Early last season, Mikal Bridges had a meeting with his Phoenix Suns coach, Monty Williams, before a road game against Memphis.
“I just thought I deserved to play more,” the third-year forward from Villanova said last week in a Zoom interview, “and he told me I wasn’t working hard enough. And ever since then, he made me realize I had to work hard and get back on track. Ever since that day, [I] just kept going forward.”
Fast-forward well past a year later, and Phoenix has been the biggest surprise in the NBA as the Suns (41-16) prepare to face the 76ers on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers (39-18) are coming off Monday’s 107-96 home loss to Golden State, which snapped a four-game winning streak.
Bridges, a player who once was looking to find his way in the NBA, has become a vital performer for a team that, just like the Sixers, has championship aspirations.
This season, Bridges, 24, is averaging 12.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, and is shooting 41.7% from three-point range for a Suns team that is second in the Western Conference. He has never missed an NBA game, having played in 212 straight.
Things weren’t looking so bright when, just five games into last season, Bridges met with Williams and asked a simple question: What do I have to do to become a better contributor?
At the time, he was averaging 3.4 points and 18.5 minutes a game. That wasn’t the production the Suns or Bridges expected when, after helping lead Villanova to its second NCAA title in three seasons, he was the No. 10 overall selection in the 2018 draft.
Bridges was selected by the Sixers, but he was a member of the team for less than 40 minutes. He talked to the media wearing a Sixers cap, thinking that was his destination. But he was traded that evening to Phoenix for the No. 16 pick who turned out to be the star-crossed Zhaire Smith, and a future first-round pick that the Suns had acquired from Miami.
“He wasn’t quite sure how he was going to fit in here, and we weren’t quite sure how to help him,” Williams said of Bridges last week. “He wasn’t as consistent as we wanted earlier in the year, and he and I had a pretty vulnerable conversation about what I expected but also about how I could help him. And to his credit, he embraced everything I asked of him.”
Williams, a former Sixers player and assistant coach who was in his first season as Suns head coach last year, said that Bridges should be commended for listening to what was said and applying it.
“I had to look at myself and see how I can help,” Williams said, “and that conversation in Memphis was a starting point for him to grow more as a player, and also for me to look at some things that I wasn’t doing that weren’t helping him.”
Bridges, also known as a strong defender, ended up averaging 9.1 points and 4.0 rebounds in 28 minutes per game last season, with 32 starts in 57 games, including the last 27.
This year, he has taken another step, and has started every game.
The addition of point guard Chris Paul has been the biggest difference with the Suns, but the development of young players such as Bridges has also been a key. No longer does Bridges have to be told to work harder.
Said Williams: “He just works until we have to kick him out of the gym.”