NCAA Tournament trophies aren’t often lifted by the hands of one-and-done freshmen. In fact, since the NBA’s 2005 collective bargaining agreement revised draft eligibility rules, just three college basketball teams have won a national championship with a one-and-done player on their roster.
Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague helped lead Kentucky to the title in 2012; Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow paved the way for Duke in 2015; and Tony Bradley was a valuable bench piece for North Carolina last season.
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Whereas that youth means upside for NBA franchises, in college basketball, continuity is king. None of the aforementioned teams were solely built around their one-and-done freshmen, even if the future pros were the focal points. Sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones played key roles for 2012 Kentucky, senior Quinn Cook was the 2015 Blue Devils’ steady hand and the 2017 Tar Heels’ starting lineup featured five upperclassmen.
Returning talent and developing it is often as important as — if not more important than — landing 5-star, one-and-done recruits when it comes to success at the college level.
Perhaps no program in the country epitomizes that lesson more than Villanova.
The Wildcats built a national power despite never producing a one-and-done player. They’ve earned a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament each of the last four years, won four straight Big East regular season titles outright and cut down the nets in 2016 all without landing a top-25 recruiting class in any of those seasons, per 247Sports. So far, just four players from those teams have suited up for an NBA game. Consistent and quality player development has been crucial.
Now, Villanova has a chance to hammer the point home once again, but this time, the Wildcats have a few more future pros on the roster.
Can Mikal Bridges develop into a star?
Both redshirt junior Mikal Bridges and junior Jalen Brunson appeared on our latest big board, ranking the top 60 prospects eligible for the 2018 NBA Draft. Bridges is a projected top-10 pick while Brunson could be a 10-year player as a backup point guard.
Bridges is the more sought after prospect. At 6-7 and 210 pounds with a 7-2 wingspan, he embodies the versatility that’s pervasive in the modern NBA. Offensively, he should be able to slot in at either wing spot and, with a bit more weight, he’ll probably be able to play some small ball power forward in the right lineups.
Defense, though, is Bridges’ calling card, and it forms the foundation of his profile. His long arms are disruptive to opponents as evidenced by the 2.3 steals and 1.7 blocks he averages per 40 minutes. Those are only slight upticks from his career averages of 2.2 and 1.3. His length pops on film:
Bridges’ defense isn’t just centered around creating events. He has quick feet and can change directions well with his hips, allowing him to mirror a ball-handler. He also fights through screens off the ball while possessing the length to still contest shots if he gets briefly caught on them. He understands rotations and communication as well, a product of playing in a Villanova system that takes plenty of chances and requires help rotations with regularity.
If nothing else, Bridges should earn a rotation spot on an NBA team as a multi-positional defender. His path to being a starter hinges on his jump shot.
The case against the jumper is based on its mechanics. Bridges’ form isn’t Lonzo Ball levels of broken, but it is a bit mechanical, and his release on catch-and-shoots can be a touch slow given he occasionally dips the ball down before coming up. However, after shooting just 29.9 percent from deep as a freshman, he’s improved significantly.
Through three seasons and 287 attempts, Bridges is now a career 38.0 percent 3-point shooter, and his inputs suggest his jumper should translate at the next level. Bridges is shooting 83.1 percent from the foul line — right in line with his career 83.7 average — and taking 7.2 3s per 40 minutes this season. Those numbers project him as a 38.4 percent NBA 3-point shooter, well above league average.
The majority of Bridges’ college attempts are spot-up chances, frequently from one of the two corners. However, he’s shown an increased propensity to shoot off movement this season, which could make him a more creative offensive threat in the NBA. After finishing just 16 possessions off screens in his first two seasons, he’s finished 12 that way already as a junior and ranks fourth nationally among players with at least 10 attempts at 1.917 points per possession, per Synergy.
Even if all Bridges accomplishes at the next level is good defense and efficient 3-point shooting, he’ll be a valuable piece. Consider, just seven NBA players this season standing between 6-6 and 6-8 are taking more than 5.0 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, making them at a 36.0 percent clip and posting a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus. Five of them have a positive real-plus minus, according to ESPN, suggesting they contribute to winning basketball. All of them have a positive VORP.
If Bridges develops as a creator, he can be a star. Both Kawhi Leonard and Gordon Hayward fit the above criteria in 2016-17 — they are obviously absent from the 2017-18 data due to injuries — and while they’re not necessarily good direct comparisons, they do provide a template for the type of two-way player Bridges could become at his ceiling.
It’s a long shot, though. Outside of post-ups that will be less relevant in the NBA, Bridges hasn’t seen an uptick in his creation responsibilities relative to other play types during his time at Villanova, per Synergy:
While Bridges has shown the occasional flash out of a ball screen, he struggles getting low to the ground with the ball and is stiff with his handle. The chances he becomes a primary initiator are slim. A more realistic outcome would result in him attacking off the catch against closeouts where he’s explosive enough to finish in traffic and a good enough passer to find shooters after one or two dribbles.
It’s hard to conjure up a scenario where Bridges fully fails. If the defense doesn’t hold up and his 3-point percentage drops, it’s a potential outcome, but he’s more likely a high-floor talent with the upside of an elite NBA role player, even if the creation skill never comes along.
What is Jalen Brunson’s NBA ceiling?
Brunson is a more difficult piece to figure out insofar as he doesn’t have the same physical advantages as Bridges. Yet, he has the highest offensive rating in the country among players using at least 20.0 percent of their teams possessions, per KenPom. If the 6-7 wing is the energetic and athletic high school kid in the pick up game, Brunson is the cunning old guy, even though he’s exactly one day younger than Bridges.
As one of just four players (min. 500 minutes played) in the last nine seasons with an assist rate above 30.0 percent and a turnover rate below 10.0 percent, Brunson is the definition of sure-handed. He operates with the ball on a string, does a good job keeping his dribble alive and has an excellent feel when it comes to finding his teammates.
Excellent facilitating numbers alone aren’t enough to make it in the league. Brunson’s cohorts on the above list aren’t exactly exemplars of NBA success. Both J.J. Frazier and Jordan Taylor are playing overseas while rookie Monte Morris is still battling to get out of the G-League.
Luckily, Brunson combines his creative playmaking with efficient scoring. His KenPom statistical profile offers a few more encouraging comparisons of players with like college numbers and longer NBA careers in Delonte West and Ty Lawson.
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As a junior, Brunson is averaging 24.4 points per 40 minutes on a 68.7 true shooting percentage. He is a capable scorer from all three levels. He has the strength to create separation for his midrange jumper using his shoulder, enough craft to get to the rim despite not much top end speed and impressive 3-point numbers. From an NBA perspective, his career 40.6 3-point percentage on 318 attempts is noteworthy.
As is his scheme-changing ability to shoot efficiently off the dribble. Over three seasons, he’s averaging 1.045 points per possession over 242 pull-up attempts, per Synergy. This season, he ranks in the 96th percentile nationally and is converting 54.9 percent of his attempts. He’s also made 16 unassisted 3s this season, per Hoop-Math. That puts him on a pace similar to Markelle Fultz (the pre-broken jump shot version).
Still, Brunson doesn’t grade out as more than a second-round pick on our recent draft board because he lacks the type of athleticism that makes one confident he’ll be able to create his shot against elite NBA length. He will also likely struggle on the defensive end where his steal and block indicators aren’t exciting, and his size is a limitation. There’s some low probability starter upside with Brunson, but his most likely path is as a long-term backup.
A long-term NBA backup can still lead an NCAA Tournament champion. Alongside Bridges, one of the sport’s best two-way players, Brunson and Villanova have positioned themselves to make another March run. No one-and-dones necessary.
All statistics in this article are current as of Jan. 16, 2018. Unless otherwise noted, they are pulled from Sports-Reference.
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