Bradley Beal was so hard on himself in his first NBA season that he would drop his shoulders in disgust if he missed an open jumper during training camp and even wept in the locker room after disappointing performances in his first two games with the Washington Wizards.
Coach Randy Wittman didn’t want to place any unfair expectations on Beal, or give him more responsibility than he could handle, but he never wanted to be graded on a curve or to get a pass because he was only 19. Beal held himself to a high standard as last season’s third overall draft pick, but admitted recently that his rookie year didn’t take off until he decided to loosen up.
“I was losing sight of having fun, which is what’s most important,” Beal said. “I think that’s what happens to a lot of people, like we forget to have fun and the reasons why we actually play the game, so I just looked at myself in the mirror and was like: ‘It’s not your game. Just relax, calm down. Just be who you are.’ And I ended up doing it.”
The Beal who arrived for training camp this season was much more self-assured after a stellar campaign in which he became just the seventh teenager in NBA history to make the league’s all-rookie team. Beal also set a franchise record for most three-pointers made by a rookie with 91 despite missing 26 games because of various ailments, including a season-ending stress injury in his right leg.
Beal’s summer workouts were delayed as he recovered, but he believes that he had enough time to get stronger, work on his ballhandling and expand his game beyond being a lethal shooter. He was cleared to participate in basketball-related activities in July and gradually picked up his workouts with his personal trainer back home in St. Louis, at Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas and later in Washington with Wizards assistant Sam Cassell.
“This year, hopefully, is going to be a year where I can be able to showcase my talents a lot more. I’m a lot more confident and feel more comfortable with the team and everything that I do now,” Beal said. He added that the greatest different between where he was last year and is now: “I’m not shell-shocked. I feel like I’ve played for the team like 10 years already.”
Still the youngest player on the roster — Otto Porter Jr., this year’s third overall pick, was born 25 days before him — Beal is looking to assume more of a leadership role as part of the Wizards’ back court of the present and future with John Wall. The duo was only on the court together for 25 games last season, with the Wizards winning 16 of them.
Beal learned a valuable lesson last season about the need to play a tad less recklessly and not to rush back before his body had healed. His desire to play often clouded his judgment, as a right ankle sprain later resulted in a left ankle sprain and led to a stress injury in his right fibula. He also missed time with a sprained right wrist and a lower-back contusion.
“Stop being hard-headed and sit down when you’re injured,” Beal said when asked what he learned last season. “I’m back to 100 percent. My leg is not hurting at all, and my ankles are not hurting at all. Now the key goal for me is to stay in the training room, continue to get stronger and stay injury-free.”
Wittman has noticed the change and isn’t afraid to give Beal more responsibility this season. “You can tell he’s a different player than he was a year ago,” Wittman said. “You never know what to expect from a 19-year-old, but then we saw him grow up. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are, once you get a comfort level, your confidence in how you handle yourself is so much different. He is night and day to where he was this time last year.”
Now 20, Beal proudly stated that he might be a “legit” 6 feet 5 after growing an inch in the offseason. He then lowered his head, kicked the hardwood and smiled before adding, “I don’t have any facial hair, though.”
Beal might need to take another look in the mirror. A little fuzz has started to show along his chin.