Jay Wright gives ‘big play’ pitch on Knicks target Mikal Bridges
CHICAGO — Villanova coach Jay Wright has been in talks with Knicks GM Scott Perry this month.
No, the topic was not the possibility of Wright leaving the NCAA champion Wildcats to coach the Knicks — something the Knicks had wanted to explore, but which Wright politely declined.
The topic of these talks was Villanova small forward Mikal Bridges, whom the Knicks are eyeing closely with the ninth pick of June 21 NBA draft.
The Knicks are sending another front-office type to Villanova’s Philly-area campus shortly to “interview everybody’’ about the 21-year-old who grew up in the vicinity.
And while Bridges — the junior who has contributed to Villanova’s last two NCAA titles — isn’t doing media availability at the draft combine here, Wright said plenty to juice up Knicks fans praying that Perry tabs the proven two-way winner.
High on the list of qualities that Knicks brass is looking for is finding a player who will adeptly handle the New York cauldron — and that’s an area were Bridges excels, Wright said.
“I really do,’’ Wright told The Post on whether Bridges would thrive under the New York, lottery-pick scrutiny.
“It’s not just mental toughness. It’s an intelligence and humility. He understands what it’s all about. He’s played for two national championship teams here, and during his tenure there was a lot of expectation and attention. I think he’s used to it, very comfortable in that position. He doesn’t get caught up in it, either. He understands responsibility but won’t get caught up that it’s New York.’’
Regarded as the quintessential “3 and D’’ guy, Bridges averaged 17.8 points and 5.3 rebounds as a junior. He was a smooth 51.3 percent shooter — 43.5 from 3. Wright, ironically, dislikes the “3 and D’’ term.
“The NBA uses it, but in our program, it’s a bad word,’’ said Wright. “We want players in our program to be complete players. We don’t want them to be limited to just shooting 3’s and defending. We want them to rebound, put the ball on the floor, drive it, shoot off the dribble, use pick and rolls, be complete. In our program, ‘3 and D’ is actually not a complimentary term.’’
Still, Bridges grew into a 3-point marksman and the Wildcats’ most versatile defender since his freshman year in 2016.
“If he gets switched onto a 5, he’s so long he can bother them,’’ Wright said of the 6-foot-7 Bridges.
“He loves guarding point guards and 2 guards. Funny, he was a 3 and D guy as a freshman, though we don’t use that term. He played the top of our press. He didn’t start, but as soon as he came in, we’d go to our press because he was amazing at the top of our press. We only played him against the best player regardless of position – point guard or even 5 man. We had so many other good players, his job offensively was, if he had an open shot, shoot it.’’
A clutch shotmaker, Bridges steered Villanova to the NCAA romp over Michigan with a big second half, scoring 15 of his 19 points to give championship-game hero Donte DiVincenzo assistance.
That’s Bridges’ knack — rising in the critical moment.
“It’s more than just the big shot,’’ Wright said. “It’s the big play. He got huge offensive rebounds at the end to win games for us. He got big steals at the end of a game, a defensive rebound. He got everything. It’s having a feel for what play needs to be made when the game is on the line and being able to do it.’’
Bridges interviewed with the Knicks on Wednesday but isn’t doing measurements or on-court combine activities on advice of his agents. He could go as high as 7 to the Bulls and not make it to the Knicks, whose preference is a two-way small forward.
Wright, the former Hofstra coach, never pegged Bridges to be a potential mid-lottery pick after his junior season.
“When he started here, he got the body type, and if he does everything he is supposed to do and he’s patient, I thought he had a chance,’’ Wright said. “[But] there’s no way when we first got him [did he think], he’d definitely be in the position at the end of his junior year. No way we thought that. We thought if he did everything correctly, he had a chance. He did everything correctly.
“He worked hard. He was coachable. He had great character, when he had success he stayed humble. He was very focused, very disciplined. He had every great characteristic.’’
The issue is Bridges’ upside – whether he has the makings of a star. NBA scouts caution he’ll struggle to create his own shot despite being a trusty 3-point shooter.
“That’s the final piece for him this year — he improved upon and created his own shot,’’ Wright said. “He learned how to do it in his third year in the collegiate game.
“That’s the next step for him. He’ll be able to defend anyone, be a great rebounder, great shooter, but I think he’ll have to learn the adjustment from creating your own shot in college and creating own shot in the NBA.”
For now, the Knicks are more excited about Bridges reviving their slothful defense.
“That’s really how he made his name in our program and nationally as a freshman,’’ Wright said.
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