A year ago, Miles Bridges was already showing NBA scouts the type of player they might get someday.
It was at practice for the McDonald’s All-American Game, and during breaks between drills, instead of taking it easy, Bridges was challenging Duke-bound Jayson Tatum to one-on-one games. Tatum was ranked the No. 1 small forward in the nation and wasn’t exactly interested in getting pushed.
It was two days of showdowns between two of the top high school players in the country that stuck with one NBA scout one year later as Bridges, who just completed his freshman season at Michigan State, contemplates whether or not to enter the NBA draft.
“Some kids take (those practices) as a dunk contest, nobody takes it too serious,” said a Western Conference scout. “But Miles was one of the only guys there who was all business and you could tell. Jayson Tatum was the consensus No. 1 guy and in between drills a lot of guys do their side one-on-one games and are kind of messing around. Miles was serious and he always went to Tatum. He always took Tatum. It went on for two days and Tatum never really wanted to do it. He never wanted to play one on one against him.
“But he would do it because Miles is basically challenging him and all the NBA scouts are watching and Miles beat his (butt). He would just get into him and get into him and push him out and push him out to where Tatum shot like 22-foot fadeaway jumpers every single time. And there were times, because clearly your pride steps in and you’re not gonna let this guy really kill me. And he would try to go around him and he couldn’t get around him.”
It was clear at that moment, Bridges had the mental makeup that would serve him well, not only at Michigan State but when he ultimately decided to head to the NBA.
“Just from that, I’m like, ‘I love this kid’s competitiveness,’” the scout said. “Even if this is for show, he’s smart enough to know who’s watching and he knows who the best is and he wants us all to see him going against the best.
“You don’t even get in the (NBA draft) conversation if you’re not physically comparable, so he’s there. What’s gonna separate him is how he is mentally. That’s why I always tell that story of him going at Tatum at the McDonald’s game. I think it’s impressive that he’s got that competitive drive because there’s so many games in the NBA that turn into a mental battle every night. You gotta really love what you’re doing because you’re in four games in five nights and you’ve been in three different cities — you’re exhausted. Physically you’re exhausted and you gotta have the dog that wants to go out and do it again and show everybody.”
That was not only shown that day, but Bridges has done well to show the same mentality at Michigan State, overcoming some rough outings in early high-profile games and missing seven more games with an ankle injury to go on to be the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
His final game might be the perfect example of his commitment. Hindered by a hip injury suffered in the early minutes of the second-round NCAA Tournament game against Kansas, Bridges fought through to score 22 points and grab eight rebounds.
It’s that sort of fight that has been most impressive, said another Western Conference NBA scout.
“He’s a guy, when things are going bad he gets the guys together, he takes coaching, he gets on the floor and gets loose balls, he goes and gets rebounds, he’s not sitting around waiting for things to happen,” the second scout said. “For those reason, I really like him.”
In fact, that scout likes Bridges so much, he sees the difference between Bridges, Tatum and Kansas’ Josh Jackson as being razor thin. Those are the three top 3-men in the draft, the scout said, and while Jackson and Tatum might have more polish and an inch or two on the 6-foot-7 Bridges, the Flint native was productive.
“That’s the thing most people seem to be stuck on is those other guys are a little bit taller, a little bit longer and maybe look prettier,” the scout said, “but he gets things done.”
That’s not to say there aren’t parts of Bridges game that need to improve. Both scouts agree Bridges’ shooting will need to improve as well as his ball-handling.
Both also see him as a 3 that can play the 4 in a small lineup, while the second scout said another big question is if Bridges has the ability to check a point guard with the NBA’s penchant for switching screens on the perimeter.
The question is, will Bridges opt to improve those things while getting paid at the next level or do so next season for the Spartans? Bridges has been in no hurry to make his choice and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has said it’s a choice Bridges will make solely on what he wants to do.
“I think Miles will be a very high draft pick,” Izzo said. “So it will be a decision that he has to make and he gets to make.”
According to the latest rankings from Chad Ford at ESPN.com, Bridges is the 10th-best overall prospect.
“Bridges finished his season with a bang, averaging 20 points and 8.5 rebounds in games against Miami and Kansas,” Ford wrote. “There are a handful of scouts who argue that Bridges might end up being better than Duke's Jayson Tatum someday. He's a better athlete, shooter and passer. But right now he looks as if he's in the Nos. 8-12 range.”
The scouts believe Bridges is ready.
“I don’t think there’s a thing he could do by staying a year that would help him other than if he was a more consistent 3-point shooter,” the second scout said. “I don’t know if he moves up any higher (if he stays). Maybe he does if he leads them to a championship and he has a player-of-the-year type year, which could conceivably happen and he’s the top-3 man next year. But I think if you’re in the top 15, it’s probably a good idea to go and he’s gonna be right there.”
If he does, he’ll be ready.
“The NBA is a world that caters to a pampered lifestyle,” the first scout said. “If you’re already like that you’re about to get a little more of that. Miles, I don’t feel, is that. I don’t think it will overtake him and it overtakes a lot of people.”