The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bradley Beal welcomes the pressure of being the Wizards’ solo star

With John Wall out for the season, the Wizards belong to Bradley Beal (right), who scored a game-high 24 points as the Wizards beat the Hawks on Wednesday night. (Brad Mills/USA Today)

Bradley Beal has made it clear: Clutch time is his. Though he may spend the majority of games as he did Wednesday night — finding open teammates when defenses turn aggressive and orchestrating pick-and-rolls with Thomas Bryant, the bundle of energy the Washington Wizards call their center — Beal will be the one taking over when it matters.

When the Atlanta Hawks tied the score with 6:44 remaining at Capital One Arena, Beal’s first instinct wasn’t to pass the ball 30 feet from the basket or wait for Bryant to set a high screen. Beal dribbled into DeAndre’ Bembry, whose fluttering feet couldn’t keep up, before attacking Alex Len, the 7-foot-1 blockade at the rim. Beal didn’t give up the ball, and for the next several possessions with the outcome still in doubt, the game was in his capable hands.

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The Wizards may encourage shot distribution and ball movement as the response to John Wall’s absence due to upcoming season-ending surgery, and their collective ownership aided in Wednesday night’s 114-98 win. And even though there’s truth in the notion that it will take a village to chase a playoff seed without its franchise point guard, Washington still needs a star willing to seize the spotlight. For the remaining 44 games, Beal is welcoming the added pressure.

“I feel like I have more of a responsibility,” said Beal, who scored a game-high 24 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter on 5-of-7 shooting. He will have even more responsibility going forward, as Markieff Morris will miss a significant part of the season. Morris has been diagnosed with “transient cervical neuropraxia,” an injury located in the cervical spinal cord, and will “be limited to non-contact basketball activities for the next six weeks," the team announced Thursday.

“I definitely have an opportunity to be able to show that I can carry the team," Beal continued. "Or at least sustain where we are and if not do better, get us to the playoffs. That’s definitely my biggest and main goal because everybody roots us out,” Beal said. “With John being out, that’s just even more motivation for me: ‘Okay, can I lead this team to the playoffs?’ ”

Those are forceful words, but confidence seems to be oozing out of Beal these days.

Before his first all-star appearance last season, Beal, who carries the nickname “Panda,” passively dipped his toes into the waters of self-promotion to get fan votes. He allowed someone from his marketing team to create and tweet a “corny” (his words) video, with talking pandas hyping him to generate support. But this year, on Tuesday when the Wizards’ team Twitter account employed the same panda strategy on Beal’s behalf, he promptly retweeted the message with laughing emoji and the directive to “Go Vote!”

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Seems subtle, but the assertiveness illustrates a player who wants something and, this time, won’t be timid about his demands.

“I would love to be a two-time all-star. I feel like I deserve it,” Beal said. “Granted, we definitely have to win more games. It’s definitely a goal of mine. It’s definitely something I want to be part of. I’ll probably be more active in pushing myself and promoting myself.”

Most likely, Beal will need Eastern Conference coaches to select him as a reserve. And since Wall has been sidelined, their respect for Beal has been evident.

On Wednesday, the first time Beal took an inbounds pass against Atlanta, forward Daniel Hamilton picked him up 90 feet away from the basket. The Hawks’ scouting report seemingly focused on getting the ball out of Beal’s hands, because early on, center Dewayne Dedmon remained glued to the perimeter after Bryant set screens. Beal passed out of these double-team looks, and the plays resulted in four free throws for Bryant. Later in the quarter, the Beal-Bryant pick-and-roll created one of several easy runs at the rim for Bryant, who finished with 16 points (5 of 7 overall) and 15 rebounds.

Following the game, Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce broke down the real catalyst to Bryant’s big night.

“You pay so much attention to the other guy on the pick-and-roll, and Bradley is such an important factor on their offense, and [Bryant’s] the beneficiary of what they’re doing,” Pierce said. “You draw two to Bradley, [Bryant is] the guy that’s going to be rolling to the basket and getting some opportunities. I know he had a big game the other night where he went perfect from the field. It’s the same story. That’s what happens when you have a great player, I think, like Bradley Beal. You draw so much attention that other guys benefit from that.”

2018 began with the Wizards stuck in a depressing loop. It’s ending the same way.

In the fourth quarter when the Hawks pulled even at 94, Beal grabbed all the attention.

After scoring against Len, falling to the floor then raising his arms in protest for a foul call that never came, Beal pulled up for a stop-on-a-dime three on the next possession. The Wizards forced another Atlanta miss and Beal once again played point guard and quickened the pace, swinging the ball to Jeff Green for a spot-up transition triple. The Hawks called timeout to stop an 8-0 run, in which Beal had a hand in every point.

The Wizards closed the quarter by outscoring Atlanta, 20-4, and won their second straight game since learning of Wall’s fate. Though Washington pulled to three games from the eighth position, with more than half of the season remaining in the chase, it only gets more difficult with an upcoming road trip that includes stops in Miami, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia. Beal, however, wants the challenge.

“It’s not anything like: ‘Can we do it without John?’ ” Beal said. “It’s trying to prove the world wrong. Okay, maybe I can be able to lead and do it without him and get this team to the playoffs.”

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