Charlotte Hornets: No one can stop Miles Bridges in April. Can it – and will it – persist?

Apr 2, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges (0) celebrates a made basket in the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 2, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges (0) celebrates a made basket in the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

There is no proper way to describe the latest at-the-rim detonation from Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges. You just have to see it.

Seriously, what else is there to say? Sure, it’s something you could unpack frame by frame, detailing Bridges’ footwork and his reaction to that of Bogdanovic, or the fact that the man on the receiving end of the slam, Clint Capela, leads the NBA in rebounds and ranks third in blocks (ergo, is no slouch in the length department). But sometimes, with plays like these, less is more. It’s the dunk of the year – with apologies to Anthony Edwards – and it’s a nice microcosm of Bridges’ penchant for making highlight-reel plays.

With time, it’s become more apparent that Bridges can do this, or something like this, any time he wants. What’s more exciting, though, is that he’s trusting his ability to make plays – all kinds of plays, especially smarter plays – for himself more often. Not until this season has Bridges been put in a position to pace a team and delivered. With recent injuries to Charlotte’s two best players, LaMel Ball and Gordon Hayward, he’s arguably been the key component in their effort to stay afloat as they work their way through the most pivotal stretch of the season.

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In April alone, Bridges is averaging a team-high 18 points, an average that far surpasses his season numbers overall, and 6.3 rebounds per game (which ranks second only to Cody Zeller’s 8.5). In terms of shooting, he’s seen a minor overall improvement this month – 54.4 percent as opposed to 50.5 percent over the course of the season – but a fairly significant jump from three – 45.9 percent, seven ticks better than his season average of 38.6 percent. And you know what? 38.6 percent from three is a fine mark, if not a good one. But shooting 45.9 percent on a swelled number of attempts shows consistency; it shows that giving him the ball beyond the arc is increasingly less of a risk.

Bridges’ jump-shooting tendencies have often been cyclical, the personification of a coach’s favorite basketball dictionary definition – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Take his catch-and-shoot (35.3-percent from the field, 35.7-percent from three) and pull-up numbers prior to April this year; it’s not hard to find a connection between how those shots looked and how they fared.

Dribbling into a step-back that never fools the defender, resulting in an airball; rushing a shot with a few seconds left in the shot clock despite at least one teammate being open for a catch-and-shoot; turning an improper reaction to the defense into an ill-advised fadeaway; just doing too much. These are all things Bridges has corrected – for the most part – this month. In April, though, he’s shot 41.9 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from three on catch-and-shoot tries, as well as 50 percent from the field and 50.3 percent from three on pull-ups, arguably the biggest weakness in his game previously. As a rule of thumb, he tends to make more shots when he does less before taking them – less dribbling without thinking and less chucking without necessity or space.

Now, as could pertain to any improvement mentioned from here on out, perhaps with more responsibility comes more power (I know that’s not the saying, but it fits here). Due to the injuries to LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, the latter of which will return while the former’s status is still uncertain, Bridges has been handed more minutes and thus has been trusted to create more offense. Without Ball to feed him and Hayward to take much of the scoring burden away from Charlotte’s other forwards, Bridges has been able to be a bit more selective with his shots. He appears to know when he has enough space and when he doesn’t, and he knows when it’s appropriate to rise up off the catch versus making an immediate, unnecessary move.

Perhaps his past propensity to rush his jumpers can be attributed to youth, or perhaps his maturation is occurring right before our eyes.

It’s not like he’s been getting exponentially more touches, either. He’s touching the ball 43.5 times per game, 29.7 of those coming in the frontcourt. When he gets the ball, he only holds it for an average of 1.97 seconds and only dribbles 1.22 times per touch, per Second Spectrum tracking data. Those numbers aren’t too far off his averages prior to April, but it’s his efficiency that is off the charts like it hadn’t been before – not just this season, but ever. He far and away leads the team in April in points per touch (0.414), whereas prior to this month, that number was just 0.262.

The fact that he’s making good on his chances with a negligible uptick, again, doesn’t show that he’s had more chances, but that he’s more patient and selective with how he elects to capitalize on them. Too often earlier this season, his tendency was to rush into drives down nonexistent driving lanes and throw up desperate, off-balance shots in an attempt to salvage a possession he’d deemed dead.

This month, it finally looks as though a switch has flipped in the direction of restraint. He’s ditching haste for composure when seeking out driving opportunities. When mentioning his recent dunk earlier – henceforth known as “THE dunk” – I noted that Bridges plainly reacted to Bogdanovic’s footwork, noticing a poor close-out and zipping past the defender before he could shuffle into position. He’s improved the regularity with which he notices these opportunities, neglecting the idea that he must dribble-drive the second he catches the ball. It’s led to a remarkable at-the-rim efficiency for Bridges, where he takes the bulk of his shots.

The argument I’m making here isn’t that Bridges has it all figured out. It’s that he looks to be moving in the exact direction he’ll need to if he wants to be a key, long-term cog in the back end of Charlotte’s unrelenting rebuild. It helps that the team is finally using him the right way overall this season – he’s spent 93 percent of his possessions at the power forward spot, and the Charlotte Hornets have a net rating that is 9.4 points better when he’s on the floor than off it. Bridges has been able to do what Michael Kidd-Gilchrist never could in Charlotte: create for himself, and make a case as a key offensive contributor, beyond his already-bruising defensive capabilities.

He still makes mistakes, launching shots at ill-advised times and seeing scoring chances that simply aren’t there. The key is that he’s doing it less often with more time on the court, therefore more responsibility. Are the Charlotte Hornets better without Ball and Hayward? Absolutely not, and they won’t survive a game in a playoff series without at least one of the two contributing significant minutes. But in the meantime, Bridges has steadied the ship. If he keeps this up, he could very reasonably be its first mate.

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