Five seasons into his NBA career, Mikal Bridges has yet to miss a single game. But when a blockbuster trade sent him to Brooklyn this past February, he proved that he was more than just a reliable teammate. He’s the Big Apple’s newest star.

Roughly 24 hours after the Phoenix Suns land in Atlanta, having just flown in from New York following a game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center, Mikal Bridges is told that he has to hop on a flight back to Brooklyn. On a one-way ticket, that is. He’s been traded.

With no chance to grab any personal belongings from his home in Phoenix, Bridges simply gathers the bags he has packed for the five-game road trip (ATL was the fourth stop), says his goodbyes to his teammates and staff—after spending four and a half seasons in the desert—and returns to BK. 

He’ll be living out of a hotel near the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront for the next few weeks until he finds a more permanent spot. But as turbulent as the shift may feel, a change in scenery isn’t the only thing Bridges is going to have to get used to in the coming weeks. 

An entirely different role awaits, as well as an entirely different aura around his name.

In just his third game with the Nets, Bridges posted a career-high 45 points to go along with 8 rebounds and 5 assists in a win against the Heat. His career-high up to that point was 34 points. After having never touched the 40-point mark in Phoenix, he went on to drop 40+ points three times—including twice during a three-game stretch—in the last couple of months of the season with Brooklyn.

“Just having that game [against Miami] and winning, and just all that buzz and being fine, that feeling of being in New York for real and all the love and the publicity after that—I’ll definitely say after that Miami game [is] where I felt [it]. And I had a little [All-Star] break [after], so I went home and then when I came back it was like, Alright, let’s get ready for this, this little second gear,” remembers Bridges. 

With the Nets, he quickly began putting his name in the record books, again and again. He became the first player in NBA history to average 25 or more points while shooting 50/40/90 in his first 10 games with a new team. He also broke the record for most points ever scored in the month of March by a Nets player, which was good for the second-most points by a Nets player in any month in franchise history.  

After averaging 17.2 points per game in 56 outings with the Suns this past season, Bridges’ scoring average skyrocketed to 26.1 points with the Nets. Since the mid-February move, the former Villanova standout went on to finish with 30+ points on 11 different occasions in Brooklyn. Prior to the trade, he had only surpassed 30 points one time this season (and only two other times in his entire career).

He had suddenly gone from being a nice supporting player whose full potential remained hidden while hooping in the shadows of All-Stars like Devin Booker and Chris Paul in Phoenix to emerging as a full-blown bona fide star. A legitimate go-to first option on a playoff team overnight, it seemed.  

“I think the toughest thing was just not having everything, and everything [happened] so fast with the trade. Just had to leave where [I’m] at to come there. I just had my bags and went straight to New York,” says Bridges. “But it was dope. I always wanted to live in New York—came to New York a lot in college, just playing out here [in Philly], went to Villanova, so everybody lives in New York coming from Villanova. But it was great. I love the people here, and I love the vibe in New York and the city. So, I was very excited to come here.

Just being on the East Coast again, I love the East Coast people. Obviously, I love the people in Phoenix as well, they’re great people, but it’s just [about] coming back to the East Coast, to what I’m used to.”

After “blowing it all up” and trading superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant within a handful of days from each other, the Nets had found their new star much quicker than they may have anticipated. Bridges brought much-welcomed hope and excitement to a fan base that was in dire need of it. The franchise had found a fresh identity while in the dawn of a new era.  

But being the guy for any NBA team has its challenges, too. There are defensive schemes thrown at you that others don’t see. You’re scouted differently. And as a leader, expectations are higher than for anyone else in the locker room. The role has a few extra duties. It’s all been part of the learning curve for Bridges, one that he’s welcomed with open arms. 

“I think the biggest challenge is probably always leading, every single time. Even if I get frustrated, guys are kind of looking at me strictly just because, and I feel like that’s a struggle I just kind of [have to] get better at it ’cause it’s emotions in the game and I get frustrated a lot,” says Bridges of his sudden leadership role in Brooklyn. “Just can’t let my emotions bring anybody else on the team down, so, just got to stay positive, even if it’s tough—gotta push through it and try to be level-headed at all times. 

“It’s definitely a challenge, but, you know, it’s something I love and embrace and take on. It’s definitely different, being one of the go-to guys and defenses scout on you. Luckily, I had some time before I got traded—we had a lot of guys out in Phoenix at the time—where I was being that guy. And it was, trust me, a lot of growing pains. It was tough just being that focal point and everybody’s looking at you. But I feel like it’s been good—a lot of learning, still learning to this day—and there’s gonna be a lot more to learn. But I’m here to embrace it and go through the tough times just to blossom later.” 

The trade paved the way for Bridges’ return to the Northeast. He was born and raised just a couple hours south of Brooklyn in the greater Philadelphia area, where he spent his entire life until the Suns traded for him on draft night in 2018.   

“When I was in college, we came to New York a lot, just playing in the Garden [in the annual Big East Tournament] and then having events. Coach [Jay] Wright loved New York, so we had an event called Hoops on the Hudson,” Bridges remembers. “We’d come out here and be out here for a couple days while it was preseason. Just been around and visiting in college and in the summer, have friends who live out here—I just know the speed of New York and I was just super excited to come here.” 

The trade also allowed Bridges to reach an extremely rare feat: playing 83 regular season games. The last time this occurred was in 2014-15 when Josh Smith played for both the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets following a trade. In fact, Bridges hasn’t missed a single game in his five-year NBA career thus far. 

“He’s the iron man of the NBA,” Nets teammate Spencer Dinwiddie told ESPN earlier this year.  

It’s just another prime example of the kind of star the Nets got in February—a certified hooper who can be counted on to show up, whenever, wherever, with whomever.  

“I’m just trying to win, honestly, that’s the biggest thing for me. Obviously, just playoffs and hopefully eventually—the biggest is always a championship, but there’s a lot of steps to do to get there,” says Bridges. “So sustainably just winning and building a really good culture.”

Portraits by Marcus Stevens

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