Hornets rookie Miles Bridges fitting right in as a 'tweener' in an NBA era where versatility thrives

MINNEAPOLIS -- There's long been a name for NBA players like Miles Bridges, a phenomenal athlete at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds and yet seems without a natural position in the league. He's not really a small forward, and not really a power forward. He has some of the skills of a guard, and some of the strength and power of a center. He's everything, but being everything in the NBA used to be the same as being nothing.

A decade ago, he would have been branded with a curse word: A tweener.

Luckily for the 20-year-old Bridges, he's coming into the NBA during an era where versatility is one of the most valued assets, and where a tweener has been rebranded as something that's actually a good thing.

"Tweeners, I guess, are versatile guys now, and there's a value to that," Charlotte Hornets' first-year head coach James Borrego said when I asked this week about Bridges' current and future role in the league. "Where the tweener wasn't so valuable before, now he's versatile. Miles can play multiple positions -- he's 'positionless' -- and that's what he does. He guards multiple positions playing the three and the four spot for us. What he's doing right now isn't easy, and he's doing a really nice job."

The first 23 games of Bridges' NBA career do not make you think he's a Rookie of the Year candidate. This hasn't been some coming-out party for a future superstar like the rookie seasons of Luka Doncic or Jaren Jackson Jr. His statistics have been good but not eye-popping: He's averaging 20.6 minutes, 8.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game coming off the bench while shooting 36.1 percent from three. Advanced statistics look kindly upon him so far; among rookies, Bridges ranks eighth in the player impact estimate metric, third in effective field goal percentage and second in turnover ratio, per NBA.com.

More than anything, what Bridges' season has been a harbinger of is something that's highly valued in today's NBA: A versatile, highly athletic, two-way player who is learning to accept a winning role in the NBA and learning how to think the game at an NBA level.

He doesn't seem to be a future star. But he may be a future star role player. Kind of like some other guy who came out of Michigan State as a "tweener."

"I've heard that a lot, especially since I came from Michigan State where Draymond Green was," Bridges told me. "That's not a bad thing. It just shows you can play any position. You can learn any position at all times. … When NBA guys play in college they're usually the star player on the team. I've just have to adjust to swinging the ball, learning my role, and I think I've done a really good job of adjusting to everything."

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen Bridges' work ethic and athletic skills up close. (Except, perhaps, ESPN's Dan Dakich, who kept criticizing Bridges' game during Bridges' Michigan State tenure.) In summer league, Bridges' first game went by like a blur. He was adapting to the speed of the NBA game and learning to play with Borrego's half-second-or-less system that he brought over from San Antonio, where you pass, shoot or dribble within half a second of getting the ball. By the end of summer league, the game had already started to slow down for Bridges.

Borrego is an astute basketball mind, and he told me he's already impressed by Bridges' progress in his rookie year.

"From game to game he's gaining confidence on the defensive end, understanding NBA sets," Borrego said. "So much of guarding in the NBA is about anticipation. You're not reacting to a play -- you almost see it before it evolves or before it happens. He's getting more aware of what's about to happen before it happens defensively. One on one he's very good. He has a knack to guard one on one. The challenge for a lot of guys in the NBA is when the ball is away from me, what's about to happen? Either my guy's about to get screened or I gotta go help. I think his weakside awareness and his helpside defense is getting better."

There's been a great mentor for him on the Hornets, who host the Nuggets on Friday (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), in longtime NBA veteran Marvin Williams. Williams is the quarterback of the Hornets' defense, and Bridges has been taking notes. Bridges is naturally a physically dominating player, a natural one-on-one defender, but Williams' mentorship has helped him think defense better. 

It helps that Bridges has a naturally curious mind that's eager to learn. He's a big reader who is planning to continue his communication classes at Michigan State this offseason to work toward his degree. (He admits that too much of his free time as an NBA player has been spent playing video games -- "NBA2K," "Fortnite" -- and he's promised himself to devote more of his down time to picking up books.) Williams' recent injury will mean Bridges' immediate role on the Hornets will increase; he scored a career-high 16 points in the game against the New Orleans Pelicans earlier this week when Williams was hurt.

If you're a Hornets fan, you've got to be happy to have snagged Bridges with the 12th pick in the 2018 draft. His athleticism is unquestionable; Bridges told me over the summer he's itching for an invitation to the dunk contest during All-Star Weekend. His three-point shooting is there, and his mentality seems right. The biggest challenge now is learning the nuances of NBA defense -- something every rookie struggles with.

"The hardest part is transition -- how do I get matched up?" Borrego said about the next step for Bridges as a defender. "When there's just flow, we miss a shot and we're going back, how do you get matched up? You can't just run back to the guy that coach said you got tonight. That's the biggest thing for me what I see from the college guys to the NBA guys, the transition game. In college they come down and get set. They come down off a make and run a set play, so I can get matched up to my guy. NBA doesn't do that. We're going down trying to score in the first six seconds, so I gotta find a matchup. I think that's the biggest thing. How do I get matched up going back in transition? And we are switching a lot. How to switch, when to switch, who are the like-sized guys I'm with that I'm switching with and how do I make that happen in my defense."

Our Latest Stories