January 18, 2018

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Between three seasons marred by injuries and inconsistencies, the prosperity of other members from a talented 2012 NBA Draft, and his place on an often overlooked Washington Wizards team, it’s been easy for Bradley Beal to get lost in the shuffle.

Beal began his brief college career as a much ballyhooed McDonald’s All-American prospect. With a strong build, clean release and range that extended well beyond the NBA three-point line, Beal’s game invoked memories of a young Ray Allen. Unfortunately Beal struggled more than his shooting mechanics would suggest at Florida, hitting just 34 percent from three-point range, where he took 47 percent of his shot attempts.

Despite the less stellar than advertised shooting percentages, Beal showcased enough to supplement the aesthetically pleasing shooting stroke to merit high draft projections. Working in Coach Billy Donovan’s three-guard lineups at Florida, with a stretch-4 (Erick Murphy) and big man Patric Young, Beal diversified his game, shooting 54 percent inside the arc, getting to the free throw line, and leading his team in rebounds with 6.7 per game—earning 1st team All-SEC in his freshman year. While not a true point guard, his handle was strong enough to function as a secondary playmaker, attacking defenses hell bent on chasing him off the three-point line.

It was enough to garner the Washington Wizards selection with the third pick in the Draft, a seemingly perfect fit of talent and team. In John Wall, Beal had a floor general with enough experience to understand the pressures of being a top five pick, and young enough to grow alongside. Wall would supply the heavy playmaking and broken defenses for Beal to exploit, Beal would provide some much-needed spacing and a second creator to further disorient defenses. With each guard possessing good size, wingspan, and plus-athleticism, they’d form one of the best defensive backcourts in the NBA while those offensive talents developed and meshed.

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Bradley Beal, Wizards, BBALLBREAKDOWN.com

Beal has always displayed star qualities, it’s only been refinement and, in his own words, “focus,” that have needed to be applied. In his rookie season, Beal stayed mainly outside the arc, taking 34.4 percent of his shots from three-point range, hitting 38.6 percent. The difference was that unlike Florida, Wall operated as the main facilitator and the presence of a legitimate post threat in Nene allowed Beal to focus on a specific aspect of his game—spot-up shooting. Of course, such a role is limiting, as evident by a 23 percent free throw rate for every field goal attempt and 74.8 percent of his baskets coming via assists. The Wizards failed to make the playoffs, but Beal was named First Team All-Rookie and provided a strong base going forward.

Bradley Beal, Wizards, BBALLBREAKDOWN.com

In his second season Beal saw a tradeoff in his shot distribution, exchanging efficiency for higher usage. The Wizards added another traditional big man in Marcin Gortat, further clogging driving lanes, and Beal redistributed five percent of his three-point attempts towards the less efficient 16-20 foot range.

Still, Beal found room to shine in his first playoff appearance, leading the Wizards in scoring and helping the team advance to the second round. It was interesting to watch him against the physical Bulls, adapting on the fly.

In Game 3 of the series, Mike Dunleavy scored 35 points while defended predominantly by Beal; a lesson in humility for a player with such a wide advantage in athleticism and youth. Beal responded with 18 points in Game 4, holding Dunleavy to six, apparently taking it to heart.

Bradley Beal, Wizards, BBALLBREAKDOWN

Injuries in his Beal’s third season derailed sky high expectations, costing Beal 19 games and points off his scoring average. Still, there were many indicators his star was still on the rise. A slight uptick in free throw rate and third consecutive year increasing his effective field goal percentage offset cries that he still resorted to mid-range jumpers far too often. But Beal’s real breakthrough came in the playoffs after a large paradigm shift by Wizards’ coach Randy Wittman.

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Wittman’s preferred two-big alignment of Gortat and Nene and John Wall served to hamper spacing in the lane, obstructing paths for Beal to exploit. As the initiator, Wall was always going get the primary driving options through pick-and-roll and high ball screens; it’s the ancillary penetration opportunities on ball rotations that tend to get mucked up when one of the bigs has nowhere else to go.

In the first round against the Toronto Raptors last year, Wittman deployed a lineup of Wall, Beal, Paul Pierce, Otto Porter and Gortat. Despite playing less than five minutes together during the regular season, the group immediately clicked as the Wizards most effective in the playoffs.

With an open floor, Beal exploded, averaging 23.4 points per game—including four 28-plus point performances—in 10 games after only two such performances in 63 regular season games.

Perhaps the most important development may have been Beal’s maturity and leadership during Wall’s injury-related absence in Games 2-4 of the Atlanta series.

Defensively, Beal shadowed the sharp-shooting Kyle Korver, holding the league-leader in three-point shooting to just 31.3 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep with Beal as the primary defender. It wasn’t just the effectiveness of the defense, but the attitude behind it, as conveyed in this quote given to Michael Lee of the Washington Post:

“I hate when he touches the ball, period,” Beal said. “It’s not just me. Even if he passes it, I hate when the ball is in his hands, period. Whenever he’s on the floor, we’re aware of where he is.”

Without Wall, Beal also had to take on greater playmaking responsibilities in half-court sets. At a time when they needed him most to keep their season alive, Beal elevated his game—per Lee:

Beal was the primary reason the Wizards had any chance of being close, with his relentless play on both ends of the floor serving as inspiration. Beal wasn’t just good, he was smart. He was so active on the defensive end—arms waving, legs spinning—that it was easy to forget that he is still playing on a badly sprained ankle.

This offseason the Wizards have made moves indicating they’re committed to investing more in the style of play that unlocked Beal’s potential, acquiring more shooting in the form of Alan Anderson, Jared Dudley, rookie Kelly Oubre, and Gary Neal. With Dudley and Porter able to function as hybrid forwards in small lineups, there should be more room for Beal to expand his game.

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While other members of his draft class have taken on contract extensions, Beal is seeking a larger role. After three years of development, a good rapport with the Wizards’ franchise player and a gutsy performance in last year’s playoffs, it would be foolish to overlook him again.

The pieces—and Beal’s shots—are falling into place. The next time Beal gets lost in the shuffle, it’ll be by a scrambling defense too late to stop him.

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Jeff Feyerer

Jeff is a former basketball coach, sports marketing professional and writer, currently working as school financial administrator in Chicago. In addition to work for BBALLBREAKDOWN, he writes for Nylon Calculus, plays with spreadsheets, tries to defend college basketball and looks forward to the Fred Hoiberg era. Follow his musings on Twitter at @jfey5.

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