Charlotte, N.C. — At Michigan State, it was a quick transition for Miles Bridges. As a freshman, he averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds and backed it up with a similar sophomore season.
He was a team captain for the Spartans and a second-team All-America selection. After being selected 12th overall in the 2018 NBA draft, Bridges had another transition with the Charlotte Hornets, having to learn the ropes all over again and find his niche as a pro.
With veterans Kemba Walker and Tony Parker on the Hornets roster, he had all the sage wisdom he needed to help in his development on and off the court, but things changed quickly, as Parker retired and Walker moved to the Boston Celtics — leaving Bridges wanting to rewind the clock.
“I didn’t take advantage of (the veterans) last year because I’m trying to get advice from Kemba still this year; it was great last year for me to have them,” Bridges said. “Kemba played a huge role in the season but Terry (Rozier) has stepped up this year and I took on a leadership role, too. It’s pretty different.”
Things are changing for Bridges, 21, who started 25 games last season but already has started all 12 this season for the Hornets, including Friday’s against the Pistons.
There’s not enough time to learn now; it’s turned into an on-the-job training for Bridges and rookie P.J. Washington, as Hornets coach James Borrego is churning the roster and giving the young guys playing time to try to figure things out.
In Bridges’ case, the goal is to give him more room to grow offensively and to accentuate his strengths as a defender at both forward spots.
“Just the experience of being out there and understanding personnel, rhythm of the game and how to defend without fouling just comes with time,” Borrego said. “The game has slowed down in those areas for him. He’s obviously a physical presence and he has the ability to do it, but it’s the mental side and whether he can stick with it and be disciplined — that’s the one thing I’m challenging him is with the discipline from play to play.
“He can do it for stretches but can he do it play after play — that’s the challenge for a young guy.”
At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, Bridges naturally is suited as a small forward, but with his strength and athleticism, he can play either forward spot, especially in smaller lineups. That’s where he can become a standout; the versatility to defend both.
It’s going to take some time, though.
“I’ve seen great strides. He’s still young and that’s what most people don’t get,” Hornets forward Dwayne Bacon said. “He’s two years in and only 21. You can just see him grow. He came in and got right to it, as a great defensive player and rebounder.
“He has some work to do to know how to score and to use his body. He’s going to be a great all-around player.”
Thinking the game
In his second season, Bridges has increased his scoring average by almost six points and has found his 3-point stroke, improving to 39 percent, while taking two more per game. He attributes the improvement to a targeted approach during the summer and focusing on improving some of his weaknesses.
“It’s just a lot of confidence. Last year, I was just shooting the ball and didn’t have any confidence at all; this year I practiced in the summer, so I have a lot more confidence,” he said. “My first year, I went straight from college, to workouts to the combine and not having time to really work on my game. This summer, I took advantage of getting shots up and playing open gym.”
"It's paying off so far, just in the pregame preparation, with focus on more specifics and the subtle nuances of the game, more than just the physical aspects. In high school and at MSU, he was more physically gifted than many of his opponents, so he could get by without the same level of preparation.
“The game did slow down. I was just more mature about things and I try to approach things in the mental aspect than physical,” Bridges said. “I watch more film and depend on tendencies instead of relying on my athletic ability.
“In college, you can get away with that, but in the NBA, there are people with the same athleticism and who are taller, bigger, so you have to think the game.”
Embracing the hate
With his MSU roots, Bridges has a clear allegiance during Michigan-Michigan State football week. The bond with the other Spartans in the NBA runs deep and having that sense of family was one of the reasons Bridges went to East Lansing.
“Signing with MSU, I knew it was a 40-year decision and not a four-year decision, because I could always go back there and have a family,” Bridges said. “It’s always going to be like that.”
Bridges wasn’t optimistic about the Spartans’ chances against Michigan on Saturday, but noted the rivalry will be in full effect for basketball season.
“It’s respect but we still hate each other,” he joked. “Hoops is still a big rivalry.”