- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

To unwrap how Bradley Beal has put together his best season, start with what he has not been asked. Beal has talked about offense, defense, his exclusion from the All-Star Game, if the Boston Celtics are a rival and what it was like to stand in front of a mural that showed a 20-foot high version of his upper body.

What he has not been asked in months is, “When will your lower right leg feel better?” That’s because the area that reminded him of untapped potential, that stunted his game for three years, has been fine. There has been no time missed because of a stress fracture or the beginning of one. No minutes restrictions. Beal’s body has been unbridled and he has blossomed because of it.

The Washington Wizards shooting guard has found a protective symbiosis. He has been able to work out more because his leg is not injured; his leg is not injured because he has been able to workout more. In the offseason, he begrudgingly worked out every day, focusing on squats, lunges and deadlifts, anything to promote lower-body development. He had not worked out daily in the past. Beal relied on his age and feeling well in general as excuses to occasionally not lift. Soon enough, the leg problems caught back up with him. He played 63 games in 2015 and made just 35 starts in 2016, when the Wizards finished 41-41 and missed the playoffs.

“I think this year I did a way better job of being sure I’m locked in and dedicating my time and effort to being injury free,” Beal said.

Beal played a career-high 77 regular season games this season. His scoring went up, his time ailing went down. The small pains that come through a season, like a twisted ankle, did not keep him off the court. The large pains never arrived. The result was 23.1 points per game, an effective field goal percentage of 56.6 and a case to be irritated he was not selected to his first All-Star Game.

Beal’s upturn followed the signing of a maximum contract in the summer. He will be paid a little more than $127 million the next five years. It’s a staggering figure that can brings burden and freedom. Beal’s father, Bobby, worked at Chrysler and is now retired. His mother, Besta, is a high school athletics director. Their advice for their suddenly bonkers-rich son has been simple.

“I would say they didn’t treat me any differently,” Beal said. “The biggest thing they tell me is be responsible, be smart about it. You’ve been blessed to, one, take care of your family then, two, take care of the people around you. Then, on top of that, have pretty much your life almost set for the rest of your life. They told me, ‘Make sure you’re being smart about it.’”

Beal has found himself in the young, rich and increasingly famous cycle. There are standard trappings that come with it. Beal said some folks he thought were his friends are no longer his friends. Certain family members have made sure Beal knows they are just that, even if their concern about being relatives in the past was muted. It’s different than he envisioned a decade ago.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” Beal said. “You’re playing in the NBA. You’re playing against the best players in the world. Your life is pretty much set. You know you can have anything you want, you can pretty much almost do anything you want. I think the biggest difference is the behind-the-scenes part of it. What goes on in your family. You’re still a human being. You still have emotions, you still have feelings, you still have family, you still have the daily problems a normal person can go through. I think it’s grasping that, understanding we’re still human beings regardless if we’re role models.”

Part of the reason Washington’s brass was willing to pay Beal such a lump sum despite his injury history is they have long been impressed with Beal’s composure. Some in the organization have referred to him as the most mature teenager — he turned 19 the day of the 2012 NBA draft when he was selected third overall — they have seen join the team. That composure is being tested by the mainstreaming of his life.

When Beal leaves the court, he’s not the only one people point at, then whisper or shout about. His girlfriend, Kamiah Adams, has 806,000 followers on Instagram, around 250,000 more than Beal. A stint on a reality television series pushed her into public life. Social media has bolstered her fame.

“We attract a lot of attention, naturally,” Beal said. “It’s all of that tied into your life. There’s a lot of things that come with it. Being with somebody of that stature, there’s a lot of things that come with it. It comes with being on the news. Being on social media. Being on TV and people know it. It’s just a matter if you can handle it or not.”

In this season of increased recognition, Beal has made two distinct changes on the floor. First, his dribbling has improved thanks to offseason work with trainer Drew Hanlen. Beal has become better at weaving through traffic because of the live-motion drills they did. He also has deployed a hesitation dribble when he hits midrange spots he often shot from during his first four seasons. Now, he uses those spots to dupe a defender. Beal will pause, hint at an upward motion, then take off again. Not taking those shots has put together a beneficial trickle-down effect on his offense.

“I used to always have glimpses of it,” Beal said. “I would do it here and there and not really get to any of my moves, I was kind of like a straight, basic player. A fundamental guy. But, now I’m flowing more. Getting into my ‘package’ as we call it. I’m just being more comfortable with it and it benefits my game. It keeps you off guard.”

The better dribble and increased confidence to shoot 3-pointers have inverted Beal’s shot selection. In 2014, he shot 636 times from between 10 feet and the 3-point line. He shot 396 3-pointers that season. This season, after two years when those attempts started to level off, Beal shot 321 midrange shots and 553 2-pointers, according Basketball-reference. He also increased his shots at the rim from 117 in 2014 to 448 this season. The changes have led to a significant swing in efficiency.

With his leg sound and offensive skill expanded, Beal has pivoted to what is next. There is more growth to be done on the floor. That first All-Star Game appearance that has been mentioned for years remains a target. But first, it’s Game 2 of the Wizards‘ first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. Beal is “still salty” from losing to Atlanta in 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals. He’s tried to fix his body and game to assure it doesn’t happen again.

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