- The Washington Times - Monday, October 29, 2012

For Bradley Beal, celebrating his 19th birthday didn’t include a gathering of childhood friends and family in his hometown of St. Louis. Nor did it involve a group of college friends hanging out on campus at the University of Florida. 

Instead, it took place on national television inside a packed house at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., where the best present wasn’t something he had to unwrap — it was simply hearing his name called.

“I was nervous at first, honestly,” Beal said. “I’ve never been that nervous in my life. To actually hear my name called was a great feeling, because I knew in the end this was the place I wanted to be. It was a dream come true.”

With the third pick in the 2012 NBA draft, held June 28, the Washington Wizards selected Bradley Beal. It was no surprise. From the moment Beal arrived at Verizon Center for his predraft workout, he and the organization were taken with each other. Beal was impressed by the friendly and straightforward way he was treated. The Wizards were impressed with his talent and maturity.

As Beal begins his rookie season for a team desperate to shake its “losers in the lottery” label, there’s pressure on him to help turn things around. To hear Beal talk, you’d never know it.

Becoming the ‘Real Deal’

Bradley Beal grew up in St. Louis the middle son of five boys, all of whom played football. During a high school game in which his oldest brother Brandon emerged as the star, a local newspaper called him “Real Deal Beal”.

“When I saw it, I thought ‘That’s pretty catchy”’, Beal said. “But [Brandon] didn’t use it, so I thought ‘I’m just going to steal it.’ Then the paper wrote it about me, so I just kept it.”

As it turns out, it didn’t take long for the rest of his family to see that as a basketball player, the nickname just might suit Bradley best of all.

“When he was in the sixth grade, we went to an AAU game, and [Bradley] was playing,” recalled Bruce Beal, Bradley’s second-oldest brother. “In the first half, he hit eight 3s back-to-back-to-back. I told my mom, ‘He’s going pro.’”

Bruce Beal joked that his mother looked at him like he was crazy, and said that Bradley was young and still had a lot to work on. Bruce Beal looked right back at his mother.

“Mom,” Bruce repeated, “he’s going pro.”

Taking her son’s words to heart, Besta Beal encouraged Bradley to give up football, for fear he’d get hurt, and encouraged him to concentrate on basketball. During his sophomore year, the college recruiting letters began to arrive. Beal chose Florida.

During his freshman year under coach Billy Donovan, Beal emerged as one of the top shooting guards in the country, averaging 14.8 points, 2.2 assists and 6.7 rebounds. He was chosen SEC Freshman of the Week five times, and named to the SEC All-Freshman team and first-team All-SEC.

When Beal decided to turn pro, Donovan said he was disappointed that he’d no longer get to coach Beal but thought the guard was NBA-ready.

“He may have been as mature as any player I’ve ever been around,” Donovan said. “He has all the intangibles to be a great, great pro and play for a long time. I think he’ll be totally fine. I don’t feel like there is anything that will be thrown his way next year that he won’t be able to handle.”

A rookie initiation

Beal got off to a great start as a member of the Wizards’ Summer League team in Las Vegas. He averaged 17.6 points and 1.8 assists and was named to the all-Summer League team. Next came training camp, where he continued to show an almost veteran-like consistency.

The even-keeled rookie said he hasn’t faced too many surprises his first month in the NBA, but he is starting to realize just how much of the game is played between the ears.

“What I’ve learned so far is the mental aspect of the game and how good these guys actually are,” Beal said. “It’s not just physically how strong they are, it’s the mentality. They’re a lot smarter, they know how to get in your head and know how to take things away from you. These are grown men, and I’m just a little 19-year-old kid. It’s a big thing to have to adjust to.”

His teammates have given him a few reminders of just how young he is, although the rookie hazing has been pretty mild. He had to tie Trevor Ariza’s shoe during a training camp scrimmage in front of several hundred fans at George Mason, which he called “pretty embarrassing.” He also had to sing happy birthday to Jordan Crawford, who turned 24 on Oct. 23.

He’s also spent time with John Wall, who is sidelined with a stress injury to his left patella and expects to miss the first month of the season. The Wizards’ star guard is at practice every day, though, working on stationary drills and shooting. Even without playing together, the two seem to be developing a chemistry.

“He’s very talented,” Wall said. “He’s somebody that can shoot the ball very well. He’s showing people he can attack the basket and also make plays.

“He’s mature for his age, and he’s not really having an issue with letting the game come to him.”

Wall sees Beal as a key piece to help the Wizards reach the playoffs and looks forward to running the floor with him.

“We can help each other,” the three-year veteran said. “I think it will help me a lot to have somebody to kick it to who can knock it down.”

He’s also given his future backcourt running mate a little advice.

“There’s going to be some games he’s going to play good, some games he’s going to be down,” Wall said. “But as long as he knows there’s going to be 82 games and the whole team is behind him, he’ll be all right.”

Looking ahead

Wizards coach Randy Wittman says he hasn’t settled on a starting lineup, and might not do so until Tuesday morning, hours before the Wizards open the season at Cleveland. One of his favorite things about Beal, Wittman says, is it doesn’t matter how you use him.

“I know right now whether I start him or whether I bring him off the bench what I’m going to get from an effort standpoint,” Wittman said. “You don’t know if the shots are going to go in, but I know what he’s going to do. That’s been impressive for 19 year old.”

In fact, Wittman liked what he saw from Beal after his first workout.

“After watching him, putting him through a workout and then sitting down and talking with him, that was the clincher,” he said. “His poise, his maturity all that together forms a special package. You can’t teach it, either you have poise or you don’t. It’s not something you can magically put on somebody.”

Along with that poise comes a demeanor that Beal says makes him more calm than emotional.

Except for that preseason game in Toronto.

“I’m real calm, you can’t tell if I’m playing well or I’m playing bad,” Beal said. “But sometimes my emotions can get the best of me. I showed it in Toronto for the first time. It was actually the first time I ever got mad.”

In the 104-101 loss Oct. 17, Beal said the effort was there, but the results weren’t.

“I was just frustrated,” he said. “I kept contesting my man’s shots, and he kept making them. I was like, ‘Should I foul him or what should I do?’ It’s a learning process. I think if I just keep within the flow of the game I’ll be fine.”

Although he’s played just one game at Verizon Center, Beal knows that Wizards fans are excited to see him, especially when Wall returns. During the team’s lone home preseason contest, a 108-101 loss to the New York Knicks on Oct. 11, Beal said that he could hear the fans screaming for Wittman to put him in the game.

“I heard it,” Beal said with a shy smile. “But I don’t pay attention to it. We’re all one team.”

With a reflective pause, he talked about why he wanted to become a Wizard, and why he felt that way from his first day at Verizon Center.

“They didn’t guarantee me anything, didn’t tell me I was going to be the man coming here or anything like that,” Beal said. “They just told me they needed my help and that they wanted me to be a part of this team. They were straight with me, and that’s what I wanted out of an organization.”

There’s also one other thing a 19-year-old needs, something Beal said Wall reminded him of.

“John told me to just enjoy my rookie year,” Beal said. “Sometimes you try to put pressure on yourself instead of just remembering that no matter what, you still have love and passion for this game.”

• Carla Peay can be reached at cpeay@washingtontimes.com.

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