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The Evolution of Villanova’s Mikal Bridges

From defensive specialist to all-around star and the Wildcats’ leading scorer, now maybe even a possible National POY candidate after a career performance against No. 12 Gonzaga?

NCAA Basketball: Pennsylvania at Villanova Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Condor. Pterodactyl. Wingspan. Defender.

All of those words have been used to describe Mikal Bridges, and correctly so. His 7-foot-1 wingspan makes him a menace on defense. Since being eligible to play after redshirting his freshman year, he had been known for his ability to lockdown defensively, jump passing lanes, and just give opponents a tough time with his length and the way he approaches the floor on defense. After all, he was named Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year in his first season as a starter in 2016-17, sharing the honor with his former teammate Josh Hart and Creighton's Khyri Thomas.

One word that doesn't come to mind when describing Bridges: least until this year.

Not only did he start to breach the NBA Draft conversation going into the 2017-18 season, but he's also grown as an all-around player--scorer included. Taking a leadership role inspired him to place an even greater emphasis on improving himself during the off-season, refining his play to be able to contribute in every facet of the game.

"I try to be a leader, so the young guys can see that," Bridges said. "Me, when I do the little things, the offense will come to me."

Through nine games this season, Bridges is the leading scorer for the 'Cats, a sentence that probably wouldn't have been stated in the last couple of years. He's averaging 19.0 points per game, while shooting above 50 percent overall and from beyond the arc. His recent career-high 28 point performance against the Gonzaga Bulldogs--one of the top defensive teams in college basketball--proves he's for real.

The secret? There is none, but the answer is simple.

"Just be aggressive and try to be a leader," he said on Tuesday night.

While his sudden surge in scoring this season might have come as a surprise, considering his secondary role or as some viewed his last few seasons--a player that can drain a three-pointer in an offensive system that works or doesn't require much from him--his coach isn't too surprised.

"He's a real high character guy, he probably could have done more of this last year and the year before," Jay Wright said. "He just got better and better. This year he knows he's the captain and the leader, so he's playing more aggressive. Last year, he would pass up a lot of those shots to Kris and Josh, not because he wasn't confident but because he knows it wasn't his turn. This year, he knows it's his turn."

No longer restricted to being just a catch-and-shoot guy from the perimeter, Bridges has demonstrated the ability to create his own shot, as well as drive his way inside and finish at the basket--which he learned from his former captains, should always be a dunk, and not a layup.

It's something he had to get used to throughout his years as a Wildcat. He claimed to always take a more finesse approach with laying the ball in since his freshman year--a habit his coaches and former teammates would dog him for. Now, he's looking to throw down.

Sure, layups and dunks are all worth the same amount of points, but there's a certain excitement that comes with finishing off a drive to the basket with the exclamation point that comes from a slam, compared to the quiet grace of a layup. That excitement gets him and his teammates going, and it carries over onto the defensive end of the court--where he already excels.

His aggression in lowering his shoulder, attacking the basket and finishing with a dunk has led to a couple of noteworthy plays, including a couple of posterizers. His latest highlight reel play against Gonzaga, where he dunked on two Bulldogs, especially stands out.

"He's just doing that more and more consistently this year," Wright said of Bridges' dunks at the basket. "If you go the basket for a layup--get a layup blocked or miss--the older guys would get on you. Kris and Josh would get on people 'you have to dunk that!'"

He sent the crowd at Madison Square Garden into a frenzy a handful of times and had those around the nation--watching from home--jumping out of their seats.

His play on the court is sparks excitement and potentially an even bigger conversation.

Josh Hart had his signature game in the 2016 Never Forget Tribute Classic, putting together an unforgettable performance against a Notre Dame team that was leading the Wildcats at halftime. That game launched him into the conversation for National Player of the Year.

With a career-high 28 points and the most three-pointers he's ever made in a single game (five), as well as noteworthy plays on the defensive end of the court against Gonzaga, is this Bridges' signature moment? Is this enough to firmly place him in the conversation of contenders in the hunt for the highest individual accolade in college basketball?

"That's interesting," Wright said of the comparison to Hart. "I'd really like that for Mikal, that would be nice."

His game has evolved exponentially through the first nine games of the season, and this appears to only be the beginning.

One thing is for certain, he's not throwing away his shot. It is his turn now.