higher upside selection such as Michael Porter Jr. or Mohamed Bamba would make a lot of sense. If he remains in Cleveland, an immediate impact player like Mikal Bridges would be more fitting. Few prospects are likely to be a good choice in both scenarios.
Enter Miles Bridges, a 20-year-old sophomore out of Michigan State. He’s only a few months older than freshman Michael Porter Jr. and Mohamed Bamba, but has an extra year of college experience under his belt. He’s a 6-7 wing, weighs 220 lbs, has a 6-10 wingspan and an 8-8 standing reach. His natural position is the three, but he’s both athletic and strong enough to play as a big two-guard or a small four as needed. Moreover, he doesn’t just have the size and speed to defend different positions but also the versatile skill set to fill several different offensive roles.
While it’d be far-fetched to think that Bridges could be a primary creator someday, he has demonstrated a measure of on-ball scoring ability. In his two years at Michigan State he had 84 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in which he scored 0.93 points per possession (PPP), as well as 48 passes out of the pick-and-roll leading directly to shot attempts. His passing ability isn’t great, often lacking the accuracy to hit the shooting pocket on longer passes, but he did show improvement from his freshman season to his sophomore year. That said, proven scoring ability in this action without complete tunnel vision is a plus for a player that projects to make the majority of his impact off-ball.
Likewise, Bridges has proven effective in isolation, logging 104 possessions at 0.94 PPP. Most of these possessions resulted in jumpers, as he lacks the requisite ball-handling to get all the way to the rim without the aid of a pick, but the ability to create an adequate shot attempt in late shot clock situations is a useful skill. Learning not to force things early in the shot clock will be important, as he’s unlikely to remain a primary scoring option in NBA. Used judiciously, however, his isolation ability can be an asset.
Bridges also had 74 post-up possessions but managed just 0.74 PPP on these attempts. It is worth noting, however, that he was significantly more effective in this area during his sophomore year when he played more time at the three than during his freshman year when he played most of his minutes at the four. Moreover, he did a good job finding spot-up shooters out of this action (24 passes leading to 27 points), so it may remain useful from time to time when he gets matched up with a smaller player.
Overall, Bridges’ on-ball offense isn’t particularly exciting in and of itself, but within the context of his overall game it’s noteworthy because high impact off-ball players often are completely reliant on others to set them up. That isn’t the case with him, as he’s proven capable of scoring against defenses keyed in on stopping him. It also provides an avenue for long-term growth, as any improvements to his ball-handling ability and passing accuracy would make a big difference in these actions. This gives him upside that a player like Mikal Bridges lacks.
Off-ball offense, perimeter skills
This is where Bridges really shines. 42 percent of his half-court offense occurred in either spot-up or off screen situations. In spot-up situations he scored 1.22 PPP on 157 no-dribble jumpers. Moreover, defenders have to be careful chasing him off the line, as he scored 1.3 PPP on 56 drives to the basket when attacking closeouts. He did have some trouble when caught in between (attempting a runner or an off-the-dribble jumper), which muted his overall spot-up efficiency, but developing a one-dribble sidestep is something that can happen over time. The core abilities, draining jumpers from a set position and attacking closeouts effectively, are among the best in this class. Additionally, that ability to attack closeouts gives an indication of how close his on-ball game is to being effective.
Moreover, he’s not just a standstill shooter. He had 96 off screen possessions in which he scored at a 1.08 PPP rate. This is something that sets him apart from most players his age. Gary Trent Jr., a shooting specialist, only mustered 1.12 PPP off screens during his freshman year. Mikal Bridges never displayed any off screen ability until his junior year when he was two years older than Miles. Off screen shooters rarely have any on-ball juice, let alone any big man skills. Speaking of which...
Off-ball offense, big man skills
This is a small but notable aspect of Bridges’ skill set. 17 percent of his half-court offense came on cuts, put-backs or as a roll man. This part of his skill set was featured moreso during his freshman year when he played the four more often, but remaining effective in limited doses this year. His cutting ability is impressive, as his combination of athleticism and strength consistently lead to violent finishes at the rim. He scored 96 points on 66 cuts over two years, an incredible 1.45 PPP. Although he didn’t pursue offensive rebounds frequently (he notched 84 over two years, or 1.4 per game), he made his presence felt when he did so, scoring 1.3 PPP on 50 put-back attempts.
Bridges wasn’t frequently used as an on-ball screener at Michigan State, but this may be an avenue for him to expand his game at the next level. He only scored 22 points on 38 roll man possessions, but the vast majority of these were him popping for jump shots. He was effective on his (very) few rolls to the rim, and his cutting and put-back ability indicate that he could be effective in that role.
So far we’ve only discussed Bridges’ half-court ability, but a significant chunk of his value comes from his ability in the open court. His volume in transition was higher than any other play type except for spot-ups, scoring 1.2 PPP on 176 possessions despite playing on a team with below average pace. The exciting part of his transition game isn’t the overall volume or proficiency, however. It’s the diversity with which he proved effective. He made an impact on and off-ball, on both the left and right wing, whether first middle or operating as the trailer. His transition game sums up his offense in general: he can do a little bit of everything and do it well.
What will the Cavalier offense need moving forward? I’m not sure. It depends entirely on The Decision 3.0. Regardless of the result, however, Miles Bridges can find a role within that offense moving forward. Actually, he’d likely find several roles and shift between them as needed. That versatility is immensely valuable at a time when the Cavaliers simply don’t know what they need.
To this point we’ve largely ignored one side of the ball, largely because there isn’t much that makes Bridges unique on this end of the floor. He’s a moderately good on-ball defender and somewhat inattentive off-ball, which is normal for a 20-year-old high usage offensive player. His block rate was solid at Michigan State, which can be attributed in part to his athleticism and in part to Tom Izzo’s defensive scheme which artificially inflates BLK%. His steal rate was poor at Michigan State, which can be attributed in part to his relatively short wingspan and lack of aggression off-ball and to Izzo’s defensive scheme which artificially deflates STL%. His defensive rebounding was quite good, which should enable him to play as a small four sometimes. He’ll often face a height and length deficit when playing the four in the NBA, but he has the strength to make it difficult for opponents to establish deep position and the athleticism to offer a measure of weak side rim protection. He can also play as a big two-guard, where he’d be somewhere in between Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith both in attentiveness and lateral quickness. At his natural position, the three, he’s fairly normal in all respects. He’s not going to be the solution to Cleveland’s defensive issues, but he likely won’t add to them either. He’s average, but in a versatile and useful way (if that makes any sense).
Bridges has neither the peaks nor valleys of the other potential targets for the Cavaliers. He doesn’t have the extreme offensive upside of Trae Young or Michael Porter Jr. He lacks the defensive impact potential of Mikal Bridges or Mohamed Bamba. In some ways, he’s the wing version of Wendell Carter Jr.—good in many areas, but not outstanding at any one thing. That’s okay. Don’t mistake a lack of extreme upside for a lack of upside altogether. He’s not going to be the primary scorer on a contender, but he has a chance to be a quality second or third option for such a team. He’s not going to be a wing stopper down the road, but he can be a movable piece in a good defense. He has a solid floor and will contribute right away, but also has several paths to become something more than what he is right now. That combination of immediate impact and long term upside make him a worthwhile target for a Cavalier team that doesn’t know what they need right now.