For 11 playoff games, Bradley Beal had shown why this postseason wouldn’t be his last as he knifed through defenses for critical floaters and served up daggers from the perimeter, making his way into the history books while leading the Washington Wizards to newfound success.
But as Beal checked out of the game for the Wizards in the final seconds of their series-ending loss to Indiana, the one known as “Young Pro” among his teammates, the one with the highest ceiling at just 20 years old, wasn’t ready for his first postseason experience to end.
Beal used his jersey and then a towel to hide his tears and disappointment following a playoff run that saw him shift eyes from across the nation — ones that had previously been shielded from his promise aside from brief appearances during All-Star Weekend or when Charles Barkley expressed his affinity for the Wizards — with his poised play on the grand stage.
“I told him that he did a phenomenal job for us and to put this in his pocket and use it as a learning experience in his career moving forward,” said Wizards forward Drew Gooden, one of several who tried to console Beal in the aftermath of defeat. “He works on his game all the time and you saw how it hurt him to lose that game, and it shows that he’s a competitor as well. So, sky’s the limit also for Bradley Beal as with John Wall. With those two coming back here, sky’s the limit for this organization.”
The sight of Beal and Wall sharing the floor was something Wizards fans hadn’t consistently enjoyed until this past season. A leg injury sidelined Wall to start the 2012-13 season and ended Beal’s rookie year a month early, making for just 36 appearances together entering the 2013-14 campaign.
The subsequent high hopes were quickly dashed by a 2-7 start and another leg injury that sidelined Beal for nine games before returning with a minutes restriction. The time away, however, proved to be a blessing in disguise of sorts. It led Wizards Coach Randy Wittman to shift around the team’s rotation, ultimately pitting Beal as the primary ballhandler in the second unit, which in turn allowed the second-year star to make necessary steps of improvement in his dribbling and playmaking skills.
This time of development, along with the addition of Andre Miller in a February trade to give the Wizards a stable backup point guard, paid dividends for Beal during the playoffs. Opponents knew from his runner-up finish in the Three-Point Contest and his silky smooth release akin to Miami’s Ray Allen that Beal could shoot. But as he learned to attack off the pick-and-roll and use a variety of dribble moves to get into the lane, even defensive-minded teams like the Bulls and Pacers found it harder to slow down Beal.
“He was just saying how I made it difficult for him because he didn’t really have a chance to really score on offense because he was chasing me around the whole time, fighting off screens,” Beal said in reference to what Indiana star Paul George told him following their second-round playoff series. “He just told me I’m going to be special one day. I just have to continue to grind and continue to get better.”
As Wall struggled with his shooting touch, Beal emerged as the offensive focal point in the playoffs. His scoring (17.1 ppg to 19.2), rebounding (3.7 to 5.0), assists (3.3 to 4.5) and three-point shooting (40 to 41.5 percent) all increased, as did his confidence after almost single-handedly rallying the Wizards with nine of his 26 points during a late fourth-quarter run that resulted in a 101-99 overtime win against Chicago in Game 2.
The performances were an extension of Beal’s play during the regular season, when he often displayed a readiness for the big stage. In an early-season loss to Oklahoma City, Beal poured in 34 points and six three-pointers, and in two victories at Madison Square Garden, where he and many others tab as their favorite place to play, the Wizards guard connected on game-winning shots.
With those experiences pushing him, Beal expects to enter next season as an even more dangerous player. Unlike last summer, when he was still recovering from the stress fracture in his leg, Beal won’t need to ease his way into offseason training. He’ll also be among 28 NBA players competing this summer for a spot on Team USA in advance of this summer’s FIBA World Cup, allowing him to consistently cut his teeth with the world’s best under the tutelage of great basketball minds.
“I feel as though I can come in and make the impact and be the best I can be. That’s all I can ask for. I’m granted a great opportunity,” Beal said. “Nothing in my game is perfect. I’ve made some improvement this year definitely in terms of just handling the ball. I think it can get increased. I can get better in different areas passing, rebounding, stealing, playing better defense and everything like that.”
Beal did show some signs defensively, hounding Lance Stephenson into a mostly ineffective second-round performance. But working with Team USA, his personal trainer and Wizards assistant Sam Cassell will help him vanquish bad habits, like taking shortcuts while chasing players around screens, as he did during Mike Dunleavy’s career shooting night in Chicago’s lone playoff win against Washington.
He’ll also look to get stronger to help counter teams that throw their best defensive player at him — as Indiana did with Paul George — and to make him a better finisher around the rim through contact, especially as teams work to minimize his open looks along the perimeter.
“I think when you get there and see how close you were to the championship, that just motivates you and drives you to compete each and every day to try to make it to the playoffs,” Beal said.
The consensus around the NBA is that the Wizards, with Beal and Wall manning their backcourt, are the verge of something big. And with health on their side and the Wizards working to bring back the complementary tools during this summer’s free-agency period, Beal is confident that the disappointment of these past playoffs will lead to a resounding return to the postseason for both him and Wall.
“Both of us play fast and get up and down the floor and we have that passion to win,” Beal said. “And I think that’s what makes us so special is because we love to win and we’re going to compete our butt off to do so. Our passion and energy shows and as long as we continue to challenge each other and force each other to get better, this team is going to continue to move forward.”