The reigning consensus seems to be that Bradley Beal has struggled this year.
In fact, our own Michael Sykes recently touched on this in detail and a handful of commenters on Saturday's recap said essentially the same: Beal should be performing at a much higher level this year.
They have a point.
Beal has struggled to get to the free throw line and has posted career lows in both per minute scoring and Player Efficiency Rating this year. For a guy who was hailed as the second coming by the national media following his breakout performance against the Chicago Bulls in last year's playoffs, this cannot be seen as anything other than a disappointment.
However, statistics require context and that is the key to understanding Beal's season thus far. While Beal hasn't been dominant, he also hasn't been bad - and all things considered, he's actually been rather valuable.
For one thing, Beal was far from dominant last year. He posted a below league average PER (14.2), a paltry true shooting percentage (50.2, despite constant open three pointers due to the magic that is John Wall) and didn't score at a particularly high clip (17.1 points in 34 minutes per game). In terms of raw statistics, Beal had more in common with Danny Green than James Harden last year. Beal, who hit some great jumpers in last year's playoffs, is so young and level headed that it's almost inconceivable that he won't eventually develop into a quasi-All Star. However, Beal's still at least a year away from becoming the kind of dominant two guard the media has hyped him up to be.
Beal's numbers this year have taken a hit for a few simple reasons. First and foremost, replacing Trevor Ariza with Paul Pierce has put Beal in a situation in which fewer plays are being run for him. Last year's offensive hierarchy was clear: John Wall handles the rock and tries to get an open three for a wing or a layup for Gortat, Beal serving as a secondary option and defense scrambler due to his ability to run around screens, with Nene setting screens and cutting off the ball for garbage buckets and fifteen footers. Now, with Pierce in Washington red white and blue, there are more guys on the team who handle the ball and can be used in half court offensive sets. Beal's usage rate has fallen from 24.3% to 23.3% this year. Last year Ariza, despite his prominent role on the team, used only 17.8% of Washington's possessions, while Pierce is using closer to 22% this year. Those extra possessions have to come from somewhere and Beal does a lot of the same things as Pierce in the half court as far as his ability to come off of screens and spot up behind the arc.
Beal also had the misfortune of coming back at a time when the team was having trouble scoring efficiently. Washington put up 87 points against Cleveland and 83 against New Orleans. Beal is at his best when running the floor and using his ability to come off screens to get open shots in the half court. When no one on the Wizards can get anything going, opposing defenses are able to avoid having to repeatedly scramble to make up for breakdowns, the type of situations that make life infinitely harder for a scorer like Beal who needs someone else to create a diversion in order for him to get an open shot.
The only true clunker of a game for Beal this season was against the Hawks on November 25. Five turnovers and four of 14 shooting sucks. That said, Beal's Achilles heel, as is the case with most players who make their living shooting jumpers, is long, tall perimeter players who can chase him around screens and contest his shots. Atlanta has three guys who fit that mould perfectly in Thabo Sefolosha, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll, so in light of that context, Beal's bad game is a little more understandable.
In spite of all this, Beal is still shooting better than ever from the floor while continuing to make three pointers at better than a 40% clip and playing competent defense. This is in spite of coming off the bench for four games, keeping him away from Wall and the open three pointers his penetration and passing create. Even if he fails to break out, Beal would be one of the better shooting guards in the NBA and a valuable role player if he simply continues to play like he has so far this season.
If you want to see what it looks like when a player struggles, watch a few clips of Otto Porter from last year. Beal's play, while far from dominant, has been more unremarkable than that of someone who doesn't know what to do with himself on the court. Expect him to become more assertive as the season progresses and he becomes more familiar with playing next to Pierce.
Whether or not Beal breaks out and becomes one of the best shooting guards in the league is up for debate. He's certainly not bad, though, and if he's struggling, it's only in relation to the astronomical expectations hoisted upon him before the season started.