How Mikal Bridges’ mom raised the Knicks’ ideal draft pick

Tyneeha Rivers is usually the interviewer as vice president of human resources for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertaining, hiring and recruiting employees for the 76ers and Devils.

Just a day earlier, her 21-year-old son, Villanova standout Mikal Bridges, auditioned for the 76ers at their new training headquarters in Camden, N.J., where Rivers’ office is located.

“I stayed in my mom zone,’’ Rivers told The Post last Thursday in a rare spot as an interviewee. “I’ll bump into [Sixers coach] Brett Brown once in a while, but I don’t overstep my boundaries. If I have questions I’ll call his agent. I don’t want to use my position to say, ‘How did Mikal do?’ ”

Very well, thank you. That’s why it could be a long shot Bridges is on the board at No. 10 when Philly selects in Thursday’s NBA draft. The Knicks will pick ninth and have an aching need for a small forward who specializes in defense, 3-point shooting, winning and is of high character.

Two of the four elements (defense, character) can be attributed to his mother, who was pregnant with Mikal at 19 and raised him as a single mom.

“She’s a big-time lady,’’ Villanova assistant coach Kyle Neptune said. “You can tell why he is who he is. Being around her, you understand why he’s so focused and locked in.’’

She’s also part of why he’s also a superior defender at 6-foot-7 with a reported 7-2 wingspan (he didn’t do measurements at the draft combine). Rivers loved basketball as a child, but never played competitively, though she probably should have. She measures at 5-8 with a wingspan a defender would die for.

Just ask legendary former Sixers guard World B. Free, who works in the Sixers’ alumni department.

“I just have ridiculously long, crazy arms,’’ Rivers said. “That’s what I’m known for. Which is not fun for a woman buying outfits. We once stretched our arms out next to each other and the office was all laughing. It was the same. I have the same wingspan as World B. Free.”

Free was known for his long-range shooting, like Rivers’ son. On the Sixers’ practice courts in Camden, a three-minute walk from his mother’s office, Bridges has told Sixers beat writers he’s “a perfect fit’’ because Brown is “defense-first” and “that’s how I play.”

Bridges said he went to his share of Sixers’ games as a youngster with his mother, father — Jack, who remained a strong influence in Bridges’ life — and grandfather. But Bridges added he’s not angling to join his mother’s organization.

“I just want to win and go to a team that I can fit in well and they can build me up and make me a better player,’’ he said. “It doesn’t matter what pick I am; I just want to go to a team that will win and develop me as a player.’’

If Bridges becomes an NBA leader — as he was as a junior in helping Villanova to its second national title in three years — it won’t surprise Sixers executive Scott O’Neil, formerly of the Knicks.

“Tyneeha is an incredible leader in our organization,’’ O’Neil said. “She has been a huge driver of the culture and we are so proud she made such a positive impact on our employees and workplace.“

The astounding part of Bridges’ rise to surefire lottery pick is it began so humbly on the Main Line. Before he won this season’s Julius Erving Award as the NCAA’s top small forward, his Villanova career began with an unplanned redshirt freshman year.

“He’s gone through a lot — he’s been a redshirt, role player, a starter, a star,’’ Neptune, the Nova assistant, said. “He’s played in big-time situations with big-time players in big-time venues with a lot of pressure. He won big games, lost big games. Nothing you can throw at him he’s never seen.”

Bridges was a top-100 high-school recruit out of Great Valley High in Malvern, Pa., — about 30 minutes outside Philly — and those types don’t typically take the redshirt route.

But as his “Noodles’’ nickname suggested, he was a too-slender 170-pounder. He was manhandled in preseason by a slew of Villanova veterans who would win the next season’s NCAA title — Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins and JayVaughn Pinkston.

“We had a really good team — a lot of older guys who were better prepared to help us in actual games,” Neptune said.

After training camp, after wearing down in practices, the Villanova staff came to Bridges, suggested the redshirt idea. As Neptune noted, it took “a special kid’’ to embrace it.

“No one pressured him to do it,’’ Neptune said. “The best thing about him [is] he has a uniqueness to have a level of confidence and still be humble with no ego. He wasn’t that top-100 kid who wanted to be treated like one.’’

The redshirt season turned into a blessing. After team practices, he’d come in for special personal workout sessions.

“He got a lot of individual attention,’’ Neptune said. “But sometimes he was the best player at practice anyway. He wouldn’t get those [personal] sessions if he was playing. So he was able to build his body and skill and improve his shooting. It was very good for him without the anxiety going into games not knowing if you’ll play.”

Not that these weren’t dark times for Bridges as he traveled with the team, but was never in uniform. Rivers tried cheering him up, explaining her plight at age 19, lugging him as a baby to her undergraduate classes. Villanova sports information director Michael Sheridan recalls Bridges never showing that side — only his trademark “affability.’’

After a game at Pearl Harbor in which Villanova got routed by Oklahoma, the team was forced to fly commercial, with a tight connection that forced the players into missing planned snacks at Los Angeles International Airport.

It was in the wee hours and Bridges, all 6-7 of him, was stuck in a middle seat on the second flight bound for Philly. Air-conditioning issues caused it to become warm in the cabin. The players were hungry, hot and grumbling. And then there was Bridges.

“He was the most pleasant guy on the plane, even-tempered,’’ Sheridan said of a “nice memory” that always has stuck. “Low maintenance, on time when we needed him, but never put out if the spotlight shined elsewhere.’’

Rivers, who occasionally lapses into corporate speak, said she liked the way Villanova coaches handled the redshirt scenario.

“It was a collaborative effort, including him in the decision process,’’ she said. “It wasn’t like, ‘You’re going to redshirt.’ It was, ‘What do you think?’ And, ‘Here are the benefits.’ Mikal was so smart to see the big picture. He didn’t let the want to play basketball right then affect that this was going to make him a stronger, better player.”

It was further confirmation Bridges had made the right decision to attend his hometown school over top pursuers Florida, Xavier, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Seton Hall and South Carolina.

Villanova coach Jay Wright had Rivers at hello. Although Bridges was exhilarated when Villanova joined the fray, Rivers wasn’t convinced until Wright made a home visit.

“I found out more about Jay as a person,’’ she said. “Being a single mom, I knew there’d be a transition, and it was incredibly important wherever he was going, the coach would be a leader and role model. Once I sat down with Jay and saw his values, that’s when I was like, ‘Wow Mikal, I know you were excited about this school,’ but now I was so excited for him to be part of the Villanova family.’’

Wright’s one remark to Rivers sealed the deal.

“I remember it very vividly. He said to me, ‘It’s not just about developing his talent.’ He believes in developing good men and good people. As a mom, that hit home for me.’’

Kawhi Leonard?

Tyrone Garland, Mikal’s cousin who played at La Salle and professionally in Iceland and Canada, saw some of that two-way forward’s greatness in Bridges’ breakout junior season.

Garland took a year off from pro ball, coached a Philly youth program and watched every Villanova game — live or on TV. Bridges went from role player on Villanova’s first title team in 2016, to Big East Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore to leading man as a junior.

“It was the confidence in his jump shot,’’ Garland said. “This year you could tell he was working on his J, no hesitation on it, improved slashing to the rim. He was a defender his first two years. But he gave me flashes of Iggy [Andre Iguodala] and Kawhi Leonard — one of those type players. If he works on his game, he can really be on that level.’’

Garland is Mikal’s cousin on his father‘s side. Jack has remained close to his son, friendly with Rivers and they attend all home games. As a junior, Bridges shot 43.5 percent from 3-point range (51 percent overall).

“I just always felt he had that shooting ability coming out of high school,’’ Jack told The Post. “But he plays the right way. What happened this year after he stopped deferring to upperclassmen, whom he had a great relationship with, he understood it was time to take the lead role. He looked for his shot more. He’s always had it, but he always worked at it.”

If the Knicks don’t make a Kawhi trade on draft night, could they be getting a future Leonard Lite?

Because he’s not a 19-year-old, one-and-done, uber-athlete, many scouts question Bridges’ All-Star upside. Garland contends if Bridges were a product of New York, he’d have a sexier profile.

“A lot of great players in Philly go under the radar,’’ Garland said. “New York players get the shine and some Philly players get overshadowed.’’

The preseason NIT game against Gonzaga at the Garden became Bridges’ coming-of-age party. In one extraordinary sequence, Bridges came down the left wing, used a ball screen, flew down the lane and soared for a ferocious dunk. On the other end, Bridges violently blocked a shot, looked at his bench for emphasis and roared.

“That game NBA guys started taking notice of him,’’ Neptune said.

“Maybe the Gonzaga game loosened me up and gave my mind the confidence,’’ Bridges said.

And a leader was born.

“Instead of yelling at the crowd, he’s bringing teammates in it, giving them the energy’’ Neptune said. “That’s the best thing he does as a leader. He always involves his teammates.”

Members of the Knicks front office witnessed Bridges’ Big East Tournament splash at the Garden (he was named Most Outstanding Player) with even owner James Dolan catching the final.

When Knicks executives Jamie Matthews and Kristian Petesic visited the Villanova campus last month to interview staffers about Bridges, they heard what they had seen at the Garden.

Wright told the Knicks’ brass that Bridges had “not just a knack for the big shot, but the big play.’’

“It’s having a feel for what play needs to be made when the game is on the line,’’ Wright told inquiring NBA clubs.

To be close to his Manhattan-based agency, Excel Sports Management, during the pre-draft process, Bridges has holed up in Westchester County. He’s worked out at Manhattanville College when not visiting lottery teams. As he traveled, Bridges told the media of his favorite player growing up — and it wasn’t a 76er.

“Tracy McGrady — wherever he went, I rooted for that team,’’ Bridges said. “He was just tough, nobody can guard him. I grew up watching, loving him. I had his sneaker.’’

Back in the day, McGrady, the All-Star small forward, leapt from high school to the NBA and never had the chance to snare two NCAA titles as Bridges did. Garland, Bridges’ cousin, texted him as he went off to San Antonio for this year’s Final Four: “Win a championship and bring it home to Philly.’’

“He brings the energy to Villanova basketball,’’ Garland said. “When they play, the 1-2-2, he’s at top of the press. He had to be the real leader this year. Went from laid-back to leader.”

Ex-Knicks guard Rick Brunson saw most Villanova games — his son, Jalen, was Bridges’ co-pilot. The elder Brunson believes McGrady magic could exist deep in Bridges’ NBA game. When Rick Brunson was at the Garden as a T’Wolves assistant this season, he was asked his thoughts on Bridges. Brunson uttered just one phrase:


“With his wingspan, he’s shooting over much smaller guys,’’ Neptune said after meeting with the Knicks. “He knows guys can’t get to his shot. Knowing his shot is not getting blocked and he’s getting it off clean, it made him more confident.’’

Bridges averaged 17.2 points in the six NCAA Tournament contests. Despite playing with a bruised hip and giving Donte Divincenzo room to roll as the night’s hero in San Antonio, Bridges added 19 points (on 7-of-12 shooting) in the title game. He delivered late knockout-punch 3s that buried Michigan.

Amid the postgame chaos, Bridges posed for pictures with former Villanova alums, including a mentor, Kerry Kittles. Bridges got to cut down the final piece of netting and waved it to the delirious Alamodome crowd.

Later at the hotel, in a quieter moment, Bridges hung with mother, father, three brothers and family. They reminisced about when he first picked up a basketball.

“It was so wonderful,’’ Jack said. “Mikal was super exhausted but took the moment to reflect on his career, took it all in. I told him you’re always going to look back on this that you won two national championships, a really major accomplishment. When the dust settles in his career, I always want him to reflect on it and appreciate what he did. It’s not something done all the time. Sometimes young kids don’t understand the magnitude of what they accomplished at the time.’’

On Sunday, Father’s Day, Jack Bridges received a phone call from his son first thing in the morning to wish him a special day. Mikal was boarding a flight to Cleveland to meet with the Cavaliers, who pick eighth, one slot before the Knicks, for his final pre-draft workout.

Rivers, Jack Bridges and family will be at Barclays Center on Thursday for the big night. Rivers, with her son officially moving on from Villanova, will return to the university to finish up her MBA.

“New York wouldn’t be bad,’’ Jack said. “Going to the next level, you’ll see more of an ability to create shots. I agree with the scouts, he needs to work on it, but they’re going to be surprised. He developed in that area tremendously this season but stayed within the system.’’

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