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LaMelo Ball is unlocking Miles Bridges’ potential with the Hornets

Bridges finally feels fully optimized playing next to a brilliant passer like LaMelo Ball.

The first time Miles Bridges appeared on this website was in July of 2015 during the Nike Global Challenge in Chicago. At the time, Bridges was a rising high school senior out of Flint, MI who had blossomed into a five-star recruit on the grassroots circuit earlier in the summer. He was choosing between playing with De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk (who were also at the event) at Kentucky, or Cassius Winston and two other top-50 recruits (Nick Ward and Josh Langford) at Michigan State.

Even back then, no one was quite sure what Bridges’ role would be. He was a strong and explosive 6’6 power wing who struggled to shoot and had a shaky handle but had immense explosiveness around the rim. How do you get a player like that going downhill toward the basket? As Bridges competed in Chicago, we were only weeks removed from the Warriors winning their first championship with a small ball attack, and months removed from Duke winning the NCAA tournament after shifting Justise Winslow from the three to the four.

“I know for sure that I’m a wing player,” Bridges told SB Nation at the event. “If a coach wants me to play stretch four sometimes, then I’ll be OK with it. I know I put in the work on my ball-handling, my shot is getting way better. So I feel I’m a two or a three in college.”

Bridges would eventually chose Michigan State. He typically played next to only one big man as a freshman but still spent most of his time spotting up on the perimeter (25 percent of his possessions were spot-ups, per Synergy Sports, which was 15 percent higher than any other halfcourt play type). Bridges was good enough to be projected as a late lottery pick, but he made a shocking decision to return to school after the Spartans were upset in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Bridges put up similar numbers as a sophomore mostly playing the three next to Jaren Jackson Jr., Ward, and Xavier Tillman. MSU lost in the first weekend of the tournament again (this time with Jackson Jr. on the bench), and Bridges was picked No. 12 overall by the Hornets, which is exactly where we had him slotted after his freshman year.

Bridges’ first years in Charlotte were mostly forgettable. As a rookie, he averaged 7.5 points playing off Kemba Walker while spending 53 percent of his minutes at small forward, per Basketball Reference. After Walker left in free agency that summer, the Hornets fell from a No. 8 seed hopeful to one of the worst teams in the league. Bridges almost doubled his scoring output in his second year, averaging 13 points per game, but was still struggling to score efficiently with below average 52 percent true shooting. He played 72 percent of his minutes at small forward in his second season.

Five years after he had John Calipari and Tom Izzo fighting for him as a recruit, Bridges still didn’t feel fully optimized as a player. That’s finally started to change this season on a Hornets team that is suddenly a factor in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. What happened?

Now, he gets to play with LaMelo Ball.

Charlotte Hornets v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Hornets are one of the NBA’s biggest surprises in the early part of the season. Entering Wednesday night, Charlotte was the No. 6 seed in the East. A year after posting a -7 net rating as a team, the Hornets were suddenly out of the red with a +0.4 net rating.

The Hornets aren’t great, but they feel genuinely exciting for the first time since they returned to Charlotte. Gordon Hayward has lived up to his big offseason contract to become of the primary scoring option. Terry Rozier is having a career year, and Malik Monk is finally starting to show what made him a lottery pick. There’s no doubt that Ball has been the catalyst, though. We had Ball as our top overall prospect in the draft, but he’s been even better than expected this early in his career after slipping to No. 3 on draft night, where Charlotte was happy to scoop him up.

Ball has injected life into the Hornets, and no one has been a bigger recipient than Bridges. It seems like the pair combines for at least one viral dunk every time they take the floor. Sometimes this happens in transition, where Ball loves to drop off behind-the-back passes and Bridges is one of the few players alive who can casually windmill to avoid a block.

It has been happening often in the pick-and-roll (more on that in a second), where Ball has a special knack for placing a lob where only Bridges can get it, and Bridges has a special knack for flying through the air to dunk home passes 6’6 forwards shouldn’t be able to gather.

And Ball’s classic outlet passes are also paying off even when they don’t result in highlight dunks. Ball will push the pace off any situation, including after made baskets as you’ll see in the second clip. Bridges knows the value of running the floor when you play with a guard who can get the ball out and up in every situation.

Not even halfway through his rookie season, Ball has already created enough memorable plays with Bridges for their own highlight package. It’s proof of Ball’s magnetism as a lead guard. It’s proof his loudest critics had concerns that were totally overblown entering the draft.

It also shows how adding one key piece, particularly as a primary creator, can make everyone around them look better. Bridges, weeks short of his 23rd birthday, now looks a lot more interesting than he did last year.

Ball is ready and willing to throw any pass, especially the ones the defense doesn’t think are possible until he attempts them. That defenses also have to focus their attention on Hayward helps Bridges find openings, too, and he’s been more effective on those opportunities even if his per-game numbers are slightly down.

Finally, it feels like he’s finding the role he was always meant for.

The Hornets are putting Bridges in a better position to succeed on the floor

Part of the key to unlocking Bridges has been letting him attack mismatches with speed at the four rather than trying to use his strength to score on threes. Hornets coach James Borrego has committed to using Bridges exclusively as a big man for the first time in his career this season, and it’s been a big part of his breakout campaign.

Bridges has spent 93 percent of his time playing next to only one big this year, per Basketball Reference. He’s played only one percent of his time on the wing. This is a huge change from how Bridges has been used dating back to college. Even in his first two years in the league, he was playing small forward 53 percent and 72 percent of the time respectively.

Playing at the four has allowed Bridges to finally be used as a roll man rather than a spot-up shooter. Bridges has always had natural ability as a lob catcher but it’s rarely been made a focal point of his game. That’s changed this year, and the results have been electric.

Here’s are Bridges’ numbers as a roll man dating back to his freshman year at Michigan State, with the percentage of overall attempts that came as a roll man, the points per possession on those attempts, and how he graded out on those opportunities compared to his peers, per Synergy Sports.

Miles Bridges as a roll man

Season Roll man volume Roll man PPP PPP percentile Roll man grade
Season Roll man volume Roll man PPP PPP percentile Roll man grade
MSU frosh 6 0.567 6 Poor
MSU soph 1.9 0.636 10 Poor
Rookie 4.7 1.179 69 Very good
Second year 5.9 0.717 9 Poor
Third year 10.2 1.654 99 Excellent

That’s what Bridges’ roll man production looks like on a spreadsheet. It’s a little more fun to watch it on video.

Not even Joel Embiid could stop this one:

The Hornets have found their cornerstone of the future in Ball. Bridges is proving this season he can play a supporting role in whatever comes next.

Bridges has turned from prospect to player before our eyes this season. Finally finding the right way to leverage his talents has certainly helped. So has adding a sublime playmaker like Ball.