EAST WHITELAND >> It would be one thing if it was an isolated incident here and there. But the stories are seemingly everywhere these days, especially with the 2018 NBA Draft now upon us.
It is darn near impossible, for anybody who knows Mikal Bridges, to talk about the former Great Valley High School star without mentioning what a grounded, personable and likeable guy he really is.
“He’s the kind of kid you root for,” said Great Valley Athletic Director Russ Wren.
Whether it was going the extra mile to support his classmates or simply responding to a text, Bridges just engenders pride, and he obviously means a lot to the Great Valley community. And it’s about so much more than just what he’s accomplished on the basketball floor.
“Mikal is a living legend at Great Valley now,” said C.J. Savage, who was a coaching assistant with the Patriots in 2011-14 during Bridges’ high school reign, and is now Great Valley’s head coach.
It also helps that he stayed local, played his college ball at nearby Villanova and helped the Wildcats to a pair of national championships. On Thursday evening, Bridges is projected to be a solid first round selection, and could slip into the top 10. And with the hometown Philadelphia 76ers holding the 10th pick, there is a lot of wishful thinking going on right now.
“I’m praying,” Savage said.
“I know that the student body at Great Valley is very psyched about what is going to happen to Mikal,” added Paul Girone, a teacher and Savage’s head coaching predecessor at the school.
MAKING AN INDELIBLE MARK AT GREAT VALLEY
Jim Nolan remembers seeing Bridges for the first time in the spring of 2011. He was a “very nice, but skinny, young man with a great smile.”
Nearing the end of his freshman year at Archbishop Carroll, Bridges came to Great Valley with his mom, Tyneeha Rivers, to meet Nolan, who was the longtime head boys’ basketball coach. Bridges grew up in Wayne, attended New Eagle Elementary School and later Great Valley Middle School, and wanted to enroll and play basketball.
“During the offseason, I remember coach Nolan telling me about this kid coming in that was long and pretty good,” Savage recalled.
A lanky 6-foot-5, Bridges was the sixth man on the 2011-12 Patriots as a sophomore, but he worked his way into the starting lineup for the playoffs. In scrimmages, Nolan would routinely match up Bridges against Savage, who played college ball at Fayetteville (N.C.) State.
“I’m 5-11 and I was quick, so Mikal had the responsibility of guarding me,” Savage explained. “In the beginning, I could get to certain spots and get my shot off, but as time went by, it got harder and harder.
“By the time Mikal was a senior, I knew he was going to be special because of how hard it was to get off a shot, or even catch the ball while he was guarding me. And, of course, I had all kinds of trouble trying to defend him.”
Wren remembers having a conversation with Nolan prior to Bridges’ junior season. The coach told his A.D. that Bridges could wind up being the best he’d ever seen come out of Great Valley.
“Jim knows basketball, and when he says something like that, I took notice,” Wren said. “It kind of opened my eyes a bit, and then I watched him progress. By his senior year, we all knew Mikal was something special.”
Now 6-7, Bridges averaged 18.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game in 2013-14 and was ranked among the top 100 senior college prospects in the nation. During his three seasons, Great Valley amassed a 69-11 record.
“His basketball IQ was excellent and he was learning to play hard all the time,” Nolan said. “Defensively, he was improving at a very quick rate. All of those things moved him into another realm, another level.
“He was coachable, made good decisions and was a really good teammate. Those three foundational things, I think, got him to where he is now. And then, of course, he had the physical things like a long wingspan, athleticism, quickness, and ability to shoot the ball.”
FACING SOME TOUGH DECISIONS
As he got better and better, Nolan kept pushing Bridges to higher heights, and he responded every time.
By graduation in 2014, he had surpassed every other Great Valley hoops star, which is actually an impressive list. It includes seven-foot center Tom Piotrowski (class of 1978) who played at La Salle and was a drafted by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers; the school’s all-time leading scorer, Grant Berges, who played collegiately at BYU in the mid-1990s; and brothers Eric and Mark Shrader, who were Division I recruits in the mid-1970s.
“With Mikal, we were very fortunate to have someone with that kind of talent around,” Nolan said.
But he was also humble. Savage tells the story of when Bridges was already a varsity star and yet he still asked if he could ride the bus and show his support for a big road game for the Great Valley freshman basketball team.
“He sat on the bench, cheered the guys on and we won in overtime,” Savage reported. “So even though he was starting to get a lot of recognition, he was just a regular guy.”
It was commonplace for Bridges to have a boisterous family rooting section during his years playing for Great Valley, which included his mom, his brothers Eric, Jack and Korey, and his dad, Jack Devine.
“(My mom is) a big part of who I am,” Bridges said recently. “She’s just very tough on me, especially in high school. If I had bad game or missed a couple shots, she always made me have a little punishment for that — just always staying on me, even if I did well.
“She always congratulated me, but always made sure I got better. I’m grateful to have her.”
In all, Bridges received 20-plus Division I scholarship offers. And when he picked Villanova prior to his final high school season, Nolan wasn’t a bit surprised.
“I always knew he would stay local,” Nolan said. “I knew his family and that he wanted to stay close to them.”
Bridges arrived at Villanova with loads of skill, but also with a wiry physique that would be severely tested by bigger and stronger competition. ’Cats’ head coach, Jay Wright, suggested that Bridges would benefit from a redshirt year.
“It made sense,” Bridges said. “You know, I was young for my grade. I wasn’t just physically there yet.
“And looking back on it, I’m happy I did it. I spent a whole year in the weight room just getting stronger. I was still practicing every day. I was playing with a lot of great guys who were making me better on both ends.”
The way things turned out, it was a win-win for Bridges and for ’Nova.
“That goes back to good decision-making,” Nolan pointed out. “And it wasn’t an easy one to make.”
CLIMBING THE NCAA LADDER ONE STEP AT A TIME
After sitting out a season, Bridges worked his way into the playing rotation for a 2015-16 Villanova squad that was loaded with veteran talent. He appeared in all 40 contests, and made a significant mark at the top of the squad’s 1-2-2 three-quarter court press.
The Wildcats won the Big East regular season crown and advanced to the national title game against North Carolina. Just prior to tipoff, Wren sent Bridges a text that said: ‘No matter what happens tonight, you’ve made Great Valley proud.’
Bridges subsequently came off the bench, played 15 minutes and helped Villanova win it, 77-74. And at 1:39 a.m., with Wren sound asleep, his cell phone was buzzing.
“I’m thinking, who in the heck is this?” Wren said. “It was a text from Mikal. All it said was: ‘yeaaaah boooy!’
“He is so grounded to have the wherewithal to return a text at 1:39 a.m. the night he won the national championship to his old high school athletic director. Most kids would have blown that text off with the million others they got.
“That’s the kind of kid Mikal is.”
The following season, Bridges started 33 games, was named the Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year and was a second team All-Big 5 pick. And ’Nova won the Big East once again. But Bridges would, at times, shy away from the spotlight.
“(Mikal) is a confident kid. He’s a nice kid,” Wright said. “He used to be too nice where okay, I’m not making shots. I’m not going to shoot anymore. I’ll let everybody else do it. I will defend the rebound.”
The final piece of the puzzle came last fall when Bridges became more assertive at the offensive end of the floor to start his junior season, and never let up. In 40 starts, he average 17.7 points and 5.3 rebounds, shot .435 from 3-point range, and led the Wildcats to a 36-4 record and another national title.
Despite a bruised hip, Bridges scored 19 points in a 79-62 win over Michigan in the national title game and was later selected first team All-Big East and third team All-American by the Associated Press.
“A star player, when things aren’t going well for him, can really negatively affect the team,” Wright said. “You don’t see it out there, but it could be a bad shot or a couple of possessions taking off defensively because he’s frustrated that he’s not the star. And it happens a lot in our game.
“Mikal is incredible that way. And I think it’s a matter of humility and intelligence. So he’s humble enough that he doesn’t have to be the star, and I think he’s smart enough to know that (his) presence on the floor, and doing the little things, is actually helping our team and affecting that opponent more than anyone knows.”
THE NEXT KAWHI LEONARD?
Most mock NBA drafts predict that Bridges will go in the later part of the top-10, and many believe he will end up with the Sixers. He is touted as one of the best two-way offensive/defensive prospects available, and is drawing comparisons to San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard.
“Who knows if he will make it to number 10, but I know this: if he gets to 10 and the Sixers haven’t traded the pick, they will take him,” Nolan predicted.
An interesting twist is that Bridges’ mom is the Vice President of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertaining, a firm that has the Philadelphia 76ers in its portfolio, among several professional franchises. Her department is involved with recruiting and hiring employees.
“It was neat to see him stay so close for college.” Wren said. “And I can tell you a lot of people around here have their fingers crossed that he gets through the New York Knicks at number nine and gets to the Sixers.”