By Gio Gennero | Sports Writer
No. 11 Baylor men’s basketball junior forward Jalen Bridges said he has one goal: to hear his name called in the NBA Draft one day.
“Just to be able to be one of those guys on that stage and live out a dream that every player who has ever picked up a basketball had,” Bridges said. “It’s just kind of surreal.”
The first-year Bear has been rolling lately and is one of the biggest contributors to the third-seeded green and gold. After transferring from West Virginia University, Bridges put up a regular season stat line of 10.3 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game on nearly 50% shooting from the field as of March 12.
He said playing with the Bears has given him a newfound purpose.
“This season just allowed me to reset, both mentally and physically. I’m back having fun playing again,” Bridges said. “That’s the most important thing for me. Last year it was tough. [West Virginia] went on a seven-game losing streak. That’s going to suck the fun out of anything. I’ve just become better from the day I stepped on campus, in all ways of life.”
Early in the season, Bridges struggled to get things going offensively, as he went seven-consecutive games without breaking double-digit points. He said this was his favorite stretch of the season because he was able to respond the way he wanted to, by replying with 10+ points in 11 of the next 13 games.
“Shooting bad was a test of character for me,” the Fairmont, W. Va., native said. “I could have easily gone a different way about it, but I just stuck to what I do, stuck to my work. I trusted in my work, my teammates, my coaches believing in me and it just got better.”
For the 6-foot-7-inch forward, he’s been around the game from a young age. Bridges said he became infatuated with basketball while watching his dad play at a local park around where he grew up.
Despite playing in recreational and school leagues since the age of four, he said he was never very tall, and that up to his freshman year of high school, things hadn’t clicked yet. Bridges hit a crossroads and from then on, it became bigger than a game.
“I fell in love with the game around my freshman year [of high school],” Bridges said. “I really wasn’t getting to play that much and not as much as I thought I should. I had two options: either go to a different high school or get in the gym and get better.
“I went with option two and locked in on my craft. My dad was waking me up before school, [I was] going back to the gym after school and just building good habits from a young age.”
His hard work and discipline paid dividends and have not gone unnoticed by head coach Scott Drew.
“Jalen does a lot of the things that lead to winning plays,” Drew said. “He does a tremendous job on the glass, low turnover guy, makes the right passes, doesn’t force things. He’s getting more and more comfortable putting it down, and the fact that he shoots it so well, [it] stretches the defense, which gives other people opportunities.”
Bridges said the hardest part about transferring was leaving his hometown of Fairmont for the first time in over 20 years.
He grew up in the town and went on to play college ball up the road in Morgantown, W. Va., always staying within a short radius of his family and hometown friends. However, he said Baylor has exceeded expectations.
“Everything kind of lived up to the expectations that I had. This is one of the best places that you can be as a college athlete or just college student,” Bridges said. “It’s a blessing that the coaches took a chance on me and it worked out.”
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, Bridges said the team isn’t done making noise as the squad heads into the NCAA tournament.
“You have to leave the place better than you found it, so we’re trying to go all the way,” Bridges said. “There’s some comparisons between us and the national championship team because of how elite the guards are. Overall, it’s a different roster, but I still feel like we have that talent level. We’ll go as far as we want to.”