To listen to an audio version of this story, check out Breakaway—Sports Illustrated’s narrative podcast about how the NBA works. You can find this and other episodes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Art19.
What happens in between the final buzzer of a prospect’s last college game and the night of the NBA Draft? In the latest episode of the Breakaway podcast, Villanova’s Mikal Bridges takes us through every step of his wild summer.
Rob Mahoney: Mikal Bridges knew it was over. There was still time to play in the national championship game, but Villanova had given itself such a comfortable lead against Michigan that Bridges and his teammates could just … luxuriate. They played out the clock. They snuck wide grins at one another. They subbed out their starters, and the entire team stood near the bench, bouncing with nervous energy.
That moment is the kind of emotional blur that sticks with you forever. The beats of the game will wash out in time, especially since they didn’t really matter. Villanova pulled well into double digits in the second half, just as they had all tournament, leaving Bridges and the rest of the Wildcats to slowly grasp the reality of their situation. And when they reach back 20 years from now, they’ll be struck by sensation. Maybe it’s a flicker of the intro video. Or the vibe in the building when the game started to break open.
Mikal Bridges: And then the crowd when Donte got hot. It was just like, stunning. Like, “Oh my god,” “Oh my god,” again and again. Just stuff like that. And then when we went on a run, just hearing the crowd, how they started going crazy, and then right towards the end, when we were about to win, the crowd goes even crazier.
Mahoney: And then—it all became real. Bridges won the second championship of his college career—this time as one of the best players in the country. Villanova was a dominant team in part because Bridges made them one. He wasn’t the redshirt freshman along for the ride. He was a driving force. There’s a different level of validation that comes from that, and you can see it on Mikal’s face when it finally sinks in. Here he is, in this sea of people, living in the triumph of all it took to get here.
Bridges: It just reminded me of the Big East championship times, like, 100. Just winning that and then just swimming around going crazy. It was a great feeling. Everybody was excited, a lot of my teammates were crying. I’m not really too much of a crier, but I was more excited than anything.
Mahoney: Everyone processes that kind of victory in their own way. Mikal looks somewhere between dazed and gleeful. His mom, Tyneeha Rivers, had a slightly different response:
Tyneeha Rivers: Oh, it was just surreal for me … it’s just a moment that just means so much to me as a mother. Because here’s a time where I knew my son was gonna graduate … And then to end his season as a national champion just meant so much.
Rivers: I’m incredibly proud of him and all that he’s accomplished. It’s amazing. And I’m trying not to cry, but I just would’ve never imagined that happening again and just to see him be a role player and then all that he’s accomplished is just something that just makes me smile from the inside out, for sure. Sorry, I just get so emotional when I think about it.
Mahoney: The scene on a basketball court after a championship is complete chaos, because it’s really just dozens of people working through that kind of emotion at once. Elation gets tangled with relief, and with this sense of camaraderie, and with the unmistakable power of something ending.
Oh, and over there, it’s Kyle Lowry, Josh Hart, Randy Foye, and Tim Thomas—all beaming in freshly made championship hats. Bridges stops off to take a picture with Kerry Kittles, a former Wildcat but really, more of a mentor. Mikal’s mom is obviously there, along with his dad, some cousins, and what his mom calls their Villanova family.
One by one, the players climb a ladder to cut down the nets. Bridges gets the final piece. He cuts, he pulls it down, and he turns to look over the crowd while he waves the net in the air. He steals just a few more seconds on top of the world.
After a game like this, the celebration moves. In San Antonio, that apparently means loading up on barges and floating down the Riverwalk.
Bridges: Y’know, we had the band out there, our crowd’s out there, and Coach was talking.
Mahoney: There’s a whole second stage ceremony – only with more greenish, brownish water involved.
Bridges: Then after that, got to the hotel, saw more of my family, and just laid up.
Rivers: Really. Nothing crazy. We just sat around and talked and laughed and just reflected from the time that Mikal played basketball from a very young child up ‘til today. Just laughed and had a good time.
Bridges: I was tired. [laughs]
Mahoney: And when he finally laid down to sleep, Mikal knew it was over. He knew that he had played his last game for Villanova, his last as a student-athlete. He knew then what he knows now: that the NBA is another world, and that right now he’s as ready for it as he’ll ever be.
I’m Rob Mahoney and you’re listening to Breakaway.
Mahoney: When you win a championship in a major sport, you find out that the celebrations have no definite endpoint. Bridges and his teammates flew back home the day after the game, and when they got to campus, they found an arena full of fans ready to exalt them as conquering heroes. It was a full-on rally, where every coach and player got their moment. When it came time for Bridges, the crowd made one resounding plea.
“ONE MORE YEAR! ONE MORE YEAR! ONE MORE YEAR!”
Bridges had already spent four years at Villanova, but because his first came as a redshirt—in which he practiced but didn’t play—the door was open for a return. He still had a year of eligibility left. So the same thing happened again a few days later, when Bridges took the stage in downtown Philadelphia as part of Villanova’s championship parade.
It was frigid that day, with a windchill around 30. Bridges and his teammates stood on top of double-decker buses, tossing t-shirts into the crowd and showing off the trophy. You can actually see Bridges shivering his way through the procession, trying to burrow deeper into his hoodie.
Then came his turn—as one of the team’s captains—to address the crowd. Bridges can be soft-spoken, but that morning he came out hot. And then he kinda froze.
Bridges: WHAT’S GOING ON, NOVA NATION?! [Laughs nervously] I appreciate you guys coming out today, it means a lot. We love your support and … I love you guys so much, man. Thank you so much.
Jay Wright: He only weighs about 185 pounds! He’s freezing! But he put on 20 pounds since he’s been with us!
[Fans chant “ONE MORE YEAR! ONE MORE YEAR!”]
Mahoney: That afternoon—about 70 hours removed from the championship game—Bridges signed with Excel Sports.
Choosing an agent Is one of the most important decisions for a prospect to make, and a quick entry point into the complexities of the NBA. It’s not just a matter of figuring out who to pick, but how; most 19- or 20-year-olds aren’t very experienced when it comes to screening for this kind of relationship, which is how third parties like relatives or college coaches tend to get involved. Bridges had a rare advantage: his mom.
Rivers: One of the things that—I’m a resources professional, so one of my gifts, I say gifts, talents, is being able to really vet people and be able to see people for who they are.
Mahoney: Officially, Rivers’ title is the vice president of human resources … for the Philadelphia 76ers. This isn’t her exact domain, but it’s adjacent at worst. Hers would be a great perspective to have when it comes to agency presentations. Here’s how that works: Agents will meet with a player like Bridges for an hour or two to pitch their services—to let a player know what can be done for them. An agent might show how they’ve been able to help other players or outline what a prospect might be able to expect based on their unique game and appeal.
As a player, you have to be wary. We’re all susceptible to flattery, and high-level athletes, in particular, can be so confident in themselves that they lose sight of what’s reasonable. The agent projecting the rosiest outcome in their presentation isn’t always the best choice.
Rivers: Because sometimes throughout the process, you hear a lot of different things. People are just telling you what they think you want. But I wanted someone who just flat-out be honest with me, and someone I knew would have his best interest in mind.
Mahoney: It’s essential that both the player and the agent are realistic with themselves and each other. Otherwise, someone gets frustrated; there’s no better way to sour a working relationship than to betray expectations. Mikal has a unique perspective in that regard, as a player who both tested the draft waters last summer and improved dramatically in the past year.
Bridges: Trust is number one. Knowing who’s gonna be there for you. My thing was I met before the season started. So I didn’t really make my name until during that season. So just kinda knowing the people who wanted me before, before everything. Not just because oh, his name’s pretty big, I’m just gonna go with him. Just try to find someone before you get really big so you know you have trust with them.
Mahoney: That’s pretty good advice. An agent is going to work as the liaison between a player and a business that player is only beginning to understand. Trust is really the most important factor involved. It’s a feel, supplemented by due diligence. One of the benefits in playing for a program like Villanova is the network. There are enough alumni in the NBA that a player like Bridges can get all sorts of helpful advice. He usually starts with Josh Hart—a former teammate who just finished his rookie season with the Lakers. And when it came time to actually meet with agents, Bridges could lean on head coach Jay Wright to help facilitate.
Wright: Well, everything with Mikal is real simple because his mom and dad are great people. They support us, they support him. We think very much alike. It just came down to him meeting with, I think it was four agents, he and his mom. I didn’t even sit in on them, we just had them here in my office. And they sat in because I told them it’s more important that they get a relationship. I knew all the guys and they were, y’know, reputable guys, so I just let them pick and listened to their opinion, and then once they picked their guy, then he and I went to work.
Mahoney: Five days later, Bridges announced on ESPN his decision to declare for the draft.
Bridges: You know, after talking to my parents, my family, my coaches, I’ve declared for the NBA draft. Thank you, thank you. Villanova’s been great, a great four years. You know, I graduate in May, so very excited for that. That’s just another, you know, big step. But I’m ready to move on for another step in my life and prepare now. [Fade down mid-way through]
Mahoney: That choice to declare—the one that incited all of this—has really been years in the making. Bridges is a 21-year-old redshirt junior, making him the rare lottery pick who is also a long-term developmental success story. One and done wasn’t even a consideration; Bridges waived his right to play by redshirting his first season, a decision so painful that teammates remember seeing tears in Mikal’s eyes when it became official. Physically, he just wasn’t ready. So he spent the year lifting, taking hits in practices against upperclassmen, and even eating five meals a day at one point to bulk up.
When he joined the playing rotation the next season, the calculus of his draft prospects started to change.
Wright: Really for him it was kind of a gradual decision. But I think—when he was a freshman, the way he played his freshman year, we won the championship and he was a big factor in the NCAA tournament, we thought, ‘You know what, Mikal’s gonna be an NBA player.’ Then, in his sophomore year, we started saying, like, ‘You know what? Mikal’s just getting better and better. He’s gonna be a first-round draft choice. Not there yet, but he’s gonna be.’ Then, as we started to play this season—early in the season we played in the Bahamas—the way he dominates some games, we said, ‘You know what? He’s not coming back after this year.’
Mahoney: It became an open secret—the kind where the writing is on the wall, but everyone involved refuses to acknowledge it publicly. Bridges could have declared in 2017 and probably would have been drafted if he did.
Wright: We sat down and talked and just said, like, ‘You could be late first, early second, but you know you’ve got things you wanna work on. You wanna learn how to be a go-to guy. You don’t wanna just go in there as a 3-and-D guy. You wanna be a go-to guy.’ So at the end of last season, he decided not to go through the process. The combine. Just stay here, work on your game, really become complete as a player, and then invest in yourself for next year.
Mahoney: That was the understanding: Bridges would play one more season at Villanova, after which he’d be even better positioned for the draft. Incidentally, the team turned out to be so good it won the tournament, all while Bridges improved in dramatic fashion. There were neon signs everywhere telling him that now was the time.
Bridges: Just a lot of work I put in and how I felt about my game. Just confident in myself and know what I can bring to teams and what I contribute, y’know, right from the jump. So just having that confidence in myself and knowing what I can do and what I can’t do. It got me that confidence to know that I was ready.
Bridges: My teammates and coaches, it wasn’t like they were holding me back. They were telling me to go. So just having confidence from them, just like, ‘Alright, yeah. You had a great four years, it’s time for you to go.’ Not like, ‘Come on, you should come back.’ So it wasn’t no pressure. Them sending me, telling me to go—I’m like, ‘Y’know, I’ll miss you guys.’ ‘Yeah, we’ll miss you too, but you better go. This is a perfect opportunity.’ So I was like aight, and it made my life way more easier.
Mahoney: It’s easy to look back now and say that Bridges made the right choice. But his decision to return to Villanova for one more season wasn’t an easy call. Bridges had already been in college for three years and had real NBA traction as a wing defender. There was no guarantee that his game would blossom like it did, and no guarantee he would stay healthy. Bridges would be subject to a different level of scrutiny as a four-year college player. If he was anything less than dominant, the choice to play one more year could really cost him.
There’s a weight to a decision like that—not just for Bridges, but for anyone advising him. Wright feels it, too.
Wright: It’s tough, because there’s a side of you that feels like a parent. You know? You want them to make the best decision that’s in their long-term interest. You know, their best financial interest long-term, and their best career interest long-term. But you also have to balance that with knowing that they’re a young athlete that is very confident and this is a time in their life when they want to take on challenges. So I feel a real responsibility and you feel a real responsibility to develop them and to prepare them because you know it’s their dream. It weighs heavy on you and you really do take that responsibility really seriously.
Mahoney: Ultimately, Bridges bet on himself—on the idea that he could be more than a late-first- or early-second-round pick. He made draft status a primary motivator, and then he had to play out an entire season without letting mock drafts and big boards get in his head.
Wright: By the time they get to that point, if they’re not—if they haven’t developed the habits that allow them to concentrate on getting better every day, it would be tough to do that. It would be tough to keep them from looking at draft boards. But Mikal came in with a great personality, great characteristics, great character in terms of just focusing on getting better everyday and then letting the results be what they are. He did that as a freshman when he redshirted. He did that his freshman year as a player. He did that his sophomore year. And now, he went into this year with the same plan. Like, what I can control is getting better everyday, being a leader. And then in the end, my draft status will be what it is.
Bridges: Yeah, it’s definitely difficult. But I was raised a really good way, and more just to continue to work hard. Don’t read into things that you don’t know. My coaches do a real good job with that, too. Just, you never know. Just don’t judge yourself by that. You just keep playing the way you’re doing. And if you keep playing the Villanova way, you’re gonna get in this position you’re in. I did that, and that’s why I’m here.
Mahoney: Along with his teammates, Bridges took a much-deserved victory lap. He flew out to L.A. for The College Basketball Awards, where he was honored as the nation’s top small forward. Villanova had its own basketball ceremony, as did the Big 5 in Philly. The Sixers hosted the whole team for their closeout game against the Heat, and honored them on the floor at the first-quarter break. The Flyers did the same during their playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And then, in early May, came the end of the school year—and the end of an era for Bridges. That’s a bittersweet day, even for a highly decorated athlete on his way to a pro career. Leaving campus is an acceptance that your life will never be the same.
Bridges: That family oriented thing where friends are living on campus together. Being best friends, seeing each other every single day, living in the same apartment. That culture right there, I’m gonna miss the most.
Mahoney: Bridges packed up that apartment and moved out, all without knowing where, exactly, basketball would take him. His fate … would be decided by ping pong balls.
Mahoney: This year, the NBA moved the draft lottery from New York to Chicago—effectively making it a sort of tip-off for the combine. The proceedings are split. In a secure room, team representatives and select members of the media watch as ping pong balls are pulled from a hopper, each marked with a number between 1 and 14. This is where the draft order is actually decided.
In a very different room, those results are then broadcast to the world on television. Most of the players slated to go in the lottery were in attendance that night. You’ve got Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba, Michael Porter Jr., Lonnie Walker. And then there’s Bridges in a blue, glen-check suit, still repping his Villanova colors alongside Jalen Brunson.
The only team to make a jump in the draft order this year was the Sacramento Kings, who had the seventh-best odds but will pick second overall. Bridges isn’t projected to go quite that high, but his prospects did shift slightly that night because Sacramento forced a few other teams down a slot. There are a number of other variables still involved, but this gives Bridges his first sense of where he might actually land. Even a largely unchanged draft order still offers up crucial information.
The draft combine itself is actually a pretty wide-ranging event that means something different for everyone involved. Bridges was present and accounted for, but he chose not to compete in scrimmages, participate in drills, or even get an official measurement on things like his height and wingspan. That’s common for players in his position; if you’re secure as a likely top-10 pick, most agents will advise skipping out on the public stage of the combine altogether.
Contrast that with the case of one of Bridges’ teammates. Donte DiVincenzo lit up the national title game with 31 points on 15 shots, and off the strength of that performance he decided to gauge his NBA appeal. The combine was exploratory. It allowed DiVincenzo to see where he stood, and the way he performed and measured there only helped his draft stock. He announced he would hire an agent to stay in the draft a few weeks later, and now he looks to be climbing well into the first round. The feedback he got from the combine made a real difference.
Even players who have already committed to the draft can take something away from the experience. Everything is still so new for them—which is why the NBA Players Association offers some resources at the combine to help get them up to speed. Garrett Temple, who’s an eight-year veteran with the Kings and a vice president with the union, led a panel discussion to answer some of the questions an incoming rookie might not know how to ask.
Garrett Temple: Everybody was a rookie once. Everybody came in not knowing much about the league. So it’s our job as veterans in the league and certain leaders in the league to teach guys as much as we can. Not only informally in the locker room and things of that sort, and meeting settings and with having the programs that we provide.
Temple: We had one young guy, Malcolm Brogdon. We had another guy, a nine-year veteran, Evan Turner. And then Andre Ingram. So we had three different perspectives on how they made their way to the NBA.
Mahoney: There’s good range there. Turner was the No. 2 overall pick, Brogdon was drafted in the second round, and Ingram grinded through minor league basketball for a decade before finally getting his shot with the Lakers last season. Getting to the NBA means keeping your focus on basketball. But once you get there, players run into all sorts of financial and logistical issues they might not have anticipated.
Temple: I asked the players, my colleagues at the time, what they did in a situation where you get drafted in June, but you don’t get your next paycheck until November. What happens in a situation if an agent wants to give you money or a financial advisor wants to loan you money? Is it better to do that or is it better to maybe to ask for a cash advance from the team? Ask them: How did they pick their financial advisors? How did they pick their agents? What were their steps when they were going through the workout process ahead of the draft? What teams did they work out with? Did they ever tell some teams ‘no’ about working out? And things of that nature. Just how to maneuver the pre-draft process in general.
Mahoney: For Bridges, that process continued with team interviews. Every team has their designated room at the combine, and over the course of a few days, the incoming rookies make scheduled rounds in between their other commitments. You go from a photo shoot in some generic workout gear to an interview where a team will parse your every word.
Bridges: Everybody’s nervous. Y’know, you wanna get a new job for the first time, feeling it. But I mean, personally, I love it. I’ve been dreaming about this day since I was young, and finally being in this position, y’know, I love it. I’m more excited than nervous than anything.
Mahoney: Bridges interviewed at the combine with the 76ers, the Bulls, and the Knicks. His preparation for those interviews was pretty light – at least in the explicit sense. As Mikal saw it, he had been preparing for them his whole life.
Bridges: I believe it all starts, like, how you were raised, and what you went through in life. I’m grateful for both parents in my life. Especially my mom, just raising me into the man I am and always being respectful. I feel like that’s gonna help me out the most. As a young kid you don’t think about that, you just think about basketball. But as I got older and matured a lot, I just know that it’s more than just how you play on the court. It’s off the court.
Mahoney: Teams see it the same way. There’s plenty of basketball talk in these interviews, but they’re not just drafting a player. They’re picking a person to represent their organization, their company—even their city. They’re adding a new element to an existing team dynamic. And while they’re at it, they’re trying to understand which aspects of a player’s personality might propel them forward and which ones might hold them back. How a player carries himself can literally change his career. With that in mind, this was the impression that Bridges wanted to leave with his interviewers:
Bridges: That I’m a better person off the court than I am on the court. That I’m just gonna work hard and do whatever it takes to win. Just know that I always have that winning mentality and that’s never gonna go away. I’m just gonna try to bring that from the college level to the NBA level.
Bridges: That I work really hard and I got a real good work ethic and I get better every year. And that’s not gonna stop now. I’m gonna keep going up every year. I’m gonna keep getting better until, y’know, I be that complete player. And it’s gonna take time and I know it is, and I’m gonna keep working until I turn into that fully complete player.
Mahoney: Even after Bridges left his interviews and left Chicago altogether, teams continued their information gathering. To borrow a phrase from Sam Hinkie: Everything is a data point. Not just how Bridges played in games or how he answered questions, but his habits and his manner and his lifestyle. Teams want to know—
Wright: Everything, really. Even teams are sending people here to campus to meet with trainers, coaches, professors, academic people. So they wanna know everything. One of the things everybody asks is: Once he starts making money, how do you think he’ll handle that?
Mahoney: That’s a big question—and an interesting coincidence. Earlier this year, Daryl Morey was featured on a panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference alongside Steve Nash and Shane Battier. An audience member submitted this question, as read by moderator—and Sports Illustrated legend—Jack McCallum:
Jack McCallum: What will the next big advance in basketball come from? What channels—analytics or otherwise—are still untapped or immature? I guess I’ll ask Daryl that first. Where will the new big advances in basketball come, would you think?
Daryl Morey: Well I think—I mean, some of it’s you don’t know. If we knew, we’d be halfway down it. I think Steve and I were talking before. At least in terms of my part of personnel evaluation, where we have to pick players, if we could properly forecast, I would say, three things, it would be a huge advance—at least for us. Maybe other teams are better. One would be: What will they do the minute they get a lot of money? I have not been able to predict that. Some guys handle it, some guys don’t.
Mahoney: That might be the single most important factor in projecting a player’s career, and yet you can’t even scratch the surface of it through film study or traditional statistical analysis. For the record, Wright didn’t see that as being much of an issue for Bridges.
Wright: I don’t think that’s gonna affect him at all. It’s never driven him in the past. He’s never really wanted for anything, but he’s never really been affected by striving for anything material. He’s always focused on being a good person and being a good player.
Mahoney: And remember that Morey noted that there were three particular areas for improvement in forecasting players. One, we’ve covered: How will a player respond when they start making huge amounts of money?
Morey: Two would be do they have the self-awareness of where they’re not as good as they need to be. Meaning: Do they understand there’s a gap between them and Chris Paul or James Harden or any of these great players in the league. And then three, what are their habits to improve that gap?
Mahoney: Interestingly enough, both of those questions hint at some of Bridges’ most attractive qualities as a player. He thrived by playing off the ball at Villanova, and became a star at that level without once leading his team in usage rate. He’s not James Harden—he’s the kind of shooter and defender who could make Harden’s life easier. And he got to that point by working—first to strengthen his body, and then to sharpen his game. Bridges established himself as an energy player first. A seventh man. But by the time he was through at Villanova, he had tripled his scoring average without sacrificing any of what made him so effective in the first place.
Team reconnaissance aims to fill in those blind spots as fully as possible. Scouts went to Villanova to learn about Bridges in the most granular detail, and to get the broad, honest impressions of the people who had worked with Bridges every day for years.
Wright: They ask [about] his ability to guard on the ball, y’know, because he was so aggressive blocking shots, getting steals off the ball. And then, it’s been really simple with him. It’s almost been like, they ask, too good to be true. Is it really—is it real? And I tell them it is. He’s the real deal.
Mahoney: Even after the lottery and the combine, Bridges had one last order of business at Villanova. One more stage, and one more ceremony.
Bridges graduated on May 19th, while wearing his basketball jersey under his gown. Four of his teammates walked with him. This was a day that meant something to Bridges. There wasn’t much left for him to accomplish as a college basketball player, but he insists that the choice to declare would have been more complicated had he been unable to complete his degree.
Bridges: If I didn’t graduate, that really would have been, like, a really tough decision.
Mahoney: OK, ‘tough.’ But maybe not so tough that Bridges would have passed up being a top-10 pick to finish off some electives. All the same, the symbol matters—not just to him, but to his family.
Rivers: Oh, it was awesome. Just to see him—I became very teary-eyed when I saw him with his cap and gown on, just to know that okay, it was just another accomplishment and something he’s worked so hard for over the years. So just to see him walk across that stage is amazing. It’s something that he’ll have with him for the rest of his life.
Mahoney: It’s something he can be proud of. And in the moment, it gave Bridges one last chance to see old friends before getting back to his new life. Bridges had set up a home base in the suburbs of New York, where his agency provided a gym and trainers to work with. Part of graduating from the NCAA to the pros is learning how to fill a day. Gone is the structure of Villanova; now it’s up to Bridges to decide when and how to work on his game.
Bridges: I mean, it’s my job.
That it is. Donovan Mitchell, who’s a friend of Bridges, attributed his success as a rookie to that very thing – that being a professional made basketball his job. It gave him a focus and routine that brought out the best in his game.
Bridges: And basketball’s turned into an all-year-round sport. People don’t take breaks anymore. Y’know, they might take a couple weeks, but it’s always getting back into the gym. Just having that mindset and learning that now and just keep going, keep working out every day, just keep getting better, keep improving.
Mahoney: For now, that’s less about playing basketball than honing basketball skills.
Bridges: Just a lot of, y’know, skill work and stuff like that on the court. Just drills and all that stuff. Off the court, just lifting. Getting stronger, getting balanced right, doing everything.
Bridges: Legs, upper body, and then be more mobile. Hips, all that stuff. It’s never just one piece. Just trying to make sure my whole body works together and makes me be the fastest person I can be, or the quickest, strongest, and all that type of stuff.
Mahoney: You’re not going to remake your game in between the end of the college season and the draft, so you focus on small, tangible improvements. You work on getting into your shot from a variety of situations. You hone basic dribble moves and rep out productive footwork. You work intelligently to make sure that when teams call, you’re ready to audition.
Wright: Our advice was: stay in shape, keep shooting. Our guys will work out with him in shooting drills. But don’t get hurt. We knew he was in a great position. So we wanted to make sure he stayed healthy.
Mahoney: For the better part of a month, Bridges’ primary job is to keep his game sharp and manage his workload. When he’s not in the gym, …
Bridges: I relax. I play a video game, I watch Netflix, and I recover. That’s all I do off the court.
Mahoney: He sounds like an NBA player already.
Bridges: I’m watching a show called Money Heist right now, which is pretty good.
Mahoney: It’s this moody, Spanish-made thriller. Not sure if Bridges is watching the subtitled version or the really bizarre English dub.
Bridges: I’m almost finished, probably like three more episodes.
Mahoney: And then it’s on to the next. A lot goes into being an NBA player, but it’s not without its considerable downtime. It’s a plane to a hotel to an arena to a plane to a hotel to an arena, often with hours to kill. You either read a lot of books or play a lot of cards or watch a lot of movies. There’s no real way to prepare for that travel schedule, though Bridges doesn’t seem too concerned about managing life on the road.
Bridges: I’m gonna be away from home, but what else would I wanna be doing? I wanna play basketball every day and travel around the world.
Mahoney: And soon, he will. Some team will select Bridges in the draft. The only question is which one – and the answer may depend on how teams read his workouts in their gym. When a team invites a player in for workout, there’s some negotiation between team and agent as far as what can take place. Bridges, for example, isn’t actually competing against any other draft prospects in any of his workouts. A coach with the team in question will run him through situations or drills, maybe with a few other coaches working as stand-ins. There’s no head-to-head matchup against another wing player in his range. Just Bridges against the situation itself.
Bridges: Drills, conditioning, all this type of stuff. Shooting drills. I’m ready for anything. Whatever they throw, I’ll be prepared.
Mahoney: The first team workout on Bridges’ schedule was June 2nd in Charlotte. The Hornets didn’t just want to test Bridges’ shooting and conditioning. They tested his shooting after testing his conditioning, manipulating the structure of the workout to get more nuanced information. There’s already reels of footage of Bridges shooting in game situations. So why not look for something more specific?
This is the one setting in which a team can—within certain guidelines—customize exactly what they want to see from a prospect. There can be real value in that. Trent Redden, an assistant general manager with the Clippers, explained his team’s approach this way:
Trent Redden: I think a big part of what we do is try to put guys in uncomfortable situations and maybe learn about their skill level that we didn’t know they had. So we ask the bigs to shoot threes, all of them, and they might not have done that all year. We ask them to play the handler in pick-and-roll and they might not have done that all year. The littles—what they do with a switch, or what they do in a situation off a pin-down that maybe they had always played with the ball in their hands. So a big part of what we’re doing is putting guys in positions that they may not have been in as much or they’ve been uncomfortable, and see how they react. Cause that happens in a basketball game all the time.
Mahoney: Those kinds of workouts ask players to demonstrate organic skills, but the entire format is inorganic. So you try to create realistic scenarios and you try to run everything at game speed, but it’s hard for a workout not to feel like a workout. And if you’re a player, that makes it hard not to feel like the team’s draft choice is riding on every shot.
Bridges: Y’know it’s a lot of pressure. You’ve got a lot of important people in that room that you wanna impress. Just a lot of mental toughness to show that if I miss a couple shots, I’m not gonna, like, look around the room and be like, ‘Dang, I look bad.’ I’m just gonna worry about the next shot and always have the mindset that the next one’s gonna go in. Don’t worry about the others. Y’know, Villanova did a great job with that for me and I’m really grateful for that.
Bridges: We go by attitude. Meaning that whatever happens, y’know, forget about it, it’s on to the next play. And Coach does a great job with that. The championship player that I am today, just built me, mentally tough. It’s a major part of the game and it helps me out, big time, and just not getting down on myself. But yeah, Villanova did a great job of that. And that’s what we preach everyday when we play. And everyday in life, too. It’s not just on the court—it’s off the court. Things don’t go your way off the court, just, y’know, what can you do next to fix that? Or what can you do to improve what you’re doing off the court?
Wright: That’s really important for me. That makes me really happy for him. Because it’s what we love about coaching is we want to instill skills in these guys and a work ethic that’s gonna make them successful on the court. But also a mindset and a type of character that’s gonna make them successful in life that’s also gonna help them on the court. So when I hear that he internalizes that and even articulates that, I know he’ll be able to help other people with that…That’s as valuable to us as anything, to know that those guys are not just internalizing it, but they’re sharing it with others.
Wright: You know, we don’t have a lot of one-and-done guys that are gonna come in and get drafted on potential. Our guys are more guys that are going to workouts and proving themselves. So there’s a lot of things during practice during the year and during the summer when we say to guys, ‘Hey your NBA career is gonna come down to going into a workout and being prepared for everything they do. You know, having good footwork. Being able to defend. Being tough enough. Being in shape. Being able to shoot the ball. Being skilled. Go through interviews. Be intelligent. Be articulate. So we talk about it all the time. So when it comes time for them to do it, they kinda feel like alright, this is what I’ve been preparing for my whole career.’
Mahoney: With the workout comes the rest. A team will get a player’s official measurements and maybe do some diagnostic testing. A meeting with the team psychologist has become standard. And usually, a player will meet with team officials over dinner. If you happened to dine with the Knicks while Phil Jackson was still team president, he might urge you to try the octopus and then judge you when you didn’t.
Bridges has gone through this process four times now. First it was the Hornets who have the 11th pick; then the Bulls who have the seventh pick; the Knicks, who have the ninth pick; and the Sixers, who have the tenth. And another workout, with the Cavs—who have the eighth pick—is in the works. You might be detecting a bit of a trend in terms of where Bridges is likely to be drafted.
Wright: We’re getting a feel now between seven and 12. But we also keep him cognizant of the fact that anybody could make a deal at any time—a trade—and you might be better or worse. Don’t think anything’s guaranteed until you know. And even after you’re drafted, someone could trade you.
Mahoney: Of the teams he’s worked out with so far, Bridges likes his fit with the Bulls…and the Hornets…and the Knicks…and the Sixers. Some of that is prospect diplomacy. The players in the draft go to great lengths to be non-committal and broadly polite. Every organization is a great organization. Every coach would be great to play for. Every roster makes perfect sense.
But Bridges is also the rare prospect who could really fit in anywhere. Find me the team that couldn’t use a long, switchable defender who moves without the ball and helps space the floor. The things Bridges offers—and his size as a wing in particular—are valuable across styles and systems.
Bridges: Put me in any position and any team, and I know for a fact I’m always gonna defend. Take a lot of pride in that. And just being able to catch and shoot, just creating space for the other players to create and for other players to find me when I move without the ball and make life easier.
Bridges: It’s basically whatever the team wants me to do. If they decide halfway into the season they want me to come off ball screens and pass and playmake, I’mma do that. If they want me just to defend, I’mma do that. If they want me to catch and shoot and move without the ball, I’ll do whatever it takes.
Mahoney: Some team will be charmed by that. The NBA Draft is on June 21st, and Bridges will be there, sitting in the green room, wearing a suit he won’t even drop hints about. Adam Silver will call his name, and everything will change. Mikal Bridges, NBA player, will finally be on the clock.