Bradley Beal and John Wall strode to the podium for the final time this season on Thursday, dejected but hopeful, at the end of their first trip to the postseason. As the faces of the franchise, they carried much of the burden for the Washington Wizards though they were two of the four youngest players on the roster.
And though both players understand that even the most precocious players rarely go from 29 wins to the conference finals in a year, Beal bristled when someone suggested the Wizards simply weren’t ready to defeat the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Age is nothing but a number,” Beal, 20, said. “We don’t view it as that, especially John and I. Yeah, we’re young, but we’re basketball players, just like anybody else out there on the floor. We got ourselves in this position. We won one round in the playoffs. We know what it takes to win and all the intangibles behind it, so we don’t use being young as an excuse.”
The Wizards’ promising young back court learned some invaluable lessons this postseason as Beal and Wall were forced to encounter increased attention and scrutiny. Beal had to find out how to score when a member of the NBA’s all-defensive team decides to lock him up. Wall had to discover ways to be effective against defenses that are geared to shut him down in a seven-game series and switch schemes just as he got adjusted to a previous one.
“You have players that have never been to the playoffs before and don’t know what that pressure is like. John definitely has a taste of that. A lot of our young guys have a taste of that now,” said veteran Drew Gooden. “This is a learning experience that’s well worth going to.”
Wall and Beal have still only played just 109 games together, including the playoffs, and believe that there is considerable room for the relationship to grow. A day after their season ended, the two players watched the WNBA’s Washington Mystics play their season opener against the Minnesota Lynx at Verizon Center.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s been great since day one when they drafted me,” Beal said. “John’s been my big brother and just the chemistry clicked right away. Both of us play fast and get up and down the floor and we have that passion to win. 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.”
Beal has been invited to try out for Team USA in late July but he also plans to work out with Wall some this summer. Both should be driven to get better after Wall claimed that the playoffs are “everything you live for. This is what you play for and hopefully I can be here for the rest of my career.”
“We can’t rest on it. They can’t rest on it. They’ve got to now make another jump this summer in adding different things to their games and I really believe that they will,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “I could not be more pleased with what they have done – Bradley Beal in his two years and John, now in his fourth. John takes a lot of flak sometimes and I think he’s learning that that’s the position he’s in now.”
Wall, 23, has had to deal with high expectations from the moment he arrived in Washington with the No. 1 pick, and raised the stakes even higher last summer when he signed a five-year, $80 million extension that will kick in next season.
The pressure produced the best season in Wall’s career, as he made his first all-star team, led the Wizards back into the playoffs for the first time in six years and played in all 101 preseason, regular season and postseason games. In the playoffs, Wall averaged 16.3 points on 36.6 percent and 7.1 assists, all down from his regular season production.
“Just stay true to yourself. No matter if you’re having tough times or down. Keep playing your game and be aggressive. Don’t let other things take you away from your game,” Wall, 23, said when asked what he gained from the experience. “It gets frustrating. If you have two bad games, or three bad games, you’re like, ‘Well, dang am I going to figure out how to score against this team or play well against this team?’ The intensity level is more than it has ever been in the regular season. You’re playing for something, trying to play for a championship or go to the Finals. Regular season, you’re just playing.”
Beal led the Wizards in scoring throughout the postseason, averaging 19.2 points. Pacers all-star Paul George forced him into some poor shooting games but Beal earned his respect. After the Pacers clinched the series with a 93-80 win, George gave Beal a hug and some praise. “He just told me I’m going to be special one day. I just have to continue to grind and continue to get better,” Beal said. “Those were all humbling words and moving forward, I hope it can be us sending them home and not vice versa.”
“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. “I agree with John in terms of we’ve got to get there every year.”