The Wizards shooting guard has finally turned the corner. Here’s how.
Remember when the Wizards were chronic underachievers because John Wall and Bradley Beal couldn’t get along? Neither do I, because that narrative wasn’t true. While Washington’s star-studded backcourt probably suffered from a lack of chemistry, they also suffered from Beal not actually being that good.
To be sure, the 23-year-old was a solid NBA guard, but the comparisons to Ray Allen made many people, including the Wizards front office, think he was Ray Allen. To date, Beal has posted sub-star career numbers of 17.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. On defense, he’s never saved more points than he’s leaked, per NBA Math. Basketball-Reference’s similarity score compared Beal’s first four seasons to those of Marcus Thornton and Courtney Lee, not exactly marquee names.
So when Washington offered a 5 year, $127 million deal to Beal last summer, it wasn’t even because he was good on paper. If by “paper,” we mean the stat sheet, Beal was pretty average. GM Ernie Grunfeld shelled out max dollars because Beal was good in theory: A strong athlete with good size, an exquisite shooting stroke, and a tireless work ethic.
Beal has repaid Grunfeld already. He’s averaging 22.4 points and 3.7 assists per game, both career highs, while posting a blistering .593 true shooting percentage. Meanwhile, his advanced stats – things like box plus-minus, PER, and win shares – are currently shattering his career numbers. More importantly, Washington is 31-21 and in third place in the East. Beal and the Wiz are suddenly good on paper, not to mention in real life. Here are three key changes:
We’re now at the point when “settling for threes” is something players need to do more often. Beal is a fantastic shooter. Of the 76 players who attempted more than one pull-up three per game last season, Beal shot the 12th best percentage. In catch and shoot opportunities, meanwhile, he canned a reliable 39.4% of his tries, which was actually worse than in previous years.
It’s a mystery, then, why only about 30% of Beal’s field goal attempts were three-pointers before this season. For reference, 43.3% of Klay Thompson’s career shot attempts have come from beyond the arc. This year, Beal has reached Thompson territory, launching 7.2 threes per game and shooting the lights out.
And thankfully, more threes have meant fewer long twos. You can tell Beal grew up on MJ, Kobe, and Allen Iverson. Before this season, the dude absolutely abused the mid-range jump shot. In 2013-14, for instance, he took a whopping 36.1% of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point arc. The problem? Beal isn’t MJ – he’s a career 37.9% shooter from that distance. This year, Beal is taking fewer mid-range jumpers than ever before, partially because he’s realized the advantage of taking one step back in order to get one extra point.
I mean that last sentence literally. Just look at this:
In the past, Beal would’ve hoisted a contested 19-footer over Nene. Instead, he steps back into space, maintains his balance, and puts up an in-rhythm three.
The most obvious truism in sports is that a healthy player is better than an injured one. That’s precisely why Beal’s injury history is so troubling. To date, Beal has missed a total of 85 regular season games. He’s succumbed to wrist, pelvis, and shoulder ailments, but the biggest culprit has been a nagging stress reaction in his right fibula. As recently as last season, he personally admitted that his troublesome leg may keep him on a minute restriction indefinitely.
For a wing player on the front nine of his career, any minutes restriction is a big deal. Make no mistake, Grunfeld had to pay up for Beal – he was too young and had too much potential to cut loose. But giving superstar money to a player incapable of logging superstar minutes must have been worrisome for Wizards fans. Fortunately for them, Beal has stayed relatively healthy this season, missing only four games (the Wiz are 1-3 in those matchups). More importantly, Beal has played over 35 minutes in 30 of his 48 appearances.
Beal’s health is critical to Washington’s success. With the departures of Garrett Temple and Nene this past summer, the Wizards’ already so-so depth has all but evaporated. This issue is one reason why Washington’s +7.3 net rating when Beal is on the court (the best of anyone on the team) plummets to -6.9 when he sits.
And those numbers are down to more than just Beal playing alongside Wall. When Wall runs the offense alone, the team’s net rating is a putrid -7.4, with significant regression on both ends of the court. On offense, Beal’s elite shooting ability helps space the floor for Wall’s hyperspeed drive-and-kick game. But Beal also takes some of the scoring load off Wall’s shoulders, which allows the point guard to stay engaged on defense.
Simply put, the Wizards need Beal on the court. He’s finally there.
Without the elite burst of Wall or the ballhandling chops of a Kyrie Irving or Steph Curry, Beal is not a natural slasher. He’s always been a decent finisher, but early in his career he got to the rim far too infrequently. Still, the guy is a crafty player, and while he may not be the most explosive athlete, he’s a very smooth one. Like, very smooth:
These kinds of advanced dribble moves are evidence that Beal has more to his game than the three-pointer and the two-dribble pull-up. He’s attempting more layups than ever before and has already shot a career-high number of free throws. Crucially, he’s finally starting to grasp the pick-and-roll. Beal ranks in the league’s 85th percentile as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. Last season, he was all the way down in the 60th percentile.
And Beal isn’t just scoring. He’s gotten a lot of flak over the years for being a reluctant passer, but his assist numbers are up and his turnover numbers have stayed low. Beal isn’t doing anything spectacular, but he’s using picks to probe the lane, and then making the simple read:
Ironically, it’s his known proclivity to shoot jumpers that can lure players out of passing lanes and creates space for rolling bigs:
Those kinds of passes may be simple, but they’re also useful. If Beal is going to attract extra defenders, he needs to be able to find the next man in the passing cycle. He’s doing the little things – the smart things – well, and that matters for a player with so much natural ability.
Beal isn’t a superstar, at least not yet. His defense, rebounding, and playmaking must continue to improve. Yet after a stagnant first four years, he’s now finally what many people thought he already was: Good. If John Wall is doing his best Batman impression in the nation’s capital, Bradley Beal is becoming one hell of a Robin.
Statistics sourced from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise indicated.
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