Bradley Beal had an inkling that he was about to be demoted. The Wizards are without a win. He was struggling to make a shot. And Jordan Crawford, fully recovered from a left ankle injury, had been slightly more productive in fewer minutes.
Still, understanding the frailty of confidence in the NBA – especially with young players still searching for an identity – Coach Randy Wittman wanted to delicately handle the benching of his promising rookie. When the team returned to Washington from a loss in Dallas, Wittman gave Beal a warning with an explanation.
“He told me straight up. He said he was going to make changes,” Beal said of Wittman. “He was like, ‘I don’t know who it’s going to be.’ He said, ‘If I do chose to bring you off the bench, don’t take it personal. Don’t feel as though I’m punishing you.’ ”
Beal, the third overall pick of the draft, accepted the change without getting down, coming off the bench on Saturday to score six points in an eight-minute burst in the first half of the Wizards’ 83-76 loss to the Utah Jazz.
“That was his change,” Beal said of Wittman. “It was just unfortunate we came out with a loss.”
Wittman plans to stick with Crawford at starting shooting guard as the Wizards prepare to host the Indiana Pacers on Monday at Verizon Center. Crawford has led the team in scoring and assists in each of the past two games, averaging 20.5 points and 7.5 assists.
“Whatever coach asks,” Crawford said. “If he asks me to handle the ball, handle the ball. If he asks me to score, score. Simple as that.”
Crawford has been the Wizards’ most efficient player through the first seven games, leading the team in scoring (12.4), while adding four assists and 3.5 rebounds. His 16.9 player efficiency rating is the highest among players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Emeka Okafor (16.1) and Trevor Ariza (14.2) are second and third, respectively. Beal has the second-lowest rating, just above Jan Vesely, at 10.2.
“It’s about the team, it’s not about individuals,” Wittman said. “As a coach, you’re trying different things, to try to find some semblance of balance. We don’t have any balance right now. In a perfect world, I’d like eight or nine guys and play them every night. They know when they’re coming in, who’s starting, who’s coming off the bench. I’m sometimes right now, not knowing who’s going to play tonight. Who’s up, who’s down. We just don’t have the consistency really of anybody.”
Beal is averaging 10.9 points on just 33.3 percent shooting and has been up and down, playing with a defensive-minded starting unit with few offensive options to take any pressure off of him. A Western Conference scout recently said the book on Beal is simply to crowd him, and Beal had fallen into the trap of settling for long jumpers rather than attacking the basket for layups, tip-ins or free throws.
In losses to Charlotte and Dallas, Beal combined to shoot 4 of 25 from the field and 3 for 12 from three-point range. Beal took a different approach in the first half against Utah, making his first three shots by getting closer to the rim. He also had a two-hand dunk. He shot better than 45 percent in a game for just the third time this season, finishing 3 for 6 from the field.
“That’s what Coach Witt told me, that I actually took his advice on,” Beal said. “When you feel as though you cant get a rhythm, start inside first then work out. I saw they were giving me opportunities near the basket and I was just being aggressive and strong.”
Without the burden of being the primary offensive weapon, Beal might be able to ease himself into a better rhythm and develop more confidence as a reserve. Until the Wizards find a rotation that actually works – and win a game or two – Wittman could easily make more changes to his lineups along the way.
“It was fine with me,” Beal said of coming off the bench. “It didn’t faze me either way – as long as I get to play; as long as we try to get the win. I’ve been the same person I’ve been. It’s not going to affect me either way.”