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Things are pointing up for Bradley Beal after breakout 2016-17 season

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Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

This is the latest in our series of player evaluations for each Wizard from the 2016-17 season. In our most recent installment, we reviewed Sheldon Mac.

Season in Review by Lyndie Wood

The Wizards’ decision to give Bradley Beal a max contract last summer was not without controversy. The then-22-year-old shooting guard had averaged only 62 games per season. His most troubling injury was a recurring stress reaction in his right fibula.

On top of that, Beal just hadn’t been a great player. There were flashes, for sure. Games where he put the team on his back, and some growth as a secondary playmaker. In theory, Beal was the perfect backcourt compliment to John Wall, a knockdown shooter to pair with a guy who excelled at collapsing the defense. But Beal’s scoring in the early years of his career was notably inefficient, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who reliably filled up the rest of the box score, either.

It was a risk, but it was a risk the Wizards needed to take. Operating under the cap for the first time in years, they needed Beal to patiently sit back and wait while they chased Al Horford and other free agents, rather than signing an offer sheet with another team and forcing the Wizards’ hand early in free agency. He was also homegrown talent, and keeping such players is important to owner Ted Leonsis.

After Beal got his max contract, Wall publicly called him out, telling him to improve his game.

Beal delivered. His efficiency skyrocketed despite posting the highest usage percentage of his career. He and Wall led the Wizards in scoring with an identical 23.1 points per game (Beal has the edge in points per 100 possessions, with 32.7 to Wall’s 31.4). And he showed creativity and comfort as a pick and roll ball handler, something the Wizards desperately needed with their lack of guard depth.

One of Beal’s more baffling traits in the first four years of his career was his propensity to take long twos. He was a three-point sniper who didn’t actually take all that many threes. Blame who you want for that (Randy Wittman probably deserves some, along with Beal himself), but this past year it all changed. Compare his shot charts from 2015-16 and 2016-17 via StatMuse:

beal shot charts from statmuse.com

Beal feasted behind the arc and in the paint. The mid-range shots he did take he made at a high rate. Gone were the off-the-dribble, off-balance 17-footers. Instead we saw things like this:

And this:

And to the relief of Wizards’ fans everywhere, Beal had his healthiest season to date. He played 77 games, the most in his NBA career. Despite shouldering a heavy workload (a career high 34.9 minutes per game) none of the few games he did miss were due to stress reactions in his fibula, which sidelined him in each of his first four seasons.

It’s hard to say for sure how much past injuries have slowed Beal’s development. But at just 24 years old Beal isn’t yet in his prime, and it’s exciting to imagine what he’ll add to his game with a few more healthy years.

One of the highlights of Beal’s season was the Wizards thrilling five-point overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Beal led the team with 41 points (with 68 percent effective field goal percentage) to go along with eight assists and no turnovers.

For the Wizards to claw their way to the top of a crumbling Eastern Conference, we’ll need to continue to see this Bradley Beal going forward.

Behind the Numbers by Kevin Broom

The Wizards awarded Beal a maximum contract on faith. Through four seasons, Beal got hurt, was okay but nothing special when healthy, and wasn’t showing many signs of improvement. His Player Production Average (PPA) was a metronome of average: 92, 96, 99, 98. In PPA, average is 100 and higher is better.

In 2016-17, Beal stayed healthy, had the best season of his career, and rated as the league’s most productive shooting guard, edging out Klay Thompson in PPA 152-150. What he did this season was offer a sustained look at what the team hoped they were getting when they drafted him out of Florida.

What drove the spike in production is both encouraging and a possible warning sign -- he shot the ball better. In every statistical category, his production remained at career norms, except for shooting. It could be that he figured things out, got healthy and realized his potential. It could also be that he -- like teammate Otto Porter -- had an aberrant year shooting the ball and may return to something closer to previous career norms.

My prediction is that he (and Porter) will split the difference a bit — they may not shoot as well as they did last season, but they’ll still be elite shooters. Beal also has room to get a lot better by improving his all-around floor game, especially his defense. I’m not sure where Beal got the reputation of being a good defender, but it’s undeserved. He rates below average in the defense part of PPA and in on/off metrics.

His overall production in the playoffs was down from the regular season, but it’s a small sample size and he’s performed well in the postseason in previous years. Most of that drop-off was shooting an abnormally low percentage from three-point range, which can happen over a short stretch.

His historical comparisons (as generated by my statistical doppelganger machine) are cause for optimism because they include a heavy dose of Ray Allen. Others making the “most similar seasons” list include Glen Rice, Michael Redd, Mitch Richmond, Gilbert Arenas, Stephen Curry (before he went supernova), and Reggie Miller. This is good.

Basketball-Reference has 81 players identified as shooting guards with at least 500 minutes this season. Here’s where Beal ranks in key stat categories (per 100 team possessions):

  • MPG: 5
  • Offensive rating (individual points produced per 100 possessions): 5
  • Usage: 8
  • eFG: 5
  • 2FG%: 4
  • 3FG%: 12
  • FT%: 34
  • REB: 68
  • AST: 23
  • STL: 42
  • BLK: 47
  • TOV: 59
  • PF: 23
  • PTS: 4
  • PPA: 1

And, here’s a statistical “EKG” of Beal’s performance this season. The orange line is his season average PPA after each game. The blue line is his rolling 10-game average PPA. Reminder: in PPA, average is 100 and higher is better.

Final Thoughts by Jake Whitacre

It’s so hard in today’s NBA to find players who can thrive on the ball and off the ball. It takes a rare mix of skills that will always be in high demand on any team, but especially in Washington.

Bradley Beal opens up so many opportunities for the Wizards because he can do so much. His spacing allows John Wall more freedom to attack the paint and either finish or kick out depending on the defensive scheme. And when Wall takes a breather, Beal can keep defenses on their toes with his ability to attack or pull up on a dime. The team’s four-most common lineups that featured Beal and didn’t have Wall posted positive plus/minus numbers, thanks largely to Beal.

While he may not be as valuable as Wall to the Wizards, his ability to excel at a position that lacks star talent and shoulder the load whether Wall is on the floor or off the floor makes him an indispensable part of the Wizards’ future.