By: Will Burchfield
Two things are strikingly clear about Miles Bridges: An abundance of talent and a lack of ego.
He could average 30 points a night, but he prefers to pass. He could lust after personal accolades, but he’s much more consumed with winning. It’s impossible to watch the 19-year-old play without being struck by his deep appreciation for the concept of a team.
His selflessness was perhaps most apparent in the aftermath of Michigan State’s overtime win over Rutgers on Tuesday when the sophomore was told Tom Izzo said he needed to be more of a jerk. Bridges nodded as if he understood.
“I played terrible on defense in the first half. Letting my man get behind me, I just looked really lazy out there, and I can’t do that,” he said. “I have to come out and play more aggressive on defense and do everything I need to do to win.”
But that wasn’t what Izzo meant at all. He was referring to the other end of the floor, where Bridges has a tendency to share the ball like a bag of chips at lunch. It often results in the Spartans’ best player going hungry, as was the case on Tuesday night when Bridges went scoreless deep into the second half.
It’s a paradox and a problem: In his commitment to playing team-first basketball, Bridges often holds the team back.
“It’s one of my issues with Miles,” Izzo said. “I’ve told him: He has to be more selfish.”
As simple as it sounds, there’s a reason Bridges hasn’t yet grasped the message. Try telling a mute to shout. Try convincing an altruist to pinch his pennies. Selfishness, especially on the basketball court, goes against every fiber in Bridges’ body.
So while he appreciates the need to change, it’s much easier said than done.
“Yeah,” Bridges acknowledged, “but I know when I need to shoot. I didn’t take any shots today that I needed to take, and I feel like that threw my rhythm off.”
One of Bridges’ best assets is his vision. And one of his greatest pleasures is threading the needle to an open teammate. Early in Tuesday’s game, Bridges was feeling it. He set up Matt McQuaid for a three and then Jaren Jackson Jr. for another as the Spartans raced out to a comfortable lead.
“He was jacked in the huddle,” Izzo said.
But Bridges’ proclivity for passing can also be his undoing. By constantly deferring to his teammates, he plays himself out of games. He winds up drifting around the perimeter on the offensive end. His energy sags. If the team suddenly needs him, stuck in a close game with a tough opponent, it can be hard for Bridges to flip the switch.
Versus Rutgers, Bridges took just three shots in the first half and was held without a point. This was partly due to foul trouble — he spent the final 5:06 on the bench after picking up his second personal — but it was mostly a function of his passive play.
Then, when he upped his aggressiveness to start the second half, he was out of sync. After a turnover, a couple more missed shots and his third foul, a frustrated Bridges wound up back on the bench with 13:37 to play.
The Spartans by now were in a dogfight, and their most dynamic player had yet to stick his nose in the fray.
“It’s not because he’s afraid,” said Izzo. “It’s not that he’s not tough enough.”
Just the opposite, in fact. It’s that he’s too, well, nice. This selflessness, admirable as it may be, blinds Bridges to a real and important truth: By putting himself first, so is he prioritizing the team.
Izzo subbed him back in with a little under 10 minutes to play, and Bridges scored his first points of the night on a slashing drive through the lane with 7:43 left. He said it was a weight off his shoulders. If so, the burden shifted to Rutgers.
Suddenly they had to deal with an attack-minded Bridges, who drew a foul and sank both free throws on the Spartans’ next possession. He scored eight points down the stretch and added a big three-pointer in overtime to help No. 4 Michigan State pull one out of the fire.
If Bridges had only played that way from the start, the Spartans never would have felt the heat. For Izzo, therein lies the challenge. The “selfish pills” he offered Bridges back in December didn’t work. It’s time to turn up the heat, starting Thursday in practice.
“I’m going to push Miles, I really am,” Izzo said. “I told him tonight, ‘Hang on to your hat tomorrow, brother.’ … I’m going to teach him to be a little more of a jerk. I’m good at that, so that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna give him something, and I’m gonna make sure he gives me something (back).”
The Spartans need Bridges to be a superstar. All Bridges needs to do is act like one.