We’re only beginning to learn about how much rookie guard Bradley Beal will help the Washington Wizards. Beal shoots well. He scores consistently. And at just 19 years old, Beal already has shown he’ll soon become a team leader. But of all the positive things Beal has brought to the struggling franchise, here’s the most important one: Hope.
Not the false type the organization peddled to its fans for so many seasons while essentially trying to build on a foundation of quicksand. Genuine this-team-could-become-relevant-again hope. Beal possesses the physical tools, smarts and toughness needed to become a special player. For the past 30 years or so, the Wizards have had too few of those guys. That’s why they’ve been the Wizards.
Beal has shown so much potential at such a young age (he turns 20 on June 28), you can only wonder how good he’ll become once his body and game develop fully. Or if you work for the Wizards, you’re confident you already have a good idea of how high Beal could go. Responding to a reporter’s question the other day about whether Beal is headed to big things, Coach Randy Wittman put it this way: “We’re seeing it.”
With Beal, there’s certainly a lot to watch, having received the Eastern Conference’s rookie-of-the-month award for both December and January.
The perception around the league is that Beal took off once point guard John Wall returned from a knee injury, but Beal’s climb actually began earlier. Now, Beal is comfortable, confident — he recently chewed out teammates for their lackadaisical play — and convinced that he’s capable of delivering for the Wizards for a long time.
“The fact that people are starting to notice what I’m capable of doing, yeah, I like that,” Beal said. “Sometimes [early in the season], I took a back seat too much just wanting to fit in. There were times I should have been more aggressive, more assertive. Now, I’m attacking.”
Although Beal’s statistics have steadily improved (he scored a career-high 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Friday’s loss to the Knicks), the Wizards’ excitement about Beal is based on much more than numbers. Unlike most rookies, who in this one-and-done era of college basketball enter the league with no clue on how to play, Beal, who left Florida after his freshman season, has court awareness. He understands that in-game situations — the score, an opponent’s defensive scheme, who’s in the lineup with him, etc. — actually are important to consider before making a move.
On several plays in Wednesday’s 96-95 loss to Detroit, Beal showed that he just gets it. In the first quarter, Beal was isolated near the right sideline against Pistons guard Brandon Knight. Recognizing that the Pistons weren’t providing Knight with double-team help, Beal made a turnaround jumper instead of passing the ball with the shot clock close to expiring.
“The game has slowed down,” Beal said. “I’m making better reads.”
Preparation helps. No one on the roster works harder than Beal, Wizards officials say. Even after completing early shooting drills on game days, Beal continues to shoot by himself long after his teammates have left the arena. He trains daily on his own. Beal wants to be great. He won’t fall short for lack of effort.
“LeBron and Kobe,” Beal said, declining to use the superstars’ surnames to emphasize his point. “When anybody talks about those guys, you know what they’re saying. You know the work they put in to get where they are. Those are two guys I admire. I’m trying to be where they are.”
Some Wizards observers would argue that Beal, whose steadiness partly comes from the strong support of his close-knit family, is only doing what’s expected of him. He was selected with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, and high lottery picks are supposed to excel.
That’s true, but these are the Wizards. Forward Jan Vesely was the sixth pick of the 2011 draft, and we all know how that’s worked out so far.
Before the Wizards chose Beal, two NBA general managers told me he reminded them of future Hall of Famer Ray Allen — and not the somewhat limited version we see now; the young Allen, who was as apt to dunk on an opponent as launch a three-pointer.
“He was the safest choice in the lottery last year from the standpoint of skills, production and character,” one of the general managers said this week. “He can be a 10-year starter.”
The Wizards hope Beal and Wall will flourish together for years. Wall’s return and Beal’s growth are two of the biggest reasons the Wizards (18-39) are a very respectable 13-11 in the East since Jan. 13.
Wall is a classic look-for-his-teammates point guard, and Beal is a finisher. It’s a perfect fit. “We’re already seeing everything eye-to-eye,” Beal said, “and we’re just scratching the surface.”
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld deserves some credit for creating a good environment for Beal. Wall’s development suffered because of unprofessionalism in the locker room. “When I came in . . . some of my teammates didn’t want me to succeed,” Wall said.
Grunfeld finally cleaned out the locker room.
“Now, you have a guy like Emeka [Okafor], who has been to the playoffs, Nene, who has been to the playoffs, and Trevor [Ariza], who has won a championship. They know what it takes,” Wall said. “Now, all of us here want everybody to succeed. That’s a big difference.”
Wall is a good player, but he’s not a star. Although Nene is productive, he doesn’t rank among the elite centers. If the Wizards are ever going to completely change course, they might need Beal to be the man. Fortunately for them, there’s no reason to doubt that he can be.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.