- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2016

Jared Dudley speaks quickly after games, his hands moving and head bobbing. Pass, move, screen, he often says when explaining what the Washington Wizards‘ halfcourt offense should look like. It needs synced steps of perpetual movement.

Late in the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, after receiving a pass, Dudley looked to move the ball in an effort to be a practicing preacher. He glanced right and extended both arms, ready to release the pass then cut and screen and repeat.

Except, he stopped. No defender had run to him. Dudley is third in the NBA in 3-point percentage, yet he stood as a solitary man behind the 3-points. So, swish.

Dudley’s freedom is part of the Bradley Beal trickle-down effect. Beal returned on Wednesday after yet another extended hiatus because of an injury. For the fourth time in four seasons, a lower right leg injury caused him to miss playing time. In this case, Beal was waylaid by the beginnings of a stress fracture in his annually grumpy leg. He last played on Dec. 9.

“I felt good,” Beal said. “Actually, I wasn’t tired at all. Kind of surprised me a little bit. My trainers did a good job of running me super hard this last week. I felt good, body felt good. I definitely did a lot better than I thought I [would].”

Beal made his first three shots and missed his final five. In the end, he ticked off 11 points, three rebounds and three assists in 22:49.

The final number of his stat line is the most crucial. Time on the floor is becoming more of a career-defining digit for the 22-year-old. Beal has not played a full season since entering the league. He played 56, 73 and 63 games in his first three seasons. If he played every remaining regular-season game this year, he would match his total from last year of 63 games. To put in perspective how much time Beal has missed since entering the league, the oft-injured 33-year-old Nene has played 197 games during that period. Beal has totaled 210.

Before being injured again this season, Beal was playing heavy minutes, the kind few others in the league play. During the six games in December that preceded a recurrence of pain in his leg, Beal averaged a head-scratching 39.5 minutes per game. Were that a season average, he would lead the league. As it is, Beal is averaging 35.7 minutes per game, a total dragged down by the modest 23 he played Wednesday night. That would tie for 11th most in the league had he played enough games to be among NBA leaders.

The heavy work has caused fair questions of why a young player who is so often hurt remains on the floor so long. Though this season has been filled with injuries throughout the Wizards‘ roster — only John Wall and Ramon Sessions have played all 37 games — the game before Beal was shut down for more than a month, bodies were available, yet Beal played 39 minutes. In the previous two games, which were a back-to-back set, he played 41 and 40 minutes, respectively.

Early Wednesday, he made light of all the playing time when asked if he was on a minutes restriction during his return.

“You know how [coach Randy Wittman] gets,” Beal said. “He’ll forget how many minutes I’m out there and leave me out there.”

Beal said he took more time this year to recoup because of when the injury resurfaced. He used the all-star break last year to heal, leaving the floor Feb. 5 and returning on Feb. 28. This time, he waited for all the pain to fade, knowing the second half of the season was in front of him. Last season, he returned with 22 games to play.

He also thinks the training staff has devised a way to stifle the annual flare-ups.

“It’s kind of tough to manage it given that fact that it constantly happens, but I think we have a system now where we can avoid it,” Beal said. “A system that I want to keep to myself. A system that we’re going to keep in-house. I’m at the point where I’m still confident in myself, still confident in my game, confident in my body and I think I’m at a point like I said before, where it’s behind me.”

The Wizards and Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, hope that is true. Beal is a restricted free agent after the season. He turned down one lucrative contract extension offer from the Wizards before the season began. Knowing the league’s salary cap will take a leap in the offseason, Beal is in pursuit of a maximum contract. He risked the guaranteed for the greatest windfall.

The recurring injury has placed a “Yeah, but…” in front of any mention that he is still only 22. Before Wednesday’s game, Beal suggested having four problems in as many years will force him to reduce and keenly watch his playing time for the rest of his career.

“Probably, especially with the way my body works,” Beal said. “It doesn’t want to listen to me, so I got to, as much as I can, take care of it and be smart about it and probably moving forward through the rest of my career, [keeping an eye on time is] probably something that’s probably going to happen every year.”

When he can play, the Wizards suspect they will return to contender status in the Eastern Conference. They are 18-19, stalled at 11th place in the conference and, entering Thursday, 1.5 games out of the final playoff slot. The conference has become a fight inside a phone booth. Despite the season-long careening, Washington is only five games out of the No. 2 spot. Any forthcoming rise could rest on Beal’s leg.

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