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New #SoWizards podcast episode and a look at the three-point shooting of Bradley Beal

Washington Wizards v Memphis Grizzlies
Wizards guard Bradley Beal
Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

In the latest episode of the #SoWizards podcast, co-host Ron Oakes-Cunningham and shared our early-offseason thoughts and musings, which included:

  • Whether Bradley Beal should take less than the maximum salary to stay with the Wizards
  • Which of the current Wizards players could compete effectively at playoffs intensity
  • The relative goodness of Desmond Bane
  • Who should be MVP this season, and
  • Beal’s now-four-season-long drop in three-point shooting.

To expand a bit on Beal’s three-point shooting, the decline is significant and it’s real. If there’s a date to pinpoint for when it started, my best guess is when John Wall missed half of the 2017-18 season. While Beal still shot a respectably above-average 37.5% that season, it was the worst mark of his career to that point.

Beal entered the NBA as a superb long-distance shooter. He hit 38.6% as a rookie on 236 attempts (research pegs 240 three-point attempts as a number sufficient to know a player’s true three-point shooting proficiency), and followed that up with consecutive 40%+ shooting seasons.

In his first six season, he shot 39.3% on 2,191 attempts. League average during that span was about 36%. That’s damn fine shooting, and on decent volume — 8.0 per 100 team possessions (peaking at 10.1 in 2016-17).

And then, his shooting accuracy dropped.

  • 2018-19 — 35.1% on 9.3 three-point attempts per 100 team possessions
  • 2019-20 — 35.3% on 11.0 attempts per 100
  • 2020-21 — 34.9% on 8.0 attempts per 100
  • 2020-22 — 30.0% on 7.2 attempts per 100

Over the past four seasons, he’s been a below average shooter — 34.5% from long range. Even if we throw out this season as an aberration, he’s still basically just average: 35.1%.

What gives?

One possibility is that he misses Wall’s ability to break the paint and pass to teammates for open looks. This makes some sense: from 2012-13 to 2017-18, Beal’s first six seasons, Beal was on the receiving end of 720 assists from Wall. Only Marcin Gortat got more (735).

The factor that jumps out in the numbers may be related: Beal’s three-point shot diet has changed. Through his first 406 games (six seasons), he attempted 528 pull-up threes. That represents about 27% of his attempts. He shot a respectable 34.5% on pull-up threes, though in retrospect, 2017-18 was a warning.

That season, Beal shot just 30.0% on 200 pull-up threes. That represented 38% of his three-point attempts that season. It was the most pull-up attempts of his career (both in total numbers and as a share of his three-point attempts), and the worst he’d shot on that shot variety in his career.

For reasons known only to Beal and the Wizards, he started taking even more pull-up threes. Here’s the pull-up three share of his overall three-point attempts the past four seasons:

  • 2018-19 — 40% (a new career high)
  • 2019-20 — 47% (a new career high)
  • 2020-21 — 46%
  • 2021-22 — 48% (a new career high)

His accuracy bounced back from 30.0% to 34.4% from 2017-18 to 2018-19, but fell to 32.9% in 2019-20, to 30.8% in 2020-21 and 31.0% this season. This season was the first time his pull-up three-point percentage was better than his catch-and-shoot accuracy.

Unfortunately, cutting back on pull-up threes probably won’t fix whatever’s wrong. That’s because the drop-off in his catch-and-shoot accuracy is even bigger.

Leaving out his rookie year (because NBA tracking data starts in his second season), Beal shot 40.9% on catch-and-shoot threes from 2013-14 to 2017-18. That’s five seasons and 1,663 attempts.

Over the past four seasons: 35.9% on 922 catch-and-shoot attempts. Even dropping last season’s shockingly bad 29.1% shooting, he’s still shot shot just 36.8% on catch-and-shoot threes. His catch-and-shoot accuracy has been worse in each of the past four seasons than it was in any of the previous five.

It’s difficult to identify exactly what’s going wrong, but it’s clear in the data that his three-point proficiency has dipped, even as his dribble-drive skills and passing has improved. The concern: he’ll be 29 next season, and 6-3 guards who make a living attacking the basket typically don’t age well.

If Beal’s going to be an effective player as he moves past 30, he’ll likely need to be a high-quality three-point shooter. How he’s shot the ball the past four seasons won’t do the job when his quickness inevitably ebbs.