If you want to make Bradley Beal angry, call him a shooter. He despises it. He shows you that Playoff Brad edge. Or that Wrestling-with-Draymond-Green Brad edge. He would wear Celtics green before he would accept being called merely a shooter.
“I kind of hate the label of just being known as a shooter because that’s one-dimensional,” Beal said. “That’s all you’re known for. I want to be considered as a playmaker, a guy who can put the ball on the floor and create shots for himself as well as for his teammates.”
Playmaker, huh? He’s in luck. The Washington Wizards have a two-week playmaking position open, now that John Wall is out for at least a fortnight to recover from a left knee injury. Although this period will be difficult, it’s a chance for Beal to show more of his improvement as a complete offensive weapon. He can show that he’s capable of scoring, facilitating the offense in larger doses and controlling the flow of a game.
Actually, it’s not just an opportunity. It’s a must, for the next two weeks and for the remaining years of the Wall-Beal star duo. There are signs that Beal will thrive with more responsibility, signs that emerged last season and now appear more vivid. The Wizards’ record the next two weeks may not reflect it, but their competitiveness hinges on it. Wall should pay close attention because seeing all the facets of Beal could help the point guard save his body a little during games. It needs to happen for the sake of his longevity, a primary concern after the Wizards tacked a $170 million supermax extension onto Wall’s contract over the summer.
It would be erroneous, not to mention irresponsible, to suggest that the next two weeks could change the Wizards’ star structure. Wall, the four-time all-star, remains The Man. Beal, the ever-improving 24-year-old on track to be an all-star this season, is No. 2, technically. Since Scott Brooks became head coach before last season, the two have complemented each other as well as ever. There’s no feuding and very little of the miscommunication that strained their relationship in the past. However, it is — and may always be — a sensitive subject when the conversation is about the responsibilities of these co-existing players.
As long as Wall’s play backs it up, this will be his team. But he should think of himself more as a majority owner and allow Beal to have a larger percentage of The Man title. It’s better for Wall’s body. It’s better for the team long term. And with the way NBA basketball is played today, with free-flowing offenses and star conglomerates dominating the league, teams perform best when their top players flatten the hierarchy.
The Wizards are destined to struggle without Wall. They’re 10-9 right now, suffering from an inability to flourish in the fourth quarter and dropping games to inferior opponents. On Saturday, they blew a 17-point lead and lost, 108-105, to Portland in their first game after announcing Wall would receive platelet-rich plasma and viscosupplementation injections in his left knee. Now they must play seven of their next eight games on the road. Wall won’t be available, at the earliest, until the end of this stretch.
Without Wall, the team could dip below .500. But for the long haul, this is an opportunity to recalibrate a few things so that the Wizards can play to their potential once he gets healthy.
Beal is the biggest part of the recalibration. Otto Porter Jr. is important, too, but Beal has the most to prove. On Saturday night, he had a storybook moment felled by the reality that the Wizards are intent on making everything harder than it should be.
Until the closing minutes of that game, Beal was playing efficient basketball and taking charge as a playmaker. He finished with 26 points and seven assists. If the Wizards hadn’t blown a big lead, the game might have been celebrated as a perception-changing result for Beal. If he hadn’t missed a late jumper that could’ve won the game and a three-pointer that could’ve tied it, he would’ve been hailed for exhibiting the late-game heroics of a true lead dog. Instead, he went home disappointed despite putting up good numbers.
In the big picture, the offense looked okay without Wall, one of the sport’s finest creators. Until the final six minutes, the offense operated the way it should have. The problem was fourth-quarter defense. Still, there were encouraging moments, especially for Beal.
“It’s been a goal of mine,” Beal said of becoming a playmaker. “It’s been a great transition for me. I always feel like I got more to do. I still have more to prove, and it’s still a work in progress. But I’m definitely happy that I’m starting to get the label that I want.”
Beal’s basic statistics belie his improvement as a distributor. He’s averaging 24.2 points, which would be a career high. His assists, at 3.5, are identical to last season’s average. But go deeper, and it’s clear that he has become a dangerous player with the ball in his hands.
With one quarter of the season nearly complete, he has run the pick and roll with Marcin Gortat with great efficiency, ranking among the league’s top 15 combinations. Beal is driving to the basket and making 67.5 percent of his shots from within three feet, the best percentage of his career from inside the paint. Beal had been in the 70s from short range for most of the season until some recent missed bunnies.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s anybody in the league who’s got his game right now,” Gortat said of Beal. “It’s unbelievable. He’s so freaking talented. We have a nickname for him: He’s a walking bucket. We call him a walking bucket. It’s scary. That guy can get you a bucket whenever he wants to. Unless they double him and he has to make a pass, and that’s another step for him where he’s improving. He’s making better decisions this year, and that’s the learning process for him.”
For the next two weeks, the offense runs through Beal. Just two years ago, he wasn’t ready for the challenge. Now, as you’ll see, he has all the tools. He’s not just a shooter.
Wall should take note. As a tandem, he and Beal require no dramatic changes, but if Beal can do more playmaking, it means Wall can conserve his energy or redirect it to the defensive end. Ultimately, Beal’s improvement can make both players — and the team — better.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.