Little more than a year ago, Bradley Beal was contemplating whether he should leave for the NBA or stay at Florida and take another shot at winning a national title as a sophomore. He counseled with his family and Florida Coach Billy Donovan, weighed the pros and cons, then decided that he was ready for the next level – at age 18.
“I can still remember all my conversations with Coach Donovan,” Beal said, recently, shaking his head. “This year went really fast, probably the fastest year of basketball I’ve ever played. It’s definitely been a fun year.”
In his first season in the NBA, the now 19-year-old Beal proved to be a worthy choice as the third overall pick with the Wizards. And on Wednesday, the league recognized his performance as Beal finished third in voting for rookie of the year behind Portland’s Damian Lillard and New Orleans big man and last June’s No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis.
Lillard received all 121 first-place votes (605 points) and became fourth player to win the award unanimously – joining Ralph Sampson, David Robinson and Blake Griffin – after leading all rookies in scoring (19.0 points) and assists (6.5). Lillard also led all NBA players in total minutes. Beal received 14 second-place votes and 52 third-place votes to finish with 94 points.
Beal finished with the 10th highest scoring average for a rookie in Wizards/Bullets franchise history among players to appear in at least 50 games, just above Wes Unseld, at 13.9 points per game. He also set a rookie franchise record with 91 made three-pointers.
“You never know what you’re going to get, or how quickly things will come to a 19 year old, who has played one year of college,” Coach Randy Wittman said recently. “But he did show a great sense of adjusting quickly to what was happening around him, through everything. The thing that was impressive was, I saw, each time he got another second time around with an individual or a team, he learned and he improved and he got smarter with what he had to do.”
Though his body may not have been prepared for the rigors of an 82-game season – he missed 26 games because of ailments to his lower back, right wrist and left ankle and right leg – Beal certainly displayed the talent and attitude to succeed on the floor. He increased his scoring average in each of his first five months, won Eastern Conference rookie of the month twice, and established himself as a solid backcourt complement to 2010 No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
Beal struggled with his jumper and his confidence in his first few weeks of the regular season. With Wall and Nene both sidelined early, Beal attracted an abundance of attention from opposing defenses whenever he touched the ball. But he stayed in the gym, worked on his flaws and eventually adjusted.
“It was everything I thought it would be and a little bit more,” Beal said of the NBA. “I know there would be times when I would struggle. Guys are a lot stronger, faster – and these guys are good. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize. You may never have heard of anybody, but they can play. They’re not here for no reason.”
Before the Wizards shut him down with a stress injury in his right fibula, Beal had scored a career-high 29 points against New York, nailed a game-winning one-handed runner against Oklahoma City and a double-overtime-forcing three-pointer against Brooklyn and had six three-pointer games.
When Wall finally debuted on Jan. 12, Beal had already established himself as a reliable scoring option. With Wall, Beal became lethal, as he shot nearly 47 percent from beyond the three-point line.
Wall finished second in rookie of the year voting in 2011 to Griffin but was impressed with how Beal continued to improve as the season progressed.
“He did great. He has the killer instinct,” Wall said. “I think he just didn’t have it right away. He didn’t want to come in stepping on anybody’s toes so he kind of played the back seat. It was great see him get to the level he can be at, starting to play at a high level before I came back. When I came it just made it a lot easier for him. He just kept going and going. He just got set back by some injuries.”
The Wizards went 7-19 without Beal, but he played hurt for much of the season as he dealt with problems to both ankles. He also played a few more games with an injured wrist. Beal admitted that there isn’t much that can prepare you for an NBA season.
“It’s 82 games. It’s like 2 1/2 college seasons,” Beal said. “It wasn’t too bad. The speed of the game, the physicality of the game really didn’t bother me too much. I definitely had hard falls, but that’s just me being me I guess. It’s just something I have to adjust too and definitely get stronger. I’m definitely still growing as a kid – I mean as a man. I definitely have a lot of room to improve in my game and body wise.”
Beal earned the respect of his teammates and went the entire season without getting hazed. “I have good vets. No popcorn in the car, no pink backpacks, nothing,” he said.
“It’s probably because he’s so mature,” A.J.Price explained. “You kind of forget that he’s a rookie, by the way he plays and carries himself. I think skies the limit for him. He came 19, I can’t even imagine playing in the NBA at 19. He did a great. He’s so mature, so ahead of his years. He’s also a leader. Got better as the season went along. In my opinion, he was probably the best rookie.”
The biggest adjustment that Beal had to make was finding a way to occupy time. He mostly drew, watched movies, listened to music and hug out with his older brothers, Brandon and Bruce.
“In college you have school, homework, tests, studying. You had a busy schedule, you had a planned out schedule. Now it’s like you have practice and you’re done,” Beal said. “You have to find something to do; you have to find a hobby. That’s probably the biggest thing which is why I’m glad I have my brothers with me cause if I was by myself I don’t know what I would do.. I’d probably go crazy. It’s definitely a big transition, but at the same time you have a lot of freedom.”
But not too much freedom. Beal designed the tattoos on his arms, but said he didn’t have any more new ink lined up. “Maybe, but my mom probably won’t let me. I still have to listen too her,” Beal said “I can’t just go against her.”
Beal also won’t go against the orders of the Wizards’ medical and training staff, which has advised him to refrain from basketball-related activity for another couple of weeks. His tax bracket, lifestyle and fame have all changed considerably from a year ago, but Beal said he doesn’t feel too much different.
“I still feel young, still feel like a kid,” Beal said. “When I turn 20 then I’ll feel older.”