LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
FLINT, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges was running with a crowd that sat in the back of class, wearing headphones and ignoring teachers at Flint Southwestern.
The young man, who sang in his church choir while growing up and rode along with his parents as they picked up parishioners for weekly worship, was worrying his mother back then.
“I had a lot of distractions,” Michigan State’s standout freshman recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
Cynthia Bridges, fearing friends would hold her son back from his hoop dreams, or worse, gave her blessing for him to leave home as a high school sophomore to attend Huntington Prep in West Virginia for the next three years.
“I grew up in a rough place so I’ve seen a lot,” Bridges said . “My mom, we both knew that I had to get away from that type of stuff because I didn’t want to fall victim to being at the wrong place at the wrong time. … It’s easy for trouble to find you in Flint.”
Bridges might make another move later this year, jumping to the NBA.
Right now, though, he and his mother along with former NBA player Jeff Grayer, the man Bridges calls a “father figure,” insist that highly anticipated decision will be delayed until after the season.
With a unique blend of size and skill , Bridges became the Big Ten freshman of the year and lived up to the hype that swirled around him as a highly touted recruit that may be the most talented player Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo has ever had.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward will lead the fifth-seeded Spartans (18-13) into the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday against 13th-seeded Penn State (15-17) with the hopes of winning at least once to perhaps seal a spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.
When the season ends, Bridges will decide if he’s entering the NBA draft as a player perhaps projected to be taken in the middle of the first round or staying in school to possibly develop into a player coveted with one of the top selections in 2018.
“Let’s face it, he’ll either leave this year or he’ll stay one more season and then he’ll go,” Izzo said in a telephone interview. “Some of it will depend on what we do in the Big Ten Tournament and the week after if everything works out. If he goes, it won’t be because of his mother’s lack of money or because he’s flunking out of school. A lot of kids have both of those factors pushing them into the NBA. Miles doesn’t and that will allow him to make a decision for the right reasons.”
In Flint, an impoverished city that was hit hard even before its recent water crisis , Cynthia Bridges said she uses bottled water to cook and brush her teeth with even though it has passed two tests for safety. Her son acknowledged that will be a factor in his stay-or-go decision.
“I try not to worry about that because it’s a distraction, but I am worried about my mom,” he said softly. “I just want to put myself in a position to be more successful. Right now, I’m not even thinking about whether that will mean staying one more year or leaving this year.”
Agents, of course, are hoping Bridges enters the draft and becomes a client.
“They come through me,” said the 61-year-old Cynthia Bridges, who plans to retire this year after working for nearly four decades at a hospital. “I’ve probably had six call me recently.”
In recent and distant memory, Izzo has never had someone quite like Miles in his 22 seasons as a head coach and 34 seasons overall at Michigan State.
“I’ve been so lucky with him,” Izzo said. “He’s just not the normal star. He can be pushed. He wants to be coached. And, he has no ego at all.”
Bridges can soar for slams , reminiscent of Jason Richardson, a former Michigan State star and two-time NBA dunk champion. A search among other former Spartans under Izzo comes up empty, trying to find someone who could also make a lot of 3-pointers — Bridges connected on a team-high 49 in 24 games — and score on an array of low-post moves and mid-range turnaround jumpers. He leads the Spartans with 16.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, starring on a young team that leaned on him and three other freshmen. He missed the month of December, and seven games, with a sprained left ankle and bounced back relatively quickly.
Michigan coach John Beilein said scouting reports on Miles don’t include any weaknesses because he can shoot from the outside or create his own shot off the dribble.
“There’s not a defense that is going to stop him,” Beilein said.
Beyond his talent, Bridges also sets himself apart with a selfless style that leads to him working with seldom-used teammates such as Kyle Ahrens on his shot and deferring to teammates instead of trying to dominate during games. The public got a glimpse of it at least once when he set up Matt McQuaid for a 3-pointer and pumped his fist, looking happier than he has after scoring on his own in spectacular fashion .
Bridges also attends Bible study weekly, Izzo said, and refuses to relish in any of the praise that has come his way because his humility outweighs his ego.
“What gives me the chills is when I have heard people talk this season about Miles as a person, not a player,” Grayer said in a recent interview at the YMCA gym where Bridges began his basketball journey. “That says to Cynthia and me, ‘Mission accomplished.’ We used to tell him basketball stops for everybody, so the important thing is who are you striving to be when basketball is over? And even though Miles left Flint, he’s a blue-collar guy because that’s how people are made here.”
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