By Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Sitting in the media room at the Finneran Pavilion, Mikal Bridges looked almost identical to the last time he put on a Villanova uniform. Six-foot-six and lanky, hands big enough to palm a basketball (with room to spare) hanging out the bottom of his suit jacket, a gentle smile on his face.
Nope, not much had changed at all. Well, except for being picked in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft, his subsequent rise to NBA stardom, the $90 million contract he signed a couple years ago — besides that, the same affable kid he was when he arrived at ‘Nova nearly 10 years ago following a standout career at Great Valley.
Mikal Bridges (above) speaks to the media before having his jersey retired. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
All of that’s why Bridges was back, for Villanova to honor him by hanging his jersey in the Finneran Pavilion rafters during a halftime ceremony.
“Man, real special,” he said of the reason for his return. “Never thought this day would come, never really thought of it ever happening. Real special just being here for four years and everything we accomplished as a team and this whole program, just blessed, honestly.”
Now in his first full season with the Brooklyn Nets after being traded mid-season from the Phoenix Suns, Bridges is a bona-fide NBA star. The sharpshooting wing guard, who hasn’t missed a game since being drafted 10th overall by the Sixers — who immediately (and regrettably) traded the local product to the Suns — has improved every year he’s been in the Association.
As a rookie with the Suns, he averaged 8.3 ppg, shooting 33.5% from deep. Last season, he averaged a career-best 20.1 ppg on .468/.382/.895 splits, a year after being selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team for the first time.
That’s a far cry from when he first got to college. His first year at Villanova was spent redshirting, getting his body ready for the physicality of the high-major game, getting used to doing things the way Jay Wright wanted. It’s a path several others have followed successfully, including current ‘Nova standout Eric Dixon, but Bridges called it “one of the toughest years” of his career.
“I never had a situation where I missed a whole year of playing basketball where (I’m) healthy,” he said. “It was tough on me, but I had my family, friends that just helped me so much. Continuing to work every year and just seeing the progression go every year and getting better as a man, as a person, as a player, and everything was just looking good every year, every step.”
Bridges is the latest in a string of Villanova players who’ve returned home to have their jerseys retired. (The Wildcats don’t retire numbers, just jerseys; Bridges’ 25 will still be available). Former teammates Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart, both now with the New York Knicks, both had the same honor last year; Ryan Arcidiacono, also now a Knick, was a couple years before them.
Bridges helped Villanova win the 2016 and 2018 national championships. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
That group, which led ‘Nova to national championships in 2016 and 2018, has also changed the perception of Villanova players in the NBA. Prior to this recent run of success, only Kyle Lowry has come out of the Main Line to achieve NBA stardom this century, though Randy Foye also had a solid domestic pro career. Now there are four on the Knicks alone, including Donte Divincenzo, with others scattered around the league.
“That was always the thing about ‘Nova, saying Coach Wright don’t put guys in the NBA and stuff like that, I remember that coming into school,” said Bridges, who finished his ‘Nova career with 1,311 points and 504 rebounds. “I think we’re the most detailed team, organization ever, any other team, it shows when I go and I’m in the league and play against and am teammates with guys who are not as detailed as I am.
“I know how Jalen and Josh and everybody is, and that’s strictly because we went to ‘Nova. Coaches tell us all the time…we’re locked in and we’re detailed on everything.”
Bridges has a lot of built-in intangibles: his body is a prototype for an NBA 3-and-D wing, his personality just the right combination of intense and friendly. But would he have found this level of success if he hadn’t gone to Villanova and played for Jay Wright? Not a chance, he said.
“I probably wouldn’t be the player I was if it wasn’t for him and everybody here,” Bridges said. “Just that mental toughness, just going through tough times and being able to get through adversity. It just showed me how to work hard. I thought I worked hard until I got to college, and even when I was working hard, I still fell like I wasn’t working hard enough. I’ve fallen in love with the game more since I’ve came here, and it starts with all my coaches.”
Much has changed in the six years and changed since Bridges left Villanova. The Finneran Pavilion got its $65 million facelift; Wright retired after the 2021-22 season, capping his Hall of Fame career.
Bridges said he still keeps all his connections to Villanova, the team group chat now shifting to talk marriage and fatherhood, the big-picture life topics that all his former teammates are encountering as the college years shift further into the past. That includes regular contact with Wright, the basketball angle also fading, in favor of more important words.
“I think his biggest thing is just telling me to keep being who I am and I know with more fame and more stuff like that, people can change, and he just reminds me to always be humble and don’t change,” Bridges said. “I know that but [it’s] also just good for him to just talk about, everybody talks about basketball all the time to me, and for a coach that you’ve been in the gym every single day with, him not really talking about basketball and being a good person is just really dope.”