(First posted at RealGM)
Miles Bridges was projected to be a lottery pick in last year’s draft before withdrawing his name from consideration and returning for his sophomore season at Michigan State.
That’s usually a dangerous proposition for these prospects, who are risking getting exposed or not showing enough development for the liking of pro decision makers in their second years in college.
That didn’t turn out to be the case with the 20-year-old but he also didn’t manage to improve his status a whole lot either, as he’s currently expected to be drafted around the same range he was supposed to a year ago.
That’s not to say the six-foot-seven combo-forward was about the same player last season that he was in year one. In fact, it’s very curious how Bridges was pretty much a completely different player in year two.
As I wrote last August, Bridges impressed as a freshman by playing as a modern stretch big, capable of putting pressure on the rim as a finisher on dives to the basket or in the offensive glass and handling the ball out in space to create offense in isolation or out of the pick-and-roll, drawing opposing big men 25 feet away from the basket to defend in a way they are not accustomed to.
Defensively, Bridges translated his athletic ability into contesting shots near the basket coming off the weak-side in help-defense and running opposing stretch big men off their shots on closeouts.
More promisingly, though, Bridges also impressed with his technique in pick-and-roll defense as a big, getting down in a stance and walling off dribble penetration by rotating preemptively and manipulating ball-handlers into low-percentage mid-range pull-ups. He proved himself attentive to his responsibilities switching assignments on the fly as well.
But last season, he was asked to play, or he himself asked to play, a completely different role. In order to accommodate the four true big men Tom Izzo judged worthy of playing time, Bridges played as a pure wing the entire season, with the exception of a few stretches here and there when Michigan State was behind midway through the second half.
More of his shots were quick catch-and-shoot jumpers coming off screens on the side of the floor or sprinting to the ball on dribble hand-offs and he was tasked with guarding smaller players out on the perimeter for the most part.
As a result of his role, Bridges got to the rim less, collected a fewer percentage of available defensive rebounds and blocked fewer shots in his second year of college in comparison to his first.
I tended to dislike the way Bridges played last season but after going back to read what I wrote about him nine months ago, it turns out that all he did was focus on working on the few things I pointed out as causes for concern; individual perimeter defense, shooting versatility and foul shooting.
Therefore, taking a full view of his two-year college career instead of being myopic and only focusing on his most recent performance, I’m back to thinking very highly of Bridges, given the versatility of his skill-set and how much the league craves players like him right now.
In his 1,962 minutes in East Lansing, Bridges averaged 21.5 points per 40 minutes on 57.6% true shooting and 27.2% usage, nailed 37.5% of his 339 three-point shots, collected 20.4% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, assisted on 15.8% of Michigan State’s scores when he was in the game, blocked 1.4 shots per 40 minutes and posted a 22.8 PER.
Bridges’ role on the offense this last season was to space the defense as a weak-side spot-up shooter in the corners, drifting around the wing and jog around staggered or pindown screens for catches at the elbow area and on the side of the floor.
As a result of where he got his touches, and also because Michigan State often had both its big men crowding the lane, Bridges took a lot of quick catch-and-shoot jumpers last season and rarely had enough space to curl all the way to the basket. After taking 37.1% of his shots at the rim in 2016-2017, he took just 27.1% of his attempts within close range in 2017-2018, while 42.7% of them came from beyond the arc.
His release seems somewhat quicker and more fluid. The lefty remains a fair more capable shooter on corner threes when he has plenty of time to set his feet than when he is forced to rush through his mechanics getting up quick jumpers off picks but he has proven he is capable of taking some of these tougher shots on the move, especially one- and two-dribble pull-ups off dribble hand-offs but also the eventual step-back pull-up with some deep range in isolation.
Bridges nailed 36.4% of his 194 three-point shots last season, at a pace of 7.3 such attempts per 40 minutes, and 40.9% of his 137 two-point jumpers.
Just as importantly, perhaps, he’s shown tangible improvement as a foul shooter, which provides more security to the assumption that his shooting can translate to the longer range in the pros, as he converted 85.3% of his 109 foul shots, after hitting just 68.5% of his 92 free throws in year one.
Thanks to that improvement in foul shooting, Bridges has managed to maintain his efficiency despite the change in shot selection, as his .572 true shooting percentage in year two was in line with his .580 mark from year one.
Though he didn’t have as much responsibility creating from the top against a set defense, Bridges showcased his passing ability in instances where Jaren Jackson, Jr. spaced out to the three-point line and he had room to curl into the lane or attack closeouts, hitting open teammates on basic drop-offs or kick-outs, or when he took smaller matchups into the post and spotted cutters – assisting on 16.8% of Michigan State’s scores when he was on the floor last season.
When he looked to score with his back to the basket, Bridges has preferred to back down these smaller opponents with power moves. Listed at 225 pounds, he is heavier and stronger than the average wing and relies on his bulk to work his way into close range toss-ups or scoop shots around the defender, though he’s shown a no-dribble face-up jumper that has also looked good, as has his fadeaway jumper.
Given Michigan State’s iffy spacing in the half-court, Bridges wasn’t well set up to get to the rim off the dribble often but he managed to score at the basket in transition and on cuts sneaking behind the defense when the Spartans lifted their two big men above the foul line on horns sets, as 43 of his 82 makes at the rim were assisted. He is an explosive leaper off two feet and can play above the rim as a target for lobs on these backdoor cuts – finishing his 125 shots at the basket at a 65.5% clip.
Tasked with guarding out in space pretty much the entire time, Bridges proved to be a little more capable of sliding laterally multiple times as a sophomore than he had shown to be as a freshman.
He is not a bonafide individual stopper by any means, as he doesn’t use his 225-pound frame to contain dribble penetration through contact and he is too big to be able to slide over screens at the point of attack.
But Bridges was able to do a better job staying in front well enough to contest shots in isolation, chasing shooters around down screens when he’s focused and can closeout, run the shooter off the line and stay in front off the dribble when he is on his best effort.
And it is worth noting he was stressed by different types as well; lighter shooters who make a living running around screens like Gary Trent, Jr. and Grayson Allen, ball-handling wings like Theo Pinson, wrecking ball types like Jae’Sean Tate, and active off-ball movers like Charles Matthews.
Bridges also did a decent job executing the scheme as a weak-side defender, attentive to his responsibilities guarding two players on the second side when Michigan State overloaded against the ball, rotating in to pick up the roll man and pitching in on the defensive glass — collecting 18.2% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor.
But Bridges proved to be less of an asset in rim protection in this role. He started the season averaging 2.2 blocks per 40 minutes during the non-conference part of the schedule but had just 12 blocks over the last 20 games, eventually finishing his second season of college averaging just one block per 40 minutes.
He also didn’t show much of a knack for using his six-foot-nine wingspan to make plays in the passing lanes – averaging just 0.6 steals per 40 minutes last season.
Nonetheless, though Michigan State defended slightly better without him in the lineup, the team’s defensive rating in his minutes would still rank them in the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
 DOB: 3/21/1998
EDITOR’S NOTE: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara