Bridge The Gap: Miles Bridges presents intriguing options for the Hornets

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Normally Summer League is the special time of the NBA calendar that’s reserved for rookie overreactions. Media or fans see a guy light it up for 25 minutes out an Vegas and the tweets fly in: “I know this guy would be a star,” they say. Or, alternatively: “A few too many midrange jumpers from Late Lottery Pick X tonight, this is going to be a problem.”

That’s all good and fun; it’s the middle of July and we’re starved for basketball. However, why not bring that same exuberance to preseason basketball, too? The season is right around the corner — only two weeks away — and Miles Bridges already looks like the player the Charlotte Hornets desired when they selected him in this year’s draft.

Start with a bang

After a solid summer run out in Vegas, Miles Bridges didn’t waste much time in the preseason creating highlights. In Chapel Hill for the opener, Bridges took to the skies and announced himself to the NBA world with a glorious put-back slam dunk — one of two hit threw down that night.

As much fun as it is watching Bridges forcefully fly through the air like that, he’s flashed a far more advanced skill set in the next two games. He’s not just a leaper; there are plenty of layers to his game.

Second-Side Offense: Miles Bridges

One of the reasons why I was so bullish on Bridges leading into the draft was how he projected as a closeout-beater on offense. During his time at MSU, Bridges recorded nearly 300 spot-up possession, and was rather efficient: 1.02 points per possession. And while he was the focal point of Tom Izzo’s motion offense, Bridges had the ability to space out and look to attack from the weak side of the floor.

The thought process was simple: On the next level, if he could hit enough three-pointers, Bridges could use leverage that into offensive creation — drives to the rim, dribble pull-ups or play-make for others, after creating more advantage, forcing another rotation. Play him at the 4 and your team could really have something special.

Nothing Weak About This

Bridges has shot the ball excellently from beyond the arc in the preseason: 8-of-15 3PA (53.3 3P%), including 6-of-12 3PA from above the break and 2-of-3 3PA from the corners. He will always have a bit of an unorthodox stroke but, if it goes in, so be it. I love this kind of action for stretch forwards — Bridges slipping the screen for a three-ball.

This has been used to help set up drives to the basket; so far through three preseason games, Bridges is 9-of-11 (82 FG%) at the rim. With Miami’s defense in rotation — thanks to Tony Parker’s probing attack (this is why he’s in Charlotte) — Bridges uses two dribbles and a nasty spin back to his right. He gets all the way to the rim: the money area.

As has been noted by my podcast partner Spencer Percy, Bridges is lefty but loves to drive right. He’s comfortable finishing with his off-hand.

Overall, Bridges has absolutely ripped nets in the preseason (71 eFG%) and done so on a low usage rate: 18.7 percent. It’s still too early to figure out what the ceiling is for Bridges on offense; can he become a No. 2 option? That remains to be seen, but the early returns are positive: he has the look of an efficient offensive player with plenty of room for growth.

Downsize: Upgrade

In Hornets circles, there’s been plenty of talk on what position Miles Bridges projects to in the NBA. Right now, he’s vacillating between the two forward positions, but seeing a lot of time as the team’s small-ball 4. At the start of the season, though, it seems likely that we’ll see bench lineups with Bridges and MKG together on the floor as 3.5s — switching defensively and attacking closeouts.

However, the more broad vision — beyond this season, as Charlotte morphs into a more modern approach — would be for Bridges to see as much time as possible at the 4. The hope, probably, should be that Bridges becomes the replacement, at some point, for Marvin Williams, whose $15 million player option expires after the 2019-20 season.

Plus, Bridges at the 4 with Kemba running the show — and shooters in each corner — gives the Hornets the flexibility to run some really cool stuff offensively. This kind of pick-and-pop/slip action is perfect for Bridges.

It’s been obvious, through the first three preseason games, that Charlotte will utilize more handoff action under James Borrego, and Bridges fits perfectly into that paradigm. He can play either end of the DHO game; with his ability to drive the ball, he can use the action to create channels to the basket. Up in Boston, Bridges fakes the handoff with Devonte Graham and blows by Guerschon Yabusele for the layup.

A Few Too Many

The fact that Bridges has the confidence and skills to put the ball on the deck and create is certainly encouraging. However, he does have a tendency to over-dribble into so-so long twos, or attack a closeout when it would be better to just let it fly from deep.

Of his 31 field goal attempts in the preseason thus far, only five have been two-point attempts outside of the restricted area. There’s a positive note to take away from this, too: when teams switch smaller defenders on him, Bridges put it on the deck and attack. This is ideal for the modern NBA; here he attacks Kyrie up in Boston

It’s impressive when a player decides, “I’m getting to the rim, damnit.” Bridges has the determination and athleticism to create those looks, but on some plays, it’d just be easier to shoot the jumper.

Transition Game

Last season was a bit of a slug for the Hornets, especially when Kemba Walker sat, which we’ve discussed in this space plenty. Charlotte did rank eighth in the NBA in pace; however, with Walker on the bench (1,220 minutes), the Hornets played at a pace of just 99.8 possession per 48 minutes and scored barley over one point possession.

Obviously, Walker will have to drive a lot of the offense in Charlotte this season, although the hope should be that his on/off splits aren’t quite as gaudy.

In the 2017-18 season, only 12.5 percent of Charlotte’s possessions started with a transition play, per Cleaning The Glass, which ranked 25th in the NBA. That was a drop from the season prior: 15.8 percent in 2016-17.

During his sophomore season at Michigan State, Brides was a powerful transition player — 1.22 points per possession (62.3 eFG%), according to Synergy Sports. So far, we’ve seen some special glimpses of that in the preseason, working with Kemba.

A few nights later, in the win over Miami, the Hornets elected to close the first half with a super-intriguing small-ball lineup: Kemba, Malik Monk, Jeremy Lamb, Bridges and Zeller. It worked, too. Over the final four minutes (+4), that group went 4-of-7 from the field for 14 points (1.26 per possession) with all four of the field goals assisted on.

That run included another connection between Kemba and Bridges. This time, with a little extra mustard.

Get It And Go

With Bridges on the floor in the preseason, Charlotte has played at a pace of 108.3 possessions per 48 minutes, which is flying up and down the court. (This will drop some once the season starts.)

It’s well-documented: Charlotte revamped its offense under James Borrego. While most of that focus has been on half-court actions, this team will look to run more, too. Bridges should help unlock some of that.

Activity Level Midnight

So far, the bounce and activity level of Bridges has really stood out, too. Everyone knew Bridges is a powerful athlete, but he’s looked solid on the defensive glass (18.2 percent defensive rebound rate) and contesting shots at the rim.

Look at how Bridges times the block perfectly; Scary Terry never sees him coming.

Rozier isn’t the only NBA rotation player that Bridges has met above the rim on the defensive end this season. Matched up against Justise Winslow, Bridges showed phenomenal one-on-one recovery skills to get up and deny this shot: Gimme that.

Charlotte dropped the 17th in the NBA in defensive rating last season, which is almost unthinkable under Steve Clifford. In the long term, Charlotte needs Bridges to curtail some of his off-ball wonderment and focus in. He has the ability to switch across at least four positions; in the preseason we’ve seen him work as switch partners with MKG.

This is going to be a bigger part of the defense under Borrego, and that’s a good thing. For Bridges to unlock his full two-way potential, he needs the proverbial green light to switch across the board.