The first time Washington Wizards rookie Bradley Beal attempted to embarrass an opponent with a thunderous jam, he got a painful lesson on the need to think before dunking. Beal picked the wrong target when he elevated for a throw down on Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith, one of the game’s best leapers and shot blockers, and crashed on his backside after Smith stuffed the ball.
Forced to sit out the next two games last month with a sore lower back, Beal was a little more cautious about when to showcase his surprising hops. But in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 115-113 double overtime loss on Friday to the Brooklyn Nets, Beal decided the time was right when he caught the ball along the left sideline and darted around Jerry Stackhouse, an 18-year veteran nearly twice his age.
Beal cocked the ball behind his head and soared over the unsuspecting MarShon Brooks for a two-handed jam that raised the electricity within Verizon Center. He then swung on the rim, staring down at his humiliated foe, and ran back down the court.
“I just really went hard,” Beal said. “And I wanted to just put him in the basket.”
The loudest two points of his career-high 24-point night against Brooklyn were the latest example of how the 19-year-old Beal is progressing. His first month in the NBA was filled with self-doubt and second-guessing as he often drifted into silence after some poor shooting starts. He showed flash but didn’t always stick to it.
“The NBA is such a different style play than it is in college. It’s so much faster. It takes time to understand,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Beal, who played one season at Florida. “He’s starting to see areas where his shots are, where he can be aggressive, where he can’t be aggressive.”
Beal was more assertive in December and earned Eastern Conference rookie of the month honors after averaging 13.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 12 games. And, since the calendar has flipped to 2013, Beal appears to have matured significantly, playing much more in control and with more self-assurance.
“My confidence is sky high,” said Beal, who is averaging 20 points over his past three games. “I feel more comfortable. The role that I’m in. And everything is starting to slow down for me, to be honest with you. I’m just taking what’s in front of me, taking what the defense is giving me, and coach is putting me in great positions, as well as my teammates.”
Aside from the highlight dunk, Beal displayed confidence in the final seconds of the first overtime after the Wizards (4-27) had blown an eight-point lead with 75 seconds remaining and trailed 114-111. Beal caught a pass from Jordan Crawford and used a screen from Emeka Okafor to create enough space to hit a tying three-pointer with all-star guard Joe Johnson contesting.
“As soon as I shot it, I knew it was going in, because it felt right and I shot it with confidence,” said Beal, who celebrated the basket by grinning as he backpedaled to his bench. “That was a big moment in my career so far; hopefully, one of many. It was a big play for us and I’m really happy that I actually got that opportunity.”
Beal has connected on 8 of 15 attempts from long distance this month, and is beginning to resemble the shooter he had been touted as when the Wizards drafted him third overall last June. His three-point accuracy follows a period from Dec. 15-29, when the 6-foot-4 shooting guard missed 17 consecutive shots from beyond the arc.
“Coaches and my teammates always tell me, ‘Don’t ever stop shooting the ball.’ So whenever I have a shot, I take it,” said Beal, who has connected on 46 percent of his shots (23 of 50) this month. “I’ve been playing like this the last couple of games and it’s just me, just sitting down talking to myself and seeing what I need to do better.”
Wittman has taken note of Beal’s development over the past few weeks, which is why he felt confident enough to call a play for him with the game on the line. “Either you got that or you don’t, is the way I like to say it,” Wittman said. “I can’t make you have — as I say in the business — [guts] to take a shot at the end. He made a good play.”
Beal continued to stay aggressive in the second overtime, when he drove into the lane to initiate contact from Andray Blatche and made two free throws to tie the game at 113 with 9.1 seconds remaining. But another lesson was in store for him on the next possession, when Johnson yo-yoed the basketball, stepped back and drained the game-winning jumper over him. Now, Beal has to move on to Miami on Sunday, when he will have to contend with another all-star in Dwyane Wade.
“This is the life we live,” Beal said. “We just have to fight through it. Keep battling and keep playing hard.”