The Washington Wizards’ back court of the present and future worked on their ballhandling and shooting for an hour a day. Beal, with his textbook form, usually had the upper hand in the latter. But Wall, the electrifying distributor, wouldn’t hesitate to gloat after the rare instances in which he came out ahead.
Afterwards, the two guards would walk over to the nearby Cox Pavilion to observe the Wizards’ summer league team, then go their separate ways.
“He too young,” Wall, 23, said with a laugh of the barely 20-year-old Beal. “He couldn’t really do too much in Vegas.”
Wall’s joke is actually one of the reasons that, after five seasons of blunders, the Wizards are finally optimistic about reaching the postseason. With two children of the 1990s, Washington potentially could have a standout guard tandem for years to come.
“It’s as bright of a back-court future that any team has in the NBA,” Indiana Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said of Wall and Beal. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they develop.”
When the Wizards tip off on Wednesday against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, it will be the first time Wall and Beal will start a season opener together. Last season, Beal’s first in the league, they combined to miss 59 games, but the Wizards were 6-2 when they started together and 16-9 in games in which both played. Wall and Beal, the distributor and the shooter, connected the way President Ernie Grunfeld had envisioned when he drafted Beal third overall in 2012.
“They both complement each other very well. They are both very competitive and they care about winning,” Grunfeld said. “I think they are growing together and they are learning together. They know that they are a good combination.”
Stops and starts
Wall first met Beal in 2010 — the summer after the Wizards drafted him No. 1 overall out of Kentucky — at an AAU tournament in Los Angeles, where Wall maintains an offseason residence. Hearing the hype about a supposed Ray Allen clone from St. Louis, Wall wanted to check him out and came away impressed. After the game, Wall spoke to Beal, the two exchanged numbers and remained friendly.
But they didn’t have a serious conversation about basketball until they became teammates. Wall was the first person to send Beal a congratulatory text message on draft night in June 2012, when the Wizards selected Beal after just one season at Florida.
Though they had different personalities — Wall embraces the attention; Beal is more laid back — the duo connected on their similar backgrounds as stud recruits, their Southeastern Conference experience and the outsize expectations each faces. But Wall and Beal’s plans of playing together were delayed in late September last year when Wall discovered that he had a stress injury in his left knee that would keep him out for months.
Forced to start his career without Wall, Beal had to grow up quickly and was overwhelmed by the speed and strength of his opponents. Wall, frustrated with a knee injury that threatened his entire season, watched every game from the bench and tried to offer advice whenever the struggling Beal sat next to him.
But once the calendar hit 2013, Beal became a different player. He knew where he could find his spots on the floor, started hitting his open looks and got back to having fun.
“It hurt and helped,” Beal said of being without Wall at the beginning of his rookie season. “It hurt because I put a lot of pressure on myself to be that guy on the team and just do everything. It humbled me and made me realize this was an opportunity for me to become a man and fight through adversity.”
Wall believes Beal benefited from joining a team stocked with experienced veterans who could guide him through his early struggles. It was something Wall didn’t have in 2010, when he joined a franchise as it was making the uneasy transition away from the Gilbert Arenas era.
“It’s a different situation from when I came in, being with guys who didn’t really know. And I had the most pressure,” Wall said. “It was tough for me to figure out the game, and you kind of don’t have no help. I don’t ever want to say anything bad about none of my teammates, I enjoyed them, it was just the professionalism. It’s a lot easier for him.”
Beal had already recorded five 20-point games and made a game-winning shot against Oklahoma City before Wall made his season debut, but his dynamic performances escalated once he was paired with a point guard who could break down defenses with dribble penetration and find open shooters.
But just as Beal and Wall had formed a solid on-court chemistry, injuries would once again interrupt the progress. Beal dealt with a sore wrist, then severely sprained his ankle and finally suffered a stress injury in his right leg that prematurely ended his season.
With Beal in and out of the lineup, Wall suddenly began to show flashes of his immense potential with some incredible outings, including a career-high 47-point game that came with Beal watching from the sideline. No longer just a jitterbug recklessly hurling his body at the rim, Wall had begun to discover better pace and tempo and command of the floor.
“He’s gotten better,” said Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, who trained with Wall last summer in Los Angeles. “Once you get in this league and you play and get your feet wet, the game is going to start to slow down. That’s what John is doing. He's a hard worker so it’s going to pay off for him.”
‘You can’t do it by yourself’
This summer, the Wizards rewarded Wall by giving him a maximum five-year extension worth $80 million. Beal can only receive a four-year extension between his third and fourth seasons and will have to wait until he hits restricted free agency in 2016 before the Wizards can give him a five-year contract.
Given the dearth of elite shooting guards and the overabundance of talented point guards, Beal has a chance to have a quicker breakthrough in reaching the goals that Wall has set for himself — making the all-star team and representing the United States in international competitions. Wall said he wouldn’t have a problem watching Beal succeed.
“You always want to be the man, but you definitely want people right there with you,” Wall said. “You can’t do it by yourself. If you want to win in this league, you’ve got to have a second or third all-star. You’ve got to have a superstar with you. I would not be mad if Brad made it. I’d be excited, because that would mean that I did a good job getting him involved in the game and he’s making shots.”
Wittman doesn’t want his young stars to start thinking ahead, but he brought them together last July because they are the Wizards’ “two main cogs” and he wanted them to push each other. Wall, the distributor who now scribbles “playoffs” on all of his game shoes, and Beal, the shooter who has always scribbled Bible verses on his game shoes, continued to connect at Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas, then in Washington in preparation for training camp. Each practice now serves as another opportunity to move closer to greatness.
“I see this group being together for a long time and being very good,” Wittman said. “How much are they going to be willing to see how much they push themselves? That’s the answer that you never have. Everybody knew when LeBron [James] came into the league, he had a chance to be pretty good. He made himself better each year and that’s what these guys have to be willing to do. And we’ll see.”