It's really quite something watching Bradley Beal develop before our eyes the past two years. He's gone from looking skittish as a rookie without John Wall to initiating the fourth quarter offense in tight playoff games in the span of two years. And he did so almost on the fly during the regular season since he missed so much time in the offseason nursing a stress injury.
With hopefully a healthy offseason to work with, there's no telling how good he can be.
What were our preseason expectations for Bradley Beal?
Beal's rookie year could be summed up as one giant tease. He played just 25 games with John Wall, and after lighting it up in February, injured his ankle, which forced him to hobble his way through March. He admittedly pushed himself through this injury, contributing to a stress injury in his right fibula, effectively ending his season. A six-week timetable for recovery turned into three months, when he was finally cleared to go full-contact in workouts.
All of this sidelined him from Team USA minicamp in July as well as Summer League, two golden opportunities for him to develop a credible floor game in order to take some ball handling duties away from John Wall. The feeling heading into the season was that we'd see more two point-guard lineups with John Wall and Eric Maynor, and with Trevor Ariza supplanting Martell Webster in the starting lineup, Beal would have to really pick and choose when to attack off the dribble.
But then the preseason happened, and all of those tempered expectations became a thing of the past. He regularly got himself into the lane with an array of head-fakes and hesitation dribbles. He rejected screens with confidence, waited for his roll man to get open and delivered pocket passes on time and on target. Beal had seemingly transformed overnight and there was real optimism in him emerging as a true secondary ball handler.
How did his performance square with these expectations?
The biggest thing for Bradley this season was branching out from Wall's shadow and emerging as a legitimate threat off the dribble. But all of that off-the-dribble trickery he flaunted in the preseason never showed up to start the season, as he shot a ghastly 33 percent from the field on nearly 18 attempts per game. To make matters worse, he became so concerned with shooting his way out of his slump that he almost always pulled up just inside the three-point line as he came off pick and rolls.
Then, he was diagnosed once again with a stress injury to his right fibula which kept him out of commission for nine games. In a way, it served as a blessing in disguise, as it forced Randy Wittman to change his rotation to play him fewer minutes. Beal had led the league in minutes played and distance traveled per game up until his injury, and it was quite evident in his lackluster play down the stretch of games.
It also forced the coach's hand into finally playing Beal with the second unit to get him easier touches as the primary ball handler. Yes, it came at the expense of what he does best -- spot up shooting -- but the experiment was worth it by the time the playoffs rolled around.
|Play type||% Time||FG%||3FG%||TO%|
|P&R Ball Handler||25.5%||40.4%||37.5%||13%|
|Play type||% Time||FG%||3FG%||TO%|
|P&R Ball Handler||16.5%||31.2%||14.3%||18.7%|
Data Courtesy of Synergy Sports
His efficiency off screens and as a spot-up shooter has remained excellent throughout his two years, but it's his body of work as a pick and roll ball handler that speak to his growth. He cut down his turnovers considerably despite ramping up his ball handling duties, but still, the disparity in his hand-off numbers from year one to year two really tarnished his shooting numbers.
And that hurt Beal, no question. He's been lauded as a great shooter through many media-types, and there's plenty of evidence to support their claims. He's terrific in catch-and-shoot situations, he's lethal in transition, and can step into threes off the dribble when called on. But part of being a great shooter is good shot selection. Beal's true shooting percentage -- which accounts for two's, three's, and free-throws -- is at a rudimentary 51 percent for his career and it's actually decreased from his rookie season. To put it into perspective, Klay Thompson, who takes a good amount of midrange jumpers himself, is at 55 percent.
Defensively, he's just not there quite yet. He's engaged and is a willing defender when placed in a one-on-one situation, but ironically runs into a lot of trouble against good shooters. He often makes perilous decisions as he chases his mark, opting to undercut the route by going over the screen and allowing his man to flare out for an open look.
These type of decisions rarely pay off, and Beal will often get caught up in screens that hamper him from ever recovering in time to contest.
The good news is he hasn't turned 21 yet. Chasing shooters all over the floor and learning to avoid running smack into screen-setters can only be done through trial and error. Beal will get there eventually.
How did he step up (or down) during the playoffs?
There's not much more you could ask from a 20-year-old going through his first playoff experience. He answered every challenge presented to him, and for a good portion of this past month, looked like the best player on this roster. He went up against two elite wing defenders in Jimmy Butler and Paul George and two of the top finalists in defensive player of the year voting this season in Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert. His numbers were up across the board, and he made life extremely difficult for Lance Stephenson in the second round. He slid his feet masterfully in transition, cutting off Stephenson's drives to the rim, and played excellent ball denial to force the Pacers into their second and third actions.
What does he need to improve on for next season?
Beal has to get to the free throw line. Of the 44 guards in this league to play at least 30 minutes per game, Bradley finished No. 33 in free throw attempts this season. Some of this will be through sheer natural progression, and as he continues to handle the rock and find ways to exploit the defense, he will draw fouls.
He's shown that he can be much more than a jump shooter. He wants to expand his game, and the Wizards are hoping that it will add another layer to their offense, but it's ultimately up to him to pass on some of those open looks from midrange in order to get in the lane and create.
Final Grade: B
The regular season may not have gone the way he hoped, but all of those reps as the ball handler paid off once the playoffs rolled around and that's ultimately why you can label 2014 as a success. If it weren't for him constantly turning the corner on those pick and rolls only to fire up a long two or him turning the ball over as he gets trapped by two defenders, there's no way he could do what he did against the Bulls and Pacers.
For months, we've been saying the Achilles heel for these two young guards is a defense that hangs their big men in the lane, inviting them into midrange jumpers. Beal finally flipped the script, using the open space in front of him as a vehicle for deploying a hesitation dribble or head fake in order to get into the lane.
Now, it's a matter of doing this for a full 82 games. With a full offseason to train, he should be able to take the next step.