The Washington Wizards currently sit at 31-29, good for 5th place in the Eastern Conference and poised to make their first playoff appearance since the two headed monster of Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler carried a Gilbert Arenas-less squad to a first round exit in 2007-08. During this six year rebuild, fans have seen every type of transaction made by Ernie Grunfeld’s front office, from panic trades of high draft picks (wait, it wasn’t a good idea to give up Ricky Rubio or Stephen Curry for a one year rental of Mike Miller and Randy Foye?), selections of failed European prospects (step on up, Oleksiy Pecherov and Jan Vesely!) to overpays of mediocre talent in an effort to start a bidding war contained entirely within the Beltway (this category covers memories like Andray Blatche’s extension, and what will become of Martell Webster’s deal by next season). But two instances where all parties alike have been in consensus agreement that the right decisions were made were the 2010 and 2012 drafts, when Grunfeld smartly plucked John Wall and Bradley Beal and thus formed the backcourt of the future that would lift the Wizards out of oblivion and back into legitimate playoff contention.
The plan has paid off, as Washington is essentially locked in to earning a top-8 seed and executives around the league are buzzing about the potential of Wall and Beal to form the next great pairing in the league. Wall, in his 4th year has elevated his game to stardom, earning his first All-Star nod and hearing his name mentioned early in any conversation regarding the best young point guards in the league. As for Beal, he has clearly showed flashes of what can be but hasn’t put that together consistently enough to mandate his role as top scoring option. His noticeable struggles have reached the point that at times, the Wizards have won games despite him rather than because of him. So what exactly has his progression (or lack thereof) been like in Year 2? What are the reasons behind the slow development and where can the team expect him to go moving forward? No, the outlook isn’t nearly as bleak as what these last few sentences may indicate them to be. And yes, the chances are exceedingly likely that this year has been nothing more than a sophomore slump. But if Washington is to compete in Round 1 and not just be a warm up punching bag like several years past, Beal has to make the good games vastly outnumber the bad ones. As of now, that’s not the way this script is headed.
For the record, I don’t have legitimate concerns about Bradley Beal’s future in the NBA or his ability to become a star in the league. Especially given the dearth in shooting guards (which will be exacerbated by the retirement of Kobe Bryant, the decline of Dwyane Wade, and the metaphorical disappearance of Joe Johnson), there will always be a market of interest for a strong, athletic guard with a picture perfect jump shot. But in the present day, I am concerned with Beal’s minimal advancement because much of that has to do with his choices on the court, rather than the level of his ability. To compound matters, it seems like he has received free reign from the coaching staff to proceed as he pleases, statistical evidence be damned.
Before I host a personal and non-humorous ‘Comedy Central Presents: Roast of Bradley Beal’, let’s start off with the positives from this season, as there have definitely been some marked improvements. Beal is nailing the 3-pointer at over a 41% clip on 4.5 attempts per game, combining with Trevor Ariza and Webster to form one of the deadliest shooting trios in the league. He has upped his assists by over 1 per game while lowering his pretty minimal turnover percentage. And he’s stayed relatively healthy in comparison to the 26 games missed last year. Although he sat out 9 games in December with a stress injury in his leg, Beal is on pace to play in and start over 70 games this season and appears to have been aided by a team-imposed minutes restriction that will keep him fresh for the stretch run. Beal has also shown more confidence handling the ball and working the pick-and-roll, leading some optimists to believe he can take some playmaking duties off the heavily burdened hands of Wall. And if you’re feeling especially good about Beal’s play this year you can take one more observation to the bank. His per game numbers are up in points, assists, steals, FG%, FT%, and 3PT%. Some of those upticks are clearly a result of playing more and using up an increased percentage of possessions while on the court but hey, who’s counting!
Now comes the parts written in red ink, yes halfway through the column. Beal has regressed or made little progress in nearly every advanced or pro-rated statistic and the Wizards offense has not functioned effectively when he is asked to run the show at the start of the 2nd and 4th quarters. As previously mentioned, although he is shooting better from the field and from the free throw line than his rookie season, Beal has seen a dip in his True Shooting % and Effective FG %, largely due to an extremely irritating desire to settle for contested mid-range jumpers. Over 39% of Beal’s field goal attempts are long two’s, (defined as anything between 16 feet and the 3 point line) up from a share of 32% last season. To compound matters, he is actually shooting worse from that range as well, connecting on just 36% of those attempts. And despite the increased accuracy from beyond the arc, Beal hasn’t taken advantage by making that a more featured part of his game, with 29% of his attempts coming from downtown, a drop from the 34% share that 3-pointers had in Year 1. Beal sports a paltry 14.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which as defined by the metric constitutes a below average NBA player. His .069 Win Shares/48 minutes is a microscopic number that is less than half the total sported by Wall. He produces just 102 points per 100 possessions when on the court while the Wizards as a team give up 107 points per 100 possessions under those same circumstances. A large part of that has to do with Randy Wittman’s substitution patterns leaving Beal as the only capable player leading a bench mob that has consistently been one of the worst in the NBA. The inclusion of Andre Miller and the re-emergence of Al Harrington should help those figures somewhat.
Aside from the inefficiency in Beal’s shot charts, his secondary problem comes from the lack of a method to rack up points on nights when his shot isn’t falling. He averages just 2.3 free throw attempts per game and often shows signs of tentativeness when attacking the basket. I wonder how much has to do with a damaged psyche after absorbing several hard fouls last year, including one that caused a wrist injury that ended up disrupting his USA Basketball Select Team camp last summer. Beal is shooting a pretty respectable 63% at the rim and has the athleticism to jump over people or finesse his way around them but has shown the inclination that he’d much rather pull up for a jumper than take it into the teeth of the defense. Several hours/days/weeks spent watching tapes of James Harden would do wonders for Beal’s basketball acumen and skillful flopping in clear sight of the referee. Unfortunately, one thing he seems to have already picked up from Harden is an optional participation approach to defense. Beal has the physical tools to become a legitimate perimeter stopper but often lets quicker guys get past him without disruption and bigger guys have their way with him in the post.
After a promising preseason, where he averaged over 22 points per game on nearly 55% shooting, Beal has sputtered through 2/3rds of the games that count thus far. But look – all is not lost, whether for this season or any in the future. I still fully expect him to be an All-Star caliber player in the coming years and that partnership with Wall will still become one of the best in the NBA. There are certain adjustments that he’ll have to make to his game to reach that level but there’s little to doubt about his natural gifts. Similarly to Wall, who also didn’t see much improvement between his rookie and sophomore year, Beal will have to dedicate himself to summers of ensuring the on-court results match the predictions on paper. He’s still a baby by all accounts in the league, having not even reached the legal drinking age and has tremendous room to grow. It’s possible that without someone in his ear imploring him to take quick mid-range jumpers, he might not take as many, you know…quick mid-range jumpers.
As for this season, the remaining 22 games and whatever the playoffs hold will be a learning experience for Beal and the others alike. And you never know – for a guy who is not afraid to take and make big shots, the postseason might be the exact platform for him to shine and prove to everyone, and maybe even himself, that he has what’s required for the next level.