It wasn’t the scoring that struck Popovich as the U.S. men began training camp this week in Las Vegas in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. It was Beal’s movement, sure-footed and slippery all at once, that stood out to the longest-tenured coach in the NBA.
“He is hard to keep up with,” Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996, said this week. “Whether he’s coming off a back pick or whether he’s running a pick and roll or he’s coming off a single, double sort of situation, his balance and his movement, both are very impressive. He stops on a dime, can pull up and shoot the shot. He can shoot the three; he can back cut and leave you in the dust. His movement really informs his shooting, if you think about the space that he creates because of his stop, start, stop, start and ability to catch, go up and knock down the shot. That shooting ability along with his excellent footwork, I think, is the most impressive thing about him.”
Working his skill set in front of an entirely new group of coaches is just one of the benefits for Beal as he gears up for his first Olympics this month.
As with so many Olympians, this summer is the culmination of a long road for the 28-year-old guard from St. Louis — not just another prize as his domestic basketball career continues to climb. Beal was named an NBA all-star starter for the first time this season and made his first all-NBA team last month.
But his path to USA Basketball’s senior national team began more than a decade ago, when he won his first gold medal in 2009 with the under-16 national team, then followed it up with another a year later as part of the under-17 squad.
The woman who taught him how to shoot — his mother, Besta — has both of Beal’s medals now.
“Hopefully we get this gold, and she’ll probably steal this one from me, too,” Beal said after practice this week, grinning.
“I’ve always been a part of USA Basketball when I was 16, 17. … And now, to be on the national team is a dream come true. It’s an elite group, prestigious group, and it’s very, very hard to be selected. So I don’t take that for granted at all. Obviously, I had to get the blessing from [my] wife and the boys because they won’t be allowed to travel with us. But ultimately you don’t pass up opportunities like this to represent your country, represent everybody from where you’re from, your name and ultimately USA Basketball.”
The U.S. men’s roster features a mix of thrilling scorers, such as Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Portland’s Damian Lillard, alongside exciting young defenders, such as Miami center Bam Adebayo. Beal will be the first active Wizards player to suit up for Team USA when it open its tournament against Rudy Gobert and France on July 25, and he will have a triple crown of representation in a way — representing his country, D.C. and his hometown alongside childhood friend Jayson Tatum.
Just five years apart, Beal and Tatum grew up together, attended the same high school and played on the same team together for the first time this year at the All-Star Game.
“We grew up five minutes from each other, and to have two of the same guys, the same high school, on the same team is — I don't know if that's ever happened for USA Basketball,” Beal said. “We're excited about it.”
There is artfulness, however, in gathering some of the NBA’s best talents and making a cohesive group, especially one with nine first-time Olympians. Only Durant, Golden State forward Draymond Green and Cleveland forward Kevin Love have competed at the Games before.
Popovich said this first week of training camp was about turning a bunch of franchise players into a team. He plans to let leaders emerge naturally, and Beal felt the same way about determining his on-court role on the squad.
He hasn’t yet had conversations with the coaching staff about how he will fit in alongside other prolific scorers. But he does want to distinguish himself by using the physical gifts that so impressed Popovich not just on offense but on defense as well.
“We kind of just free-flow. Everybody is interchangeable, and everybody has free rein to be aggressive,” Beal said. “We obviously have to understand that there’s only one basketball, but at the same time, everybody is unselfish. … I think, obviously, we understand everybody is talented. Everybody, in a way, has to sacrifice. And for me personally, I want to defend. I want to be one of the best defenders on the team and go out there and do that. Everybody can score. Everybody can give us 30 and 40. So I want to be the guy who goes out and guards and gets after it.”