Introducing CBB Breakout Star Mikal Bridges, the Kawhi Leonard Clone

Mirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorMarch 7, 2018

Villanova guard Mikal Bridges (25) handles the ball during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Mount St. Mary's in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y. Villanova won, 76-56. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

They used to call him Noodles. Inspector Go Go Gadget. String Bean. Brittle (short for Brittle Bones). Praying Mantis.

Mikal Bridges was so skinny and lanky and his arms were so long—"freakishly long," Bridges tells me—that his Villanova teammates roasted him with a range of nicknames. The 6'7'' swingman was an easy target then: a freshman. A young freshman (17 years old). About 185 pounds. Gangly shoulders, little head (they called him "Pea-head," too).

His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, sympathizes. "My wingspan is the same as World B. Free," Rivers tells me, referring to the wiry 76ers legend, as we sip tea at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in February. Mikal has a 7'2'' wingspan. "He's always had ridiculous, stupid-long arms."

She laughs, remembering the Noodles days, back when no one was calling her son, now a redshirt junior, a potential 2018 NBA draft lottery pick. When he redshirted his first season to bulk up, he was simply a punching bag to the upperclassmen. "Any chance they got to try to punk him or go at his body or be physical with him, they'd do that," guard Phil Booth says.

Bridges' No. 1 nemesis? Josh Hart. "I kicked his ass," Hart, now with the Lakers, tells me. Once, Hart cut in front of Bridges. Bridges couldn't catch up, so he grabbed at Hart's ribs. Hart grabbed back and threw him. "Like four or five feet," says Hart, who easily scored inside while the rookie flew out of bounds.

His teammates challenged him because they knew what he could do with those long arms: sneak in the passing lanes for steals as well as block shots at their highest peaks.

Villanova coach Jay Wright needed those arms to not just deflect but disrupt. He needed Bridges, an animal lover (and onetime aspiring veterinarian) who still calls his grandmother to pray before every road game, to be a little more mean. If he found himself in a trap, he'd pivot backward, afraid of contact. If he had the ball on a breakaway, he'd softly lay the ball in rather than hammer it home for a dunk.

He hadn't yet transformed into the player he is now, the one who threw down a monstrous dunk from the restricted area after maneuvering around not one, not two, but three defenders against Gonzaga back in December. His mom was so shocked, all she could utter was: "MIKAL!"

Villanova MBB @NovaMBB

MIKAL. BRIDGES. 👀🔨❌ #SCtop10 #NovaMBb https://t.co/1rWT4XFiAS

The change hasn't come naturally. "Actually going up and being aggressive? He had to learn that," John Shackleton, Villanova's strength and conditioning coach, tells me. "That just wasn't his mentality."

Bridges has morphed into not just a shutdown defender, smothering an opponent's best player for 94 feet, but an efficient offensive player, too. Heading into the Big East tournament, he is averaging 17.6 points and 5.5 boards a game on 51.1 percent shooting for No. 2 Villanova (27-4).

"He's the kind of player many teams would love to have in that wing role of three-and-D," a Western Conference NBA scout says. "He's a guy that can be a 10-year-plus pro with his style of play."

That seemed less likely back in high school. The No. 81-ranked prospect (according to 247 Sports) out of suburban Great Valley High School, located about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, Bridges played the role of sixth man during his sophomore year. His uncle, Jahmal Jones, took it upon himself to change that by taking him to the city outdoor courts so he could learn to stand his ground ("I don't want my nephew growing up soft!" Jones would tell Tyneeha).

Still, Bridges was left off the all-state team as a junior despite averaging 20 points per game. "His skills were good," Jim Nolan, Mikal's high school coach, says. "His athleticism was wonderful. He just needed time." By the end of his junior year, he was invited to play high-level AAU. "He really was the best-kept secret of the year," Rob Brown, director of Team Final, the AAU squad Bridges played for, says.

Wright knew it. He saw little things Bridges did that largely went unnoticed, like the way he cut and moved without the ball, and how he could dominate without needing touches. Bridges knew the precise second to cheat over for defensive help, and he hustled for offensive boards. He was athletic yet controlled; confident yet humble; assertive yet coachable.

Wright told Nolan: "I think Mikal can be a professional one day."

Bridges wasn't told he would start, let alone play at Villanova, the way other schools had promised. Wright told him he'd have to work extremely hard to transform his body and game. Fortunately, Bridges was already gritty in the way Villanova players famously are, thanks to his mother. Tyneeha made him do 10 pushups every time he missed a free throw. "Easy money," she'd tell him, as his chest hit the floor and sprung back up. "If you're missing, you're throwing away money."

As he promised, Wright pushed Bridges that redshirt year, mandating he lift weights four, sometimes five days a week and pitting him against guys like 235-pound senior JayVaughn Pinkston, who was also a boxer. "I really felt sorry for [Mikal]," Wright says. "I didn't want him to lose confidence."

"You all right, man?" Wright would ask. "You OK?"

"I'm good, Coach," Bridges would say, even when he'd be so frustrated with himself he'd grow quiet. "I'm good."

He wanted to be great.

It's Presidents Day. A few Villanova students lounge inside the Connelly Center, grabbing Peet's Coffee at the coffee shop, Holy Grounds.

Bridges isn't taking the day off. After an intense upper-body weight-lifting session where he battled sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo for most reps, Bridges catches the ball in the short corner on Villanova's practice court. He releases a fadeaway jumper without fully squaring his body.

"I would kill him for taking that shot," Wright says, jokingly, as we watch Bridges from a floor above.

Bridges is still a work in progress, even as he's posting up and dunking over players for the first time in his career. I ask Wright if he sees some elements of Kawhi Leonard in Bridges: the length, the hustle, the two-way skill set.

"Definitely. If you pick an NBA player, that would definitely be the guy," Wright tells me, though he doesn't like comparing his players to NBA players. "I think [Mikal] could develop into that kind of player, maybe a little more offensive-oriented when he comes in. … He has to continue to build his body to be as effective as Kawhi was defensively and in rebounding. Very, very similar."

At Villanova, he's had plenty of "help" in that pursuit.

During his redshirt year, Bridges would often take on 215-pound senior Darrun Hilliard. "He used to just bake me a lot," Bridges tells me. Pinkston, Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono and 245-pound Daniel Ochefu all took turns in 2014-15.

Noodles would go days without scoring. The upperclassmen would plant extra-hard screens on him. They'd attack his chest, and he couldn't knock them back. "WEIGHT ROOM!" they'd yell. "Toughen up, young boy!" Arcidiacono, now with the Bulls, tells me: "We would make it really tough on him because the only way he was going to get better was if he was going to get his butt kicked by all of us."

By matching Mikal Bridges up against bigger, stronger players in practice, Jay Wright tried to transform the versatile swingman into the kind of player who can affect a game with or without the ball.
By matching Mikal Bridges up against bigger, stronger players in practice, Jay Wright tried to transform the versatile swingman into the kind of player who can affect a game with or without the ball.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Bridges didn't back down.

In drills, he would dribble, then get hammered by two defenders. Get to the lane. Hammered. Go up for the layup. Hammered. "Finally he'd get through it and we'd go, 'All right. Go again,'" then-associate head coach Baker Dunleavy, now head coach for Quinnipiac University, says.

He was always a high-percentage shooter, but his form was off. He brought the ball across his body and shot from the left side of his head. Changing a shot this late in a career is difficult, but Wright pushed him: "Get your elbow under the ball. Get your elbow under the ball."

Weight-lifting was grueling, too. Bridges could only deadlift 185 pounds (he now does 450). Then he'd casually stroll to the next station. "Yo, wake up!" Shackleton would yell. "Get your posture right! Go over there like you're going to get some work done!"

Bridges didn't hang his head, though sometimes he'd get so frustrated. It was then he'd call his No. 1.

"Mom. This is very difficult."

"Mikal," she'd say, "If I can't tell you anything else, just remember my story."

Tyneeha Rivers was a 19-year-old sophomore in college when she had Mikal. She raised her son as a single mother and refused to quit school, attending class at night and working in a company mail room by day. She'd return to tuck little Mikal in and read him a bedtime story, often one of the Berenstain Bears stories, and then teach him a new word in the dictionary. Then she'd labor over homework until 4 a.m., sleep three hours and then walk out the door to do it all over.

Unlike her son, Rivers grew up in inner-city Philly, where she says her classmates didn't talk about things like college. Once there, she felt like she didn't belong. "I didn't want Mikal to have to struggle like I did," she says, beginning to cry.

Some days she was so exhausted from mothering, studying and working that she wanted to collapse. But she persisted and graduated. She then earned a master's degree in human resources. She advanced into management and directorial positions, eventually rising to the post she holds now, vice president of human resources for the 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center.

So when people ask her about her son's hustle, how hard he boxes out, she smiles. She doesn't know any other way to operate, and neither does he.

But he struggled, not having his father around. It was an absence inside of him, something he felt when he saw two parents at school events like plays or bake-offs. Tyneeha couldn't always attend, as she had to work.

Bridges' mother, Tyneeha Rivers, juggled college, work and raising her son, and even helped him refine his free-throw shooting when time allowed.
Bridges' mother, Tyneeha Rivers, juggled college, work and raising her son, and even helped him refine his free-throw shooting when time allowed.Photo courtesy of Tyneeha Rivers

The pair clung tighter. He'd tell her his dreams, like when the Philadelphia Inquirer didn't include him in a "Players to Watch" list for the Peach Jam AAU Tournament. "I'm going to make them remember who I am," he told her.

So when he struggled early on at Villanova, she'd tell him: "I had my really tough times when I was just as tired. There are times when I wanted to give up, but if I wanted to be successful, I was going to have to push past those moments, to remind myself, like, 'Self, you got this.'

"When you have those really hard times, Mikal, just remember: You got this."

She started texting those last three words to him before games. "I'm on it, Mom," he'd write back. "I got this."

Bridges didn't think twice about diving for the ball. The Wildcats led by three with less than six seconds remaining against Kansas in the South Regional final in 2016, his first year of action. He stretched out his arms and seized the ball as his body pounded against the hardwood. It was his third steal in the final three minutes (he'd finish with five) to help seal the win, 64-59. Nine days later, Villanova would win the national championship.

That season, he became known as a defensive stopper. His confidence blossomed. He put on 10 pounds and trimmed down his body fat. And because he spent years moving without the ball, he could generate offense on his own by putting back misses and scoring off simple cuts to the basket.

Inspector Go Go Gadget started pushing back at his teammates, too. They couldn't knock him over anymore. "I got tired of getting scored on," Bridges says.

But the grind continued.

Leading up to the national title, Wright gave Bridges the job of playing at the top of Villanova's press, the highest honor in the program. But sometimes the redshirt freshman would cruise in practice. "You should be the best ever at this," Wright would yell. Wright would pause film sessions to call out Bridges: "Look how lazy you look."

Each time, Bridges would nod his head and say, "You're right."

Indeed, he had his ups and downs as a first-time starter in 2016-17, averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds a night. But there were glimmers of growth, too. He'd clutch the ball with his elbows out, no longer pivoting backward as the defense hounded him.

In leading Villanova to a 27-4 record, Bridges was recently named one of the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award this season.
In leading Villanova to a 27-4 record, Bridges was recently named one of the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award this season.Elsa/Getty Images

He kept hitting the weights, adding what is now a total of 30 pounds to his frame, helping make him "the strongest guy on our team, pound for pound," Shackleton says.

"He was vulnerable. He put himself out there," former Villanova star Kerry Kittles tells me. "He worked to get better, and now he isn't afraid to put it in competition when it matters most."

Bridges seems shy at first, but he's outgoing. He jokes a lot. And when he dances in the locker room, he clowns off-beat teammates: "Bro, what are you doing?"

He is less vocal on the court.

But with his team down 12 at halftime against Tennessee back in November, when he and several teammates were in foul trouble, he had something to say. "Hey, I got the boards, you guys get buckets," he told Booth, Jalen Brunson and Eric Paschall.

Bridges sparked a turnaround, getting steals, offensive boards, getting his teammates shots. The Wildcats won 85-76. "That's being a leader," Wright told him afterward. "Not just you trying to do everything by yourself offensively."

Not every leader is a star and not every star is a leader. Bridges morphed into both and expected to be neither.

Even as he is being named to award lists, String Bean still just wants to be respected by his team.

On the plane ride home from Cincinnati, after defeating then-No. 4 Xavier in February, assistant coach George Halcovage came over with his laptop. He froze a play: It was Bridges shooting a three, elbow finally tucked under him at 90 degrees, finally executing perfect form.

"A lot of guys say, 'I want to be great, I want to be great, but I don't want anybody changing my shot. I don't want anyone challenging my toughness or my effort, but I want to be great,'" Wright says. "This is why I think [Mikal]'s going to have a great NBA career because one of the challenges of getting to the NBA is, once you start making a lot of money, do you stop getting better? Do you stop listening to people coach you? He wasn't raised that way. His mom doesn't think that way."

I ask Rivers if she still makes her son do pushups. Of course. "He owes me some," she tells me. She beams with pride when seeing her son bounce up and down out of the tunnel. "It hits me—we kind of grew up together."

"It's funny, I still text him before games. He goes, 'Mom. I'm in my pregame phase. I'm listening to music. Don't worry. I got this.'"


Mirin Fader is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW, SI.com, SLAM Magazine and SB Nation. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

Jonathan Wasserman contributed to the reporting for this story.


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