Mikal Bridges watched the entire fourth period of the United States’ FIBA World Cup quarterfinal game against Italy from the bench, and for the best of reasons. By the time he left the game for good, he’d nearly outscored the Italians by himself.
The USA Basketball senior men’s national team treated Italy – which finished ahead of Serbia, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in their second-round group — like some overmatched pool-play opponent fortunate to have qualified for the tournament. The final score was 100-63, but was over before halftime, and it was Bridges who did the most important work on the way to a semifinal appearance Friday.
This seemed appropriate, because Bridges represents what this team mostly is about, what American basketball seems to do best these days: taking somewhat overlooked teenaged prospects and turning them into important professional players while many of those with the greatest talent seem to struggle with the burden of their potential.
Bridges has been a starter in every game for this U.S. team, which might not be the most impactful item on his resume given how this team continues to play sluggishly from the jump. The Americans led only 10-8 when head coach Steve Kerr made his first strategic substitution against Italy; they are only plus-4 across six tournament games before Kerr calls for his second unit. Extract the performance against a meager opponent from Jordan, and they’re in a 12-point hole in those early stages.
It would be unwise for the U.S. to continue its over reliance on handing the baton to Austin Reaves, Tyrese Halliburton and the rest of the bench mob and their ability to turn up the jets against tiring opposition.
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It would be nice to get more efforts, earlier, of the nature Bridges delivered in the second period, only after Halliburton hit a 3-pointer and conjured three assists and Reaves nailed one from deep to give the USA a 24-14 edge at the end of one quarter.
Bridges finished with 24-points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range, in just 18 minutes of play. With the lead just 28-18 in the second quarter, he painted this masterpiece of a sequence: a driving 3-point play, a block he rebounded that led to his own 3-pointer, a steal that led to Halliburton’s transition three and then another 3-pointer from Bridges. He was at the center of nearly every key play in a 16-4 surge that finished Italy.
“I think defensively we just set the tone, and offensively we just find each other, and when we’re like that, it’s tough to beat,” Bridges said after the game. They had 22 assists on 36 made baskets, with eight players contributing at least one.
Only half the players on this team were top-20 prospects in their high school classes, and only four were top 10. Bridges entered Villanova in the fall of 2014 as the consensus 96th-ranked player in his prep class, and by the time Jay Wright and his staff were done with him, he was a third-team All-American, a Big East Tournament MVP, a two-time NCAA champion and, even with all of that to his credit, only the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
In five years in the league, he has started in an NBA Finals, made first-team All-Defense and, this past season, scored more than 20 points a game.
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Contrast that to the career path of, say, James Wiseman, a 7-footer gifted with elite dynamism who displayed significant skills right up to the moment he was convinced, after being dealt an NCAA suspension early in his freshman year, to abandon the development possible in his one college season at Memphis. He is yet to average a dozen points in an NBA season.
Of the 18 All-NBA selections in the past three seasons who were eligible for the U.S. team and drafted since 2010, only eight were consensus top-20 prospects in their high school classes, among team D’Aaron Fox of the Kings, Julius Randle of the Knicks and Jaylen Brown of the Celtics. A couple were slightly underrated as high school prospects, such as Devin Booker of the Suns and Trae Young of the Hawks.
The rest were more like Bridges — either developed through an elite college program like Jimmy Butler at Marquette and Donovan Mitchell at Louisville or coming from off-off-off Broadway, like Damian Lillard at Weber State, Ja Morant at Murray State or Paul George at Fresno State.
What isn’t happening much any longer is what we saw immediately after the turn of the century: LeBron James the uber-prospect becoming LeBron James the pro superstar, or the same with the likes of Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. Consecutive first-team All-NBA selections in 2022 and 2023 for Jayson Tatum – he was the No. 3 prospect in the class of 2016 – and his starring role in USA Basketball’s gold-medal performance at the 2020 Olympics – makes him a modern rarity.
That’s an issue some of the players on this team might be at the beginning stages of addressing. Anthony Edwards produced an excellent third season with the Timberwolves that saw him deliver 24.6 points per game, reach an All-Star game and then verify that excellence with an average of 28.1 points in his first two playoff series. Paolo Banchero did not make the Magic a winner in his first NBA season, but he was an immediate smash with averages of 20 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Edwards’ most impressive contribution against Italy, in a game where he was struggling with his shot and only 1-of-6 from the field, was to drop a pass to a cutting Banchero for a dunk that made it a 38-18 game. Edwards hadn’t scored to that point and had driven the ball to a position where it would have been easy to fire a pull-up 12-footer. He made the winning play, instead.
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The U.S. wanted to make this performance about bouncing back from a meager effort in a relatively meaningless game Sunday against Lithuania – “You always want to respond to a loss with a competitive effort,” Kerr said – but to date this team’s best quality is finding the player who is best position to have a day. It was Edwards against Montegro, Reaves against Greece.
There were times in his basketball career when it never seemed Mikal Bridges would be that player on this stage. It is wonderful that American basketball can develop him toward seizing that moment, a bit less so that it often needs this.