Mikal Bridges (above) has emerged as a potential lottery pick with a terrific start to his redshirt junior season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Austin Petolillo (@AustinPSports)
In front of a national television audience, inside the world’s most famous arena, against a top 15 opponent, in front of NBA general managers and other personnel, Villanova wing Mikal Bridges showed why he belonged.
Scoring a new career high 28 points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots, Bridges put on an absolute show in an 88-72 win to power the No. 4 Wildcats over the No. 12-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs in front of the crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic.
The biggest moment of Bridges’ career night came around the eight-minute mark in the second half when he drove down the lane and dunked over two Gonzaga defenders. If that wasn’t enough, Bridges then went down the floor to swat a shot out of bounds.
While it was just one play in an overall impressive game -- part of an impressive start to the season -- that dunk showed the strides Bridges took from his freshman season at Villanova to now.
“I just saw a lane and I tried to go up and be strong,” Bridges said. “Ever since my freshman year, I would lay the ball up a lot and coaches and the seniors used to get on me for that.”
“That dunk going down the middle lane, it had an impact on this game and then to go block the shot like that, guys get fired up when they dunk,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “And then they’re going to be even more aggressive defensive and that led to the block, it was a really cool sequence.”
Bridges has been the latest Wildcat to have gotten better and better as his Villanova career has gone on. Recent graduates like Daniel Ochefu, Darrun Hilliard and most recently Josh Hart all went from decent reserves as freshmen to stars by their senior years, and the latter two are currently in the NBA.
By the time he’s done at Nova, whether that’s after this year or next, Bridges might have progressed further than any of them.
“He could be, in the end, one of the best in terms of where he came from,” Wright said. “His freshman year in practice, he would just physically get killed, but we knew he was a good player, you can tell he was a good player.”
After redshirting his freshman season in 2014-15, Bridges only averaged 6.4 ppg and 3.2 rpg in 20.3 mpg for the NCAA title champion Wildcats in his first season on the court the following year. Bridges’ sophomore season last year saw almost a 10-minute increase for the 6-foot-7 wing from Malvern, Pa. He scored an average of 9.8 ppg and grabbed 4.6 rpg -- quality minutes, but nothing that indicated what he’d be doing this season.
Even before his monster performance on Tuesday night at the Garden, Bridges was averaging 17.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. He was hitting 56.7 percent overall and 50 percent from deep -- and that was before he went 8-of-14 overall and 5-of-9 on his 3s against the 'Zags.
Bridges is arguably the best NBA prospect Wright has ever had, and with his athleticism, shooting ability, basketball IQ and a wingspan of seven feet, it’s easy to see why scouts are so high on him.
But when it’s gametime, Bridges is only focused on the game at hand, not the NBA scouts gathered courtside -- even when it’s several NBA general managers who were there on Tuesday night.
“When I’m out there, I just play for my teammates and coaches,” Bridges said. “I don’t care who’s out in the crowd, I just play for my guys and that’s what I do whenever I go out there.”
Despite his impressive run of success at the program, including a national championship run in 2016, Wright has only had five players drafted since he took over the head coaching duties at Villanova in 2001.
In 2006, guards Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry were both selected. Foye was picked seventh by the Minneosta Timberwolves and Lowry was selected 24th by the Memphis Grizzlies.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Wright saw another player of his drafted, when forward Dante Cunningham was picked in the second round as the 33rd overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers. In 2015, guard Darrun Hilliard was also picked in the second round with the 38th pick by the Detroit Pistons. Last season, Hart was selected with the last pick in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Several other players, including 2016 grads Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono, went undrafted but eventually found their way; Ochefu and Arcidiacono both signed on with NBA teams and are currently in the G-League.
It is unclear at this point whether Bridges will stay at Villanova for a fifth season or if he will leap to the NBA; given the NCAA’s new relaxed rules, it’ll be a shock if he doesn’t at least declare after the season and get some feedback on where he stands. If he does decide to go pro, he is projected by draft experts like ESPN’s Jonathan Givony as being a mid-to-late lottery selection, which would make him the second-highest selection for any Villanova player under Wright.
Wright knew that when he was recruiting Bridges that he was getting a special player, and he is in no way shape or form surprised by the NBA hype surrounding Bridges. Coming out of Great Valley, Bridges was considered a four-star prospect, within the top-100 nationally but far from a sure-fire NBA pro.
Except in the mind of his future coach.
“In my mind, I thought he would be [in the NBA],” Wright said. “When we coach them, we tell them that, we tell them what we think they could be so let’s go to work at that and let’s judge ourselves by that path and he’s done it.”
Notes & Quotes
In the win over Gonzaga, Villanova shot an impressive 10-for-21 (47.6 percent) from deep and hitting 52 30-of-58 (51.7 percent) from the field. Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth put up a quiet 20 points for the Wildcats and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman recorded his third double-double scoring 10 points and hauling in 10 rebounds.
Villanova stays undefeated at 9-0 while the loss dropped Gonzaga to 7-2.
Up next for the Wildcats are two back-to-back Big 5 matchups as they host La Salle on December 10th and then head to North Philly to take on Temple on December 13th.
Because guards Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo were riddled with foul trouble, Villanova had to run with a larger than usual lineup of Booth, Bridges, Spellman, Eric Paschall and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree.
“Donte and Jalen getting into foul trouble forced us to do it and it really worked,” Wright said. “Beating a great team that we have great respect for is the best takeaway from tonight, but more importantly, we did get those big guys playing together and we can build on that.”