TOWSON, Md. — As of Wednesday, Bradley Beal is 22 years 3 months and 2 days young. He is entering his fourth NBA season, the first in which he will not be the most junior member of the Washington Wizards, and is still playing on a rookie contract. But he feels old.
“I feel old because it’s my fourth year,” Beal said Monday during Wizards media day. “I feel like years are flying.”
This next one is the most important of Beal’s budding career. Unless an accord is struck between him and the Wizards on a contract extension by the end of Halloween, he will be playing for a long-term deal ahead of next summer’s unprecedented free agency bonanza with elevated expectations. He is a trendy pick to break out as an Eastern Conference all-star — an honor he believes has eluded him because of recurring injuries — because of the prolific postseason performances he has produced each of the last two years.
Health, Beal said, is his top priority this season after missing 44 games over his first three campaigns because of the setbacks. It will be the chief factor in determining whether he can carry that playoff success from last spring — when he was a two-way menace and averaged 23.4 points over 10 games — to this fall and sustain it over winter’s doldrums. Does he feel any pressure?
“No. I mean, it’s just me being who I am developing into the player I was supposed to be,” said Beal, who will make nearly $7.5 million this season. “Everybody goes through it. Everybody goes through the rookie stages, everybody goes through the first couple years and it’s always a learning experience. And now as you get older, you become a vet and it should be just second nature.”
When Drew Hanlen, Beal’s trainer, completed his annual review of the guard’s 2014-15 campaign in preparation for an offseason program, two statistics stood out: his low free throw rate and his dependence on midrange jumpers — more specifically, long twos. Beal averaged just 2.8 free throws per 36 minutes last season, which ranked 35th among NBA guards who attempted 10 field goals per 36 minutes and logged at least 2,000 minutes over the campaign, and 27.9 percent of his field goal attempts were from 16 to 24 feet though he made just 33.2 percent of them, the second-worst mark among players with at least 200 shots from that range.
Those tendencies were linked and shifted in the playoffs when a more aggressive Beal emerged. Hanlen determined they needed to change permanently, not just for the postseason, so he devised a summer regimen centered on Beal creating his own shot behind the three-point line and finishing around the basket.
“It’s kind of self-explanatory,” Beal said. “You look at it and my spots on the floor and where I’m comfortable shooting and where I need to work on the most and where I need to get myself to, to help myself. For sure, it was a no-brainer. If I’m going to shoot a long two, I might as well shoot a three or, if not, I might as well go to the basket.”
Instead of getting to work immediately after Washington’s May 15 playoff exit, Beal took June off to recuperate. When he returned to the court in July — shuttling between Los Angeles and his native St. Louis around trips to Taiwan, China and Africa — he worked in “sprints,” alternating between intensive and lighter weeks.
“We went in sprints so that he could really rest his body,” Hanlen said, “and then hopefully make it through the season injury-free for the first time in his career.”
During the demanding periods, Beal focused on improving his ability to finish over outstretched bigs, around defenders, when a primary defender is on his hip, and on finishing angles to draw fouls, Hanlen said. Sometimes Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, a quicker defender, would guard him. Other times it would be Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, a longer and more athletic obstacle.
“We threw different live looks at him so we could make sure that everything that we were doing was translating to live play, and he did a lot better job,” Hanlen said. “Obviously, the big thing will be making sure that we keep an eye on all the stuff that we work on and continue to address it throughout the season so that it sticks in his game.”
At their first training camp practice Tuesday, the Wizards began installing a new offense, a perimeter-oriented operation geared toward creating more spacing and a faster pace, that first emerged in the playoffs and should accentuate Beal’s strengths. The key, Coach Randy Wittman said, is Beal getting to the free throw line like he did in the playoffs.
“The aggression of not just being a catch-and-shoot player, but he has the ability to attack the rim, which we saw,” Wittman said. “I think it was around six free throws a game. Everybody’s like, ‘How do you make that 19 points a game?’ Well, free throws. He’s going to make shots. He’s going to get better and better from the three-point line, I think. Those are little added things. It’s the other growth of his game that I want to see. And I saw it at the end of the year. Now he’s got to take that step for us.”
To do that, Beal has to stay on the court. He missed 19 games last season — nine because of a broken wrist and eight because of toe and fibula ailments plus two to rest — and admitted being skittish when he returned from each injury. He explained he didn’t want to impose and derail chemistry, and reinjuring himself was a fear stubbornly situated in the back of his mind.
“Hopefully this is a new year,” Beal said, “and I won’t have to worry about that.”