At the conclusion of the most challenging back-to-back set of games in his young NBA career, Bradley Beal sat in front of his stall in the Miami visitor’s locker room on Saturday with a bag of ice wrapped around his right ankle and a noticeable scratch on the right side of his forehead.
The Washington Wizards rookie had no idea where the cut came from, only that it was “burning,” but he felt fortunate to know where he was after playing games in four cities in five nights.
“That’s the life I chose,” Beal said with a shrug. “It’s different. It’s difficult, all of the traveling, but I have to deal with it. And I have to be tough. Your body is going to be tired. But it’s how you fight through it mentally.”
Bryant made light work of Beal, using the savvy and skill accumulated over a 17-year career to school the 19-year-old, who finished with more fouls (five) than points (four).
Wade was determined to demoralize him as well and forced Beal into missing his first six shots. When Beal saw his first jumper fall, he let out a sigh, dropped his shoulders in relief and finished with a team-high 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting the rest of the way.
“I’m enjoying it, honestly. Just to face these guys — the greatest guys to ever play,” said Beal, who added Heat guard Ray Allen into the discussion. “I’m really just stealing a lot of moves from them and their mentality, and their smartness on the court.”
Beal also had to go head-to-head last week with Houston Rockets guard James Harden, whom the Wizards chose not to trade for, according to league sources, in part because of their affinity for Beal. Harden scored 31 points in a Houston win, but Beal battled with him, scoring 20 points — his most in more than a month — before fouling out.
Beal’s willingness to compete and not be content with just being in the NBA has been apparent in recent weeks. He leads all Eastern Conference rookies in scoring (14.7) and assists (3.3) this month.
After posting 15 or more points just four times in his first 14 games, Beal has reached that total five times in his past seven. He has also scored in double figures in seven of his last eight.
“I’m just getting more comfortable,” Beal said. “The game is slowing down for me. I’m just taking my time and just taking what the defense is giving me.”
Beal’s shooting has increased slightly over the eight-game span (39.8 percent, 41 of 103), compared to a much rougher start (32.6 percent, 44 of 135). The uptick is mostly because of his refusal to let rough starts derail him for an entire game.
“I am pleased with where he’s headed,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Staying with tough shots, missing a couple of tough shots early, he had been hesitant after that. That’s a step in the right direction.”
Beal is the Wizards’ second-leading scorer at 12.2 points per game, which would be the 10th-highest scoring average of any 19-year-old in NBA history, ahead of such perennial all-stars as Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett and Tony Parker.
He has also started 19 of the Wizards’ 21 games, which is impressive, considering that at the same age, Bryant was voted to the all-star team but started just one game, and Wade and Allen were both in college.
“He has the talent,” Wade said recently about Beal. “You watch film on him and you see that he has potential to be a really good player in this league.”
Beal has already established himself as one of the hardest workers on the team, arriving early and staying late to practice.
With John Wall yet to make his debut and the Wizards lacking scoring options, Beal has had to find ways to generate offense with opposing defenses focused on shutting him down. He has relied on his family, teammates and coaches to help him figure out how to deal with his difficult adjustment after spending just one season in college at Florida.
“Nothing I really started doing, it’s just my mentality changed and how I approach the game, more seriously,” Beal said. “Not saying I didn’t take it serious but just more of a focus on where I needed to be.”
Beal would prefer that the Wizards didn’t have the league’s worst record (3-18), but he has tried to stay upbeat.
“It’s always tough, but you have to throw it in the back of your head. We still have 60-plus more games,” Beal said, adding that his confidence remains high. “I have the mentality that nobody can beat us, so that’s just how I think and I’m pretty sure that’s how my teammates do. There’s not a moment out here where we think we’re going to lose a game.”