Tom Izzo knows just how fortunate he is that Miles Bridges was born in Michigan State’s backyard.
He knows all too well that it’s unusual for Michigan State to beat out programs like Kentucky for a recruit. He knows how fortuitous it is for his program that the future lottery pick they were able to beat Kentucky for just so happens to be a remnant of the past, a relic of a foregone era that values friendship and loyalty and the life lessons that he’ll learn by spending another year in East Lansing over getting rich quick.
Izzo knows all of that.
“You writers got fancy terms,” he said, chuckling, after he was told that his star pupil will be named the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. “My term: he’s a ******* weirdo.”
“I know this, one way or another, he’s an unbelievable kid,” Izzo added. “He’s a quiet kid. I don’t know if he’s a great interview, because he hates talking about himself. It’s one of his goals, but if you were sitting in front of him he would tell you about three teammates that were better than him.”
In fact, that is precisely what Bridges did. He told me that Josh Langford, who doubles as Bridges’ roommate and one of his best friends in the world, is “the best shooting guard in the nation”; that Cassius Winston was “one of the top guards”; that Kyle Ahrens is an incredible teammate that was happier Bridges was returning than anyone despite the fact that he and Bridges play the same position. When Bridges told his teammates that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season, they celebrated – Ahrens included – like they had just won a title despite the fact that Bridges’ presence on the roster cost everyone shots and many of them minutes.
That’s why Bridges loves Michigan State and the Spartan family. Everything about it. His coach, his teammates, his friends, his fans, his chance to be a kid. He also knows the history of the program. He’s friends with Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris. He talks to them regularly. He knows how they’re viewed in the annals of Breslin Center lore.
And he knows that none of them will ever be up to par with Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, the two Spartans that brought national titles back to East Lansing.
That’s the legacy he wants to leave.
“The only way I’m going to leave a stamp on the program is winning a national championship,” Bridges said. “The two guys that did it, Magic and Mateen, they’re never forgotten here. When we talk about winning, we talk about them two.”
That has been the goal since the first day he arrived on campus.
It’s why all the talk about his decision frustrates him.
“I never really had one and done in my mind. My whole focus was on wining a national championship,” Bridges said. “I never really made a decision to leave or to stay because staying was always in my head if we didn’t win the national championship.”
Miles Bridges is not a trailblazer. It’s uncommon for a one-and-done lottery pick to return to school, but it’s hardly unheard of. Marcus Smart did it. Harrison Barnes did it. Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones III, Ivan Rabb. He isn’t even the only player to make that decision this year; Texas A&M’s Robert Williams skipped out on the chance to be a lottery pick as well.
What sets Bridges apart from the rest of that group is there is more inherent risk in his decision.
Part of it has to due with his athleticism. His explosiveness and his quickness for someone his size is what makes him such an intriguing prospect. He’s more than capable offensively, but being ‘more than capable offensively’ while having the springs to protect the rim and the versatility to play and defend multiple positions is why he’s a commodity. He was built to play in today’s NBA, but if – God forbid – he were to pop his Achilles’ or blow out his knee, the impact that losing a step or a few inches off his vertical would have is much greater than if it were to happen to, say, Jayson Tatum or Lonzo Ball.
He’s putting a lot of guaranteed money at risk by delaying the NBA for a year. Bridges has reportedly taken out an insurance policy to protect himself in case of a catastrophic injury – the maximum the NCAA allows for is $10 million – but for a guy who looks to have a 12-to-15 year career waiting for him, that may not be 10 percent of his career earnings.
Injury is not the only risk Bridges faces.
To be frank, returning to school has almost always proven not to work out for a player whose draft stock is measured in potential. An extra year on campus means an extra season to poke holes in his game. Instead of picturing a world where that player reaches his ceiling, scouts have 12 months to break down what he can’t do and where he has yet to improve. You’re far more likely to be Melo Trimble than you are Blake Griffin if you return to school.
This is what Izzo wanted Bridges to understand.
This is why he kept trying to convince Bridges to listen to what people in the business had to say. Declare for the draft. Test the waters. Talk to NBA teams. Educate yourself before you decide.
“I told him no over and over again,” Bridges said. After Michigan State’s season ended, a loss to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Izzo spent the better part of three weeks in Bridges’ ear. “It was probably after our third meeting, him asking me if I really wanted to stay. I just told him, ‘Coach, I don’t want to leave. I said, ‘I actually wrote down my goals and what I want to do at Michigan State and I’m not leaving until I accomplish those goals.'”
“And really, it’s the first time that I actually got mad at coach, and he realized it.”
The dynamic doesn’t make sense.
A Hall of Fame head coach trying to convince one of, if not the best player in college basketball that he shouldn’t play for him, that returning to school would be the wrong step to take.
Part of it is self-preservation. Izzo – and Bridges – know what the former’s reputation is at the college level. Michigan State is not Kentucky. It’s not Arizona or Duke or Kansas. That’s not the school to go to if you’re goal is to jump to the NBA as quickly as possible. Fair or not, that’s the way that the way that the Spartans are viewed.
“Our program isn’t going to force anyone out,” assistant coach Dane Fife said. “Izzo gives families and kids and people that he’s close to the best information that’s available. Experts, college guys, former players. Get them the best unbiased opinions possible and let them make that choice.”
With Deyonta Davis, Michigan State lost a piece that could have changed the course of the 2016-17 season after he was taken with the first pick in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft. With Gary Harris, it meant that the Spartans got a player back that put them in a position to make a run at the 2014 national title. Harris dropped to 19th in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he not only was the youngest sophomore to get selected – he didn’t turn 19 until November of his sophomore season, making him younger than many of the freshmen that were picked that year – that extra time on campus helped him mature and get ready to be a professional; is it a coincidence that Harris, who has earned just under $5 million in his three years in the NBA, is getting ready to sign an extension that could top $20 million annually?
“Where you get picked is your ego, not where you’re going to end up,” Izzo said, and he wanted to make sure that Bridges understood this point. The real money is made when you sign that second contract. “You’re better off being picked 7th and going to the right team than being picked first and going to the wrong one.”
“I did a three week study on him to say, ‘Are you sure?'” Izzo continued. “There’s no question in my mind, there’s no remorse. No seller’s or buyer’s remorse. He did what he wanted to do. He did it for the right reasons. It wasn’t just to win a national championship. It wasn’t just to be player of the year. To get to a Final Four. It wasn’t just to try and up his draft status. He enjoyed college, he wasn’t ready, he didn’t want to be a G League player, he wanted to be as prepared as he could be when they took him, and I feel so comfortable about that.”
The other issue that Bridges is facing is that he will be changing positions this season.
This is a topic that isn’t going to be discussed much, but part of what made Bridges just so good last season is that he is the perfect small-ball four at the college level. He’s a perimeter player with perimeter skills offensively, but he played his freshman season at 240 pounds. Combined with his athleticism, he was built for playing in the paint defensively. It created mismatches everywhere on the floor, and instead of having to go up against a team’s best perimeter defender, he was being guarded by college four men.
It was perfect.
But it won’t be the way that it works this season.
Bridges is going to be playing the three for much of the year. There will be times where matchups or foul trouble or poor play dictates that Bridges ends up playing at the four, but Michigan State’s best lineup this season will feature Bridges at the three with Cassius Winston and Josh Langford in the back court while Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward man the paint.
Offensively, it should not be that big of an issue. Bridges is going to be getting the same shots that he got last season, only they’ll be coming from different spots on the floor. Instead of, say, shooting threes as a trailer in transition or as a floor-spacing four, he’ll be coming off of down-screens and getting isolations on the wing. Instead of being the screener in ball-screen actions, he’ll be handling the ball. He also had a knack for making tough, contested shots. They’re not worried about him offensively.
Nor are they worried about Bridges in transition. Running a wing will give him more opportunity to make a play in transition, while the added depth of Michigan State’s front court means that Izzo will unleash Bridges on the offensive glass. Expect to be wowed by his athleticism at least once a week this season.
The defensive end of the floor is a different story.
Bridges has never really defended on the perimeter before. There are different reads to make, different instincts to have, different muscles to use. Bridges is going to have to be quicker, less-inclined to use his size on smaller defenders, more willing to chase a shooter around a pin-down or over the top of a ball-screen than he has been in the past. He’ll be moving a lot more than he has in the past, which is why this offseason’s no-sugar and conditioning-heavy training regimen is so important. Bridges is now a streamlined 225 pounds.
“There will be some new adjustments. The fours in most of these programs, including ours, he didn’t post up very much, he was on the perimeter the whole time, so it’s not like it’s going to be a foreign subject,” Izzo said. “Miles has the athletic ability and the brains to do it.”
“It’s my job in practice. Better passer? Work on your passing. Better ball handler? Work on your ball handling. Better shooter? Work on your shot. Stronger guy? Work in the weight room. Better defender? He ain’t going to be working on his slides down in the gym in the summer. That’s going to be done with us [in practice], and I owe him to just pound the **** out of him and get him to be a better and better defender.”
“So I don’t see that as an issue at all.”
Looking back on it, people around the Michigan State program will tell you that it makes sense that Bridges opted against the one-and-done route.
Throughout the year, he would drop hints, making off-hand remarks about his sophomore season or skipping the draft that no one really took seriously. “It was subtle stuff,” Fife said. “We thought he was joking, that he didn’t want to talk about it.” The jokes, they believed, were his way of avoiding a conversation that he wasn’t ready to have.
Here’s an example Izzo gives: There is a tradition at Michigan State where the freshmen carry the bags for the upperclassmen. One day midway through the season, Izzo looks at his crop of blue-chippers, saying, “Boy, this is going to be nice next year. You guys aren’t going to have to be carrying bags, there will be some other freshman carrying your bag. Well Miles, you’ll probably be carrying bags in the NBA.”
“Why are you trying to get rid of me?”
Leaving was never a part of his plan. Listen to Bridges tell it, and he never even realized that he had a shot to be a one-and-done player until the first game of the season, when he put up 21 points on Arizona. I know, I’m incredulous as well, but Bridges is different. He’s not into worrying about himself. He also wasn’t considered a can’t-miss, one-and-done prospect until later in his high school career. He wasn’t a Golden Boy gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as an eighth-grader.
He still views himself that way.
When I told him he was being named the NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year, he was polite. He was gracious. And, frankly, I don’t think he cared.
“National Championship. Big Ten championship. Big Ten outright.” Those are the three goals Bridges wrote down for this season. Those are the three things he wants to accomplish in his final season in East Lansing.
“I don’t have individual goals,” he said, “because I know that individual goals will come with team accomplishment.”
And there isn’t a better way to sum up the enigma that is Miles Bridges than that.