Eighteen years ago, Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans made a run through the NCAA tournament, into the Final Four, and won the 2000 championship in part to the contributions of The Flintstones - Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell.
The Flint, Michigan natives had grown up playing basketball with each other on various teams, and committed to Michigan State after Antonio Smith had joined the team after graduating a year before. The Spartans core went to the Final Four three years in a row, and two of the four - Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell - went on to play in the NBA.
Since then, a decent crop of NBA players have come from the Flint area. JaVale McGee and Monte Morris have both spent time with the Nuggets, James Young has spent time with the Celtics, and Kyle Kuzma is tearing it up with the Lakers as a rookie.
The latest star to come from Flint is Miles Bridges, a sophomore forward that has followed the path of the original Flintstones and has played for Michigan State the last two years. In case you haven’t seen him yet, here’s a brief introduction:
But there’s more to Bridges than just a future Slam Dunk champion. The 20-year-old forward (today is his birthday) is a humble, hard-working, spiritual leader that is committed to greatness, on and off the court. He’s close with Josh Langford and Tum Tum Nairn Jr., a group of friends with whom he attends Bible study classes. He is good friends with Denzel Valentine, Draymond Green, and Gary Harris, all former Spartans. He chose to return to Michigan State after his freshman season, turning down an opportunity to likely be a lottery pick, because he wanted to work towards accomplishing a goal of bringing a national championship back to East Lansing.
It’s those attributes that make Bridges not just an attractive prospect for his on-court skills, but for his off-court character as well.
On the court, Bridges profiles as a 3&D option at small forward in the NBA. His freshman year he played more inside as a small-ball four, but with the addition of Jaren Jackson Jr. this year, Bridges spent more time on the perimeter. While Bridges played at 240 pounds his freshman year, he’s slimmed down to 225 pounds to help him keep up with quicker guards and wings on the perimeter instead of banging down low for rebounds and post position.
At 6’6” with a reported 6’9” wingspan, Bridges has the height and length to play as a small forward in the NBA. He’s shown that he can use his vertical leaping ability to grab rebounds, but his greatest strength is his agility and ... strength (the term I like to use is “combat muscles”). He has an incredible first step, and is able to translate that into being one of the best scorers in the country when the defense closes out on him and he puts the ball on the deck, ranking in the top 10 percent of the country per Synergy Sports.
Once he gets past his defender, Bridges shows off a high basketball IQ with his decision making. He’s an adept passer, able to make quick decisions once the defense reacts to his dribble penetration. While he’s not going to be a primary playmaker, he’s not a black hole that only focuses on the rim once he starts to dribble. With his ability to finish at the rim, letting him go full bore to the hoop isn’t a bad option, but he’s smart enough to kick the ball out or drop a bounce pass to a big for an easier shot attempt.
The threat of attacking off the dribble is there for him because of his ability to knock down jumpers as a set shooter. He ranked in the 92nd percentile as a freshman shooting off screens, according to Synergy Sports, and has been nearly just as good his sophomore season. He shot 36 percent on 5.74 3-point attempts per game last season, and projects to be about at that level of a shooter in the NBA.
He’s not a big blocks and steals player, although he did have more blocks his freshman season when he was tasked with playing more as a power forward. Instead, he leverages his size and speed to prevent players from getting into their shooting motion, forcing them to give the ball up to a teammate since the shot isn’t there. It’s a skill that Paul Millsap has, denying players the opportunity to get a shot off rather than just blocking the shot attempt.
Bridges does struggle on offense when a player that can match his quickness is tasked with defending him. Since he relies on his athleticism to get past his defender rather than his ballhandling, if he can’t blow past them to create space, things get difficult for him.
A lot of Bridges 3-pointers come on spot-up shot attempts as well, which fit into the Michigan State offense, but does raise a question about whether he’ll be able to get shots away off the dribble from the perimeter. Of his 71 made 3-pointers, 64 were assisted, which bodes well for a role as a spot up shooter, but not a shot creator. If you’re worried about that, check out the video at the bottom of this article though - sometimes, it’s fine to have him pulling up from deep off the dribble.
Fortunately for Denver, that’s what they need on offense. They don’t need someone to pull up and shoot - that’s what Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton are for - they need someone to spot up on the wings, finish alley-oops, and defend like crazy. That’s what Bridges can do best!
We’ll have to wait and see how he does against NBA length, starting as soon as Summer League, because he isn’t above average there and it’s not like it’s something he can work on in the gym. Michigan State has been bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament both years that Bridges has been there, so while he deserves some credit for helping the Spartans get there, he hasn’t been able to help them advance to the Final Four (yet).
There’s a real chance that he decides to return to school for another year. College is something that he values, for the relationships he has formed, the life experience he is gaining, and the opportunity to make a legacy in the state he grew up in. If he does declare, this is a player the Nuggets not only should take if he’s available when they draft, they should look into trading up to select. Don’t pass on another Big 10 athletic forward that is NBA ready right now!