BOSTON – When Mikal Bridges arrived at Villanova, he struggled to bench press 135 pounds. His right elbow jutted out like a chicken wing on his jumper, a gawky motion that twinned with his gangly 6-foot-7 body. His lithe, 185-pound frame made schools skeptical of his potential, as his recruiting ranking hovered on the fringes of the top 100.
Four seasons and thousands of gym hours later, Mikal Bridges can claim the rarest of modern basketball career arcs – from redshirt to Green Room. His rise from a project recruit to projecting as the top NBA prospect in the Final Four simultaneously tells the story of Villanova basketball’s ascent to the rarified air of college basketball. The Wildcats are playing in their second Final Four in three seasons, and they arrive there again without the benefit of a one-and-done player.
That’s made Bridges’ gradual ascent the ideal career arc to epitomize Villanova’s player development machine, the intricate formula of heavy weights and endless jumpers that’s allowed the Wildcats to become a consistent national title contender under coach Jay Wright. Bridges has gone from struggling to bench 135 to easily putting up 225 five times, from chicken wing jumper to clinical form, from a frail frame to perhaps Villanova’s strongest player pound-per-pound. Along the way, he’s nearly tripled his scoring average (6.4 to 17.8) and overhauled his 3-point percentage (30 percent to 44 percent). “They turn you into a man before you leave here,” Bridges told Yahoo Sports this weekend in Boston, “and keep you getting better and better every year.”
Former Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy recalls first watching Bridges play for Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, late in his junior year. He matched up against one of the biggest stars in the state, B.J. Johnson, who went on to play for Syracuse and La Salle. Bridges showcased his length by extending up so high on a defensive closeout that he blocked Johnson’s shot with his elbow. “There was a ‘wow’ factor to him,” Dunleavy said. “He was a baby. A physical baby. But we were mesmerized by what he could end up being.”
Bridges didn’t turn 18 until he arrived on Villanova’s campus in the summer of 2014. He embraced the decision to redshirt on the account of age and obvious physical deficiencies. “That was not an easy decision,” said Jim Nolan, who coached Bridges at Great Valley. “But his parents jumped on board and Jay knew it was the right decision.”
The overhaul of Mikal Bridges began with daily workouts with Villanova assistant Ashley Howard. They devised a plan during Bridges’ redshirt season so he could become an immediate asset when he started his eligibility the following year. The first step was to make Bridges a “Three-and-D” guy, meaning he needed to refine his shot enough to stick the open jumpers that he’d get from defenders shading attention to star guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart and wing Kris Jenkins.
Bridges’ jumper required reconstructive surgery, with the elbow needing to tuck in, altering his shot pocket and accentuating his follow through. The Wildcats’ balletic offensive ingenuity starts with form shooting, which they do in practice every day. It continues with the drill Howard credits most for Bridges developing as a shooter: the 5-of-7 drill. In seven different spots on the floor – both corners, wings, slots and the top of the key – Bridges needed to knock down 5-of-7 shots to advance. Missing more than two meant starting over, ratcheting the pressure up the further the drill goes.
But even when Bridges’ technique advanced in drills, he’d revert back to his old form in game situations during practice. That meant watching film, more reps and, as Howard said, “just being a pain in his ass every single time his elbow isn’t in.”
Things didn’t click right away, as Bridges missed 13 of his first 15 3-pointers in games as a redshirt freshman. By then, Bridges had begun to fill in – strength coach John Shackleton recalls him not being able to do 10 pushups on arrival. He can easily crush 50 now, and Shackleton calls him one of the strongest players on the team, pound-for-pound. His physical strength has led to versatility that allows him to guard everywhere, from point guards to center.
Everything began coming together on the court, and he played a key role off the bench on Villanova’s national title team two seasons ago. After starting the season 2 for 15 from 3-point range, Bridges finished the season at 30 percent and left the coaching staff optimistic. He’s gone from sporadic to virtually automatic, as he drilled the biggest shot in the East Regional seminal against West Virginia this weekend – a 3-pointer to give Villanova the lead for good amid an 11-0 second-half run. The moment felt like a fitting coda for a kid who arrived with his elbow jutting out at a right angle. “He redshirted as a freshman because he had to,” said Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli. “And here he is, on the brink of two national championship and becoming a top-20 NBA draft pick.”
As college basketball has evolved and Duke and Kentucky have become destinations for one-and-done players, Villanova’s niche has been polishing overlooked gems like Bridges into shiny prospects. Wright made clear the Wildcats remain in the market for the elite high school talent, even if they’ve never had a one-and-done player under Wright. “Our culture is such, we want someone who wants to be in college,” Wright said. “And if they’re good enough to leave in one year, if they’re good enough to be a first-round pick in one year, great.”
The rips and tears on Bridges’ knee pads – courtesy a full season of floor dives – provides empirical evidence he has kept the balance between staying a team-first player and high-end prospect.
The gangly kid with the clunky jumper and barbed-wire frame has blossomed into likely top-10 pick.
Bridges has already established himself as this draft’s unicorn, as he’ll be the only former redshirt in the Green Room. After this weekend, he may be the only guy with a pair of national title rings as well.
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