Talk to Miles Bridges and you might be fooled into thinking he’s a run-of-the mill rookie. He will describe the Charlotte Hornets, as “a hungry team trying to make the playoffs,” tell you that he’s listening to veterans like Tony Parker and Kemba Walker, that he is “getting better in practice every day,” that coach James Borrego has told him that his role is “bringing energy to the team and being great on the defensive end.” He will absolutely not tell you that he wants to make the 11 teams that passed on him in the draft feel sorry, that he might already be making progress in that area or that his presence on the Hornets’ roster could completely change the dynamics of the team.
Bridges got his first preseason points by sprinting to the corner in transition and hitting a 3 set up by Walker, but he announced his presence in the NBA with a pair of thunderous put-back dunks. This happened in a meaningless exhibition against the Celtics at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way the crowd went mad. Ask Bridges about it, though, and he will not sound as excited as you might think.
“That definitely helped my confidence,” Bridges deadpanned. “And we got the win. I just want to continue to contribute to the team as much as I can on defense and on offense and see where we go from there.”
Victories in the preseason are as relevant as parkas in July. On the phone after a shootaround, though, winning is the subject that most energized Bridges. Charlotte is coming off two consecutive 36-win seasons, but Bridges believes it has the right kind of personnel, the right kind of coach and the right kind of system to improve on that.
“Just talking about the energy that we have — I mean, the guys are saying it’s a lot more different energy than last year,” he said. “People want to win. We have a lot of winners on our team: people that won on a collegiate level, overseas. We just want to bring it together.”
He went on to say that talent evaluators should focus more on prospects who have a track record of winning, rather than just their physical tools and skill sets: “If you don’t have a winning attitude, then you can’t be able to translate it over to the NBA level. That’s why I feel like we’re going to have a good year: because we have a lot of winners on our team.”
In particular, Bridges looks up to Walker, the Hornets’ 28-year-old franchise player. Drafted No. 9 in 2011 by the then-Bobcats after winning an NCAA championship with UConn, Walker endured the worst season in NBA history in terms of team success: Charlotte won seven games in the lockout-shortened season and finishing with a .106 winning percentage. When it was all over, Walker had the whole summer to think about ending his first year as a professional on a 23-game losing streak.
Walker never forgot any of it, using it as motivation to become a complete player, lead the Hornets to respectability and. Bridges called him one of the best point guards in the league, adding that he helps everyone out in practice and is a great passer. If the 20-year-old is looking for a role model when it comes to making the transition to the pros, he could do much worse.
“I mean, if you’re coming off winning a national championship to the worst team in the league, it’s hard for people,” Bridges said. “It’s crazy that he’s still in the NBA today, going through that. Most people, they would crack or they would fold. That just shows what type of person Kemba is. He’s still in the NBA, he made the All-Star team. I’m just happy to be playing with him.”
In Bridges’ second preseason game, he hit catch-and-shoot 3s, finished on the break, made a spectacular reverse layup and showcased his off-the-dribble game. He scored a game-high 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting, with six rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal. The next day, Borrego said Bridges was picking things up quicker than anticipated, and “his feel for the NBA game is much higher than I thought,” per the Charlotte Observer.
It is extremely early, but this is the takeaway from Bridges’ performances so far. Despite having lots to learn about the league, he looks like he belongs. He is physical, he competes on defense and he fits exactly what Borrego is trying to do. The Hornets, like a lot of teams, want to play faster and improve their spacing this season. Bridges’ ability to play power forward — and maybe even some smallball center — and switch onto wings unlocks a bunch of lineup possibilities, and his 3-point range means Marvin Williams isn’t their only option when they need someone to spread the floor. Bridges knows his versatility makes him valuable.
“It keeps the team balanced,” he said. “I want to be able to move around the court this year, get people open, set screens, come off screens. And, on the defensive end, guard different people.”
To get the players accustomed to pushing the pace and making quick decisions, Borrego has run scrimmages with a 12-second shot clock. Every year, rookies talk about how tough it can be to get used to the speed of the NBA game; for Bridges, the game has literally been twice as fast.
“It’s hard,” he said. “You have to be be locked in. You gotta be focused. You can’t have any turnovers. It goes back to execution. As soon as you get across the court, you have to make a play, try to get your teammate open.”
The good news is that, if Charlotte makes speed a part of its identity, Bridges will benefit. His athleticism will get him easy buckets on the break, whether that means more diabolical dunks or spot-up 3-pointers. The new emphasis on spacing has already opened things up for him, too: Bridges had to play the small forward position for most of his sophomore season at Michigan State, and he called the spacing “a struggle” in that configuration. He was surprised when he got to the league and, suddenly, getting into the paint was simpler.
“It’s definitely a big difference from college,” Bridges said. “The spacing on the floor in the NBA is crazy different. It’s way harder to score in college ’cause a man can sit in the lane, no three-second call. It’s definitely a sigh of relief whenever I can see how much spacing that we have on the floor.”
In some ways, the success of Borrego, hired by Charlotte for his first full-time head-coaching gig in May, is directly tied to the success of Bridges. The Hornets are far from a consensus pick to make the playoffs, and Bridges is not a popular choice for Rookie of the Year, but it’s not terribly difficult to . Borrego inherited a team that was more talented than its record, and with some tweaks, good health and a stellar season from his prized rookie, the team could come together in a way that it hasn’t since winning 48 games in 2015-16.
Bridges, in his succinct style, praised Borrego for how he values offensive execution and pays attention to details on defense. He brought up the 10 years Borrego spent with Spurs under Gregg Popovich — you know, all that winning they do over there must have rubbed off on him.
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