This confrontation occurred at a weekday practice, and in reality it was a normal scene that plays out during a long NBA season: one ticked-off teammate challenging another. The only difference: The real games were still weeks away and here was Beal, already fuming at a young center on a team with low expectations entering the 2019-20 season.
Nine days later, Beal agreed to a two-year, $72 million contract extension with the Wizards. He signed up for more frustration. But why?
’I know it won’t be easy’
On Wednesday night, Beal, 26, will begin his eighth season in Washington. It could become his first all-NBA campaign, because he will have plenty of opportunity to stand out without fellow all-star John Wall, who missed much of last year and could miss most or all of this season because of an Achilles’ tendon injury. Instead, Beal will be the cornerstone of a rebuilding project.
“I know it won’t be easy,” Beal said recently.
When the Wizards open the season against the Dallas Mavericks, Beal will potentially be surrounded by six players in the rotation who are 22 or younger. Bryant, second-year pro Troy Brown Jr. and rookie Rui Hachimura are considered hard-working youngsters the team will eventually build a core around, but their development wanes in comparison to Beal, the first guard left off last year’s all-NBA honor roll despite being the first player in franchise history to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists.
From the outside, things look bleak. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith recently assailed the current state of the Wizards without Wall and declared they might have “the worst starting five in the last 20 years.” Statistical website FiveThirtyEight gave Washington only a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs. No Wizards player or coach even earned a shout-out in the NBA.com annual GM survey.
For the Wizards, and their leader, there are rough days ahead. But by committing to the upcoming rebuild, Beal, whose current deal now totals four years and $130 million, has bought into the vision the Wizards have pitched.
“They kind of projected the future and kind of gave me a layout of what we can do in the future and it looked promising for me, to put me in a position to have a little bit of control in that as well,” Beal said. “I was honored by that because, again, you don’t get that type of position, that type of power. I’m taking advantage of it, and now here I am.”
A structural change in Washington
Convincing Beal took time. It began in April when he met with Tommy Sheppard in exit meetings. Sheppard then still held the interim general manager title after replacing longtime president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld. The full-time job wasn’t promised to Sheppard, but he listened to Beal’s concerns with the intention of solving every one of them like an executive ready to woo his franchise star.
Without a second star such as Wall, Beal has been the main focus of opposing defenses and needs more offensive sets and packages to get better looks.
“I want players who want to get better and challenge me to get better, and he’s one,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “Give him credit. Three years ago, he couldn’t do what he’s doing now. He’s really developed.”
As Beal has improved, Brooks has been able to be more flexible in his offensive schemes.
“I can put him in any situation, and he understands it at a high level,” Brooks said. “I can use him as a decoy, and he understands why I’m using him as a decoy. I can use him in pick and rolls and pin downs and in the post.”
The Wizards further addressed those on-court needs by adding more resources to the coaching staff with four new assistants, including an analytics specialist in Dean Oliver. Other franchises have someone like Oliver on the staff, but the Wizards gave him the title of coach, showing their commitment to analytics.
Beal also wanted to see more accountability. Last year, during a practice that went off the rails, he blew his fuse and directed some anger at Grunfeld. Over the past few seasons, the atmosphere around the team has been described as “too much drama” by a Wizards front-office executive. A player such as Beal, who had remained patient while the team brought in veteran relief on short-term or costly deals for quick fixes, wanted more stability.
This summer, the Wizards made those moves to firm up the roster and salary cap. They refused to overpay their own free agents, and they sprinkled in a few serious-minded veterans in Thomas, Ish Smith and CJ Miles to bolster the youth movement.
The things Beal felt the team needed to change structurally were valued. Even more, Ted Leonsis listened — to Beal as well as his representative, Mark Bartelstein. In July, when Leonsis announced sweeping changes to the organizational structure, one of the constant advisers for the newly formed Monumental Basketball was Bartelstein.
Throughout the summer, Beal and his agent spoke “daily,” Bartelstein recalled, about the consequences of re-upping with the Wizards: the losses — there will be a lot of them — and the exasperation that comes with rising to new personal heights while young teammates are teetering in their development. Ultimately, Beal wanted to be at the head of a table. He saw the steps the Wizards were taking and wanted to lead the way.
“He knows a lot of people are talking about sort of the downturn that the Wizards may go through as they kind of restructure and regroup here,” Bartelstein said. “He kind of wants to choose his own path and not necessarily jump on someone else’s bandwagon but to be the reason Washington becomes a destination for anyone wanting to play for the Wizards. That was his ultimate dream was to stay here and be a part of this.
“He’s a different cat,” Bartelstein said. “He doesn’t really concern [himself] with what other people are doing and choices other guys are making.”
Ready to lead during the rebuild
Beal must have a trigger when it comes to practice. During an Oct. 2 session while players scrimmaged four-on-four, Bryant tried shooting a jumper over a smaller defender instead of posting him up and Beal, again, took offense.
“You’re 6-9! He’s 6-2!” Beal barked, reminding Bryant of the height difference. As he turned away, Beal punctuated his annoyance with an expletive.
This was just the second practice of the season, a brief scene that played out in front of reporters. Behind closed doors, however, Beal hasn’t always been the old man shaking his fists at young folks. He has said he wants to “save his bullets” and recognize when it’s time to stop yelling and start motivating.
During Sunday’s practice, while Beal played on the team with Hachimura, Smith and second-year forward Isaac Bonga, he pumped his guys with confidence by sharing the ball and taking only about three shots the whole scrimmage.
“He has to be able to get on guys. He got on [Bryant] a couple weeks ago, and it’s part of developing a team. I’m sure Paul Pierce was on him when he was a younger player. That’s part of the progression as you get into the league and you develop as a player and a team. But you can’t do it every day,” Brooks said. “Like [on Sunday], he was all encouraging today.”
This past Thursday, after Beal put pen to paper on his contract extension, he was steady while standing in front of reporters. No tirades about defense or boxing out. He calmly explained why he chose to stick around. He used the loaded word “legacy” and fashioned himself as someone who loves winning but can wait as well.
He’s ready for the rebuild. After all, Beal signed up for this.
“I know it’ll be a challenge, but that’s just kind of how I’ve always been built,” Beal said. “Just kind of pushed to things and pushed to limits and overcoming things people think I probably couldn’t do.”