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Miles Bridges and his awkward sophomore season

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Bridges, despite showing stints of starting-caliber play, has yet to establish himself in his second year.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The arrival of PJ Washington via the 2019 NBA Draft created a new challenge for Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges last offseason.

Bridges, the team’s first-round acquisition the year prior, had a relatively solid rookie campaign. Playing 21 minutes a game, the former Michigan State Spartan put up 7.5 points and 4.0 rebounds while shooting a modest 46 percent from the floor. His ferocious athletic ability was on display more than a few times, with his most impressive throwdown being his tomahawk against the Atlanta Hawks.

These flashes were never consistent as Bridges did not receive honors for either the All-Rookie First nor Second Team, but his first steps in the association was seen as a promising sign moving along.

After all, his 6’6”, 225-pound frame allowed him to become a multifaceted tool in many of the Hornets’ lineups. He played roughly half his minutes at each of the forward slots, but it was his time at power forward that excited Hornets fans the most. Despite being a tad undersized and not having a lot of experience in the frontcourt in college, Bridges was able to keep his composure at that position.

Hornets coach James Borrego alluded to his success in the frontcourt in August, going as far as saying that he’ll become the team’s starting power forward in 2019-2020.

Of course, that did not turn out to be true.

Washington held a solid grip at the power forward position in his two years at Kentucky. At 6’8”, 228 pounds, he’s relatively the same size as Bridges. He’s a far superior ball handler down low than Bridges, a key reason why Borrego gave Washington the starting nod at the four in the Hornets opening game this season.

Washington’s NBA debut of 27 points while making an NBA record seven 3-pointers is something that’s bound to go down as one of the best performances by a Hornet in franchise history.

A historic event like this completely altered Bridges’ expected scope this season. Washington never looked back in his starter role and has since started at the four in every game he’s played thus far.

Bridges was, in the eyes of fans and analysts alike, planned to be the team’s starting frontcourt player alongside Cody Zeller, but Washington’s sudden rise to team contributor put a dent in that scenario. As such, Borrego shifted Bridges back to where he has played the majority of his high school and college career, at small forward.

This is where we’ve seen the ups and downs in what has turned into a very confusing second year for Bridges.

Offense

Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier’s play has been a boon for the Hornets offense and made the team shift its offensive focus. Instead of the fast-flowing, spread offensive we all pictured it to be, the team has increasingly emphasized guard play in their ability to score.

Charlotte’s offense performs the second-highest pick and roll man frequency in the league despite converting a below-average mark at 46 percent.

Having ball handling duties come almost exclusively from the pick-and-roll area has put a lot of pressure on Bridges’ offensive game. In college, he was able to score primarily through two avenues. Either by cutting through inside for easy looks towards the rim or by setting himself up by creating shots off the dribble.

He has seen some of the former this season, including a nasty alley-oop jam against the Toronto Raptors. But the latter is an area that would open up Bridges’ offensive arsenal. Being able to consistently make create for oneself is a skill that’s useful in nearly every halfcourt situation.

Take a look at how calm and collected Bridges is bringing the ball up court then having the wherewithal to drive inside. We haven’t seen him do this as much since he’s often relegated to a spot-up shooter role.

Check out this compilation of the game against the Washington Wizards this season. Unlike typical Hornets games, the offense was run through Bridges at more times than one. He stepped up in this role, creating many chances for himself both in and outside of the painted area. This performance was a cultivating showcase as he recorded a career-high 31 points in the game.

Unfortunately, the game against Washington is an anomaly for Bridges this season. Too many times he’s taken a step back while out on the floor, picking and choosing whether to shoot the basketball. In half his games, he’s attempted eleven shots or fewer. The Hornets gameplan night in and night out makes it difficult for Bridges to establish a consistent footing on the court.

When given the green light to score, in games which he’s shot fifteen times or more, Bridges is averaging 20.5 points and seven rebounds while converting at a modest 44 percent clip. Compared to his numbers through 46 games, he’s only averaging 12 points and 5.4 boards a game shooting 43 percent from the field.

But consistency remains a big question for Bridges’ offense. He’s made less than 50 percent of his shots in 20 of his 46 games this year, nearly 43 percent of every time he steps on the hardwood.

Having the green light some games and shying away from opportunities in others it begs the question about Bridges’ rhythm offensively. A player of his skillset should be fed early in the ballgame to measure out the opponents’ defensive spacing on the interior. If not, then it makes Bridges no less than a stand-alone three-point shooter with little detail on opposing defenses’ gameplans.

To be fair, spot-up shooting has been an area of great improvement for Bridges. It’s increased by two percent to be at 35 percent in these opportunities.

Defense

The most concerning aspect Bridges’ game this year has to be his defense.

Coming into the draft, Bridges was regarded as a high-end defensive player. Although lacking the size of most NBA combo forwards, his quick lateral step made him a prime candidate for helping weakside coverage situations.

But this year, he has taken a step in the wrong direction.

He’s had a positive plus-minus in only nine games thus far, and it’s clear that his defensive IQ and effectiveness is way behind schedule.

Right here is a prime example:

Watch how Bridges keeps his eyes on Dallas MavericksJustin Jackson throughout the entirety of his dribble off the pick and roll. Doing so leaves his assignment wide open for the easy three-pointer.

Again, Bridges eyes in on the ballhandler and completely loses Indiana Pacers’ TJ Warren cutting inside for the easy score near the rim.

These issues stretch beyond off-ball recognition. He’s holding a -2.7 defensive plus-minus, and things haven’t been pretty on that end of the floor through January.

But, not all hope is lost. Just like his scouting report alluded to, Bridges can and has shown flashes of his ability to alter opposing shots.

Overall, these lapses have not gone unnoticed. I’m sure the Hornets’ staff’s biggest agenda for Bridges is to work on his defensive IQ.

He may be undersized even for a modern-day three but his athleticism and culture around team defense should benefit in molding Bridges to become more of a reliable player from that end of the floor.

The idea of the “sophomore slump” is a phrase used all-around professional sports. After getting acclimated to the fast pace of the highest-tier league, one may need two or three additional years to get a better sense of their role.

Being shifted to the small forward slot has given Bridges a different manual in how to approach his role both offensively and defensively. Playing at the three means his opponents are able to match up to his speed more than those at the four.

Offensively speaking, slotting at the wing means there is less space to cut inside because of lanes being clogged up by the two frontcourt positions.

But Bridges doesn’t want his NBA calling card only be that of a slasher, although the first chapters of his career have put some obstacles in the way.

This year has been a big wake-up call that the professional game won’t come to you. You have to be the one to adjust and make your define role.

Bridges needs to assert himself more in the team’s game plan. Yes, his outside shot has drastically improved. Generally speaking, he should receive more chances to perform off the dribble. Doing so can prevent the Hornets from being too guard-centric offensively.

If Bridges wants to show us how impactful he can be as a permanent small forward right now, he needs to become more well-rounded on both ends. That can start by looking at film and analyzing his situations defensively during the NBA All-Star break coming up.

His second-year campaign has been one of extreme highs and lows. Now with a definitive role and position set in stone, it’s up to him to make the most of it.