- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For four years, Bradley Beal has been a projection.

On draft night in 2012, his size and shooting ability were lauded, the comparisons rolled out — Ray Allen anyone? — his future debated. That started season after season of talking from the Washington Wizards’ organization about what could be coming. General manager Ernie Grunfeld would explain that the organization thought Beal could be an All-Star. He said it time and again, before and after each season, when John Wall and G-Wiz were the lone annual representatives at All-Star weekend. Grunfeld would also repeat that he thought they had the recurring injury to Beal’s lower right leg under control, although they didn’t, and he kept missing games.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis would reference the all-star possibility when talking about why the organization decided to give Beal $128 million last summer, some of which has gone to a mansion in McLean, assuring that Beal would be here even if Wall eventually leaves.

“We didn’t think twice about this,” Leonsis said at the time.



For an evening, they all saw optimum Beal for the first time. Beal scored a career-high 42 points on 22 shots Monday night against the Phoenix Suns. He took 10 3-pointers, the shot that caused the organization to salivate so grandly in the first place. Beal took nine other shots right next to the basket. He attempted 11 free throws. These were all checkmarks on a list of what former coach Randy Wittman and new coach Scott Brooks would want to see from Beal. Aggression, precision, dominance, efficiency, all there for an evening.

No one in the league scored more points Monday night. Not James Harden. Not Chris Paul. Not Kawhi Leonard or Steph Curry. Only two players shot more free throws (Harden, predictably, was one). Only one made more 3-pointers.

The night was a culmination of offseason work focused on ball-handling, past tips from ex-teammates about coming off screens, and the ideas Grunfeld and Leonsis had in their heads. There were flashes of this before, notably in the playoffs two seasons ago when the Wizards swept the Toronto Raptors in the first round. That was an angry version of Beal, one that waved goodbye to surly Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry when Lowry fouled out. In that series, Beal went to the free-throw line 6.3 times per game, more than double his regular season average. Those trips put the next projection on Beal. The model of what could be now had a tangible sample. Could Beal be like that all the time?

“I definitely believe I can be better than the Brad I was in the playoffs two years ago,” Beal said before the season. “I’m more mature. I have a higher IQ. The game is starting to slow down even more for me now.”

To be better largely depends on two vital things: Wall and Beal’s often uncooperative body.

The trickle-down effect of Beal’s aches are massive. If he doesn’t have a fourth recurrence of a lower leg problem last season, do the Wizards make the playoffs for the third consecutive season? Would Wittman still be the coach? Beal missed 27 games. The team missed the playoffs by three games.

“I think the injury bug for us was so devastating early on with Brad missing so many games,” former Wizards forward Jared Dudley said Monday. “The reason why it’s so big, because what he does, you can’t duplicate that. So, you try to substitute — you might try to put [Marcus] Thornton in there, you might try the rookie — but he’s a 20-point scorer in the NBA, gets to the free-throw line and he hits big 3s.”

Last summer, Beal said he started over. He practiced walking properly, landing right and squatting with proper motion. All this to stave off his annual leg problem.

“I think we got it figured out,” Beal said in July.

Wall and Beal have suggested they are the NBA’s best backcourt. That’s incorrect, yet expected, bravado from the duo. This season, responsibilities have been handed over to each more so than at any other time in their four years together. The Wizards are going forward with Wall, Beal and parts. Their maximum contracts represent it. The almost 40 minutes each played Monday night represent it. Their legacies in the District are intertwined.

Each verbally patted the other on the back postgame. Beal mentioned that Wall kept calling plays for him. Wall pointed out that Beal was hot.

“Brad had a heck of a night for us,” Wall said.

Monday, Dudley explained the interactions between the Wizards young stars as a “working relationship” after questions about tension between the duo surfaced in the summer. That should be sufficient. They need each other on the floor, where Wall is programmed to pass and Beal is mechanized to score. What they do off it is of little relevance.

A road map to a repeat for Beal is in his shot chart from Monday night. Ten dots outside of the 3-point line. Eleven dots inside the lane. One lonely midrange shot, the one Beal has been trying to fall out of love with since entering the league.

For a night, he had arrived. All the people who claimed what he could be saw their vision leave their heads and hit the floor. The question is if this version of Beal was just stopping by or is here to stay.

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