- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2019

For the first 12 minutes of Sunday’s loss against the Toronto Raptors, Wizards star Bradley Beal hardly made a shot.

The Raptors used a variety of defensive approaches to stop him, just as Toronto coach Nick Nurse said before the game that they would. Beal was double-teamed and met with a swarm of bodies whenever he drove to the rim. It was evident the Raptors made stopping Beal their No. 1 priority — which has been the game plan for teams facing the Wizards since John Wall was lost for the season.

But by the end of the Raptors’ 140-138 double-overtime win, Beal had 43 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists. Just as he had for so many other instances, the 26-year-old adjusted to the defense in front of him.

Beal has experience being the Wizards’ top star without Wall. After all, Wall missed 41 games last season with a knee injury.

But these days, Beal is better equipped for the pressure and attention that comes with being the Wizards’ first option.

Since Dec. 28, when Wall sat out with what would be a season-ending foot injury, Beal has responded with some of the best basketball of his career — averaging 30.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game in nine contests. He’s shooting efficiently, too, knocking down 47.2 percent of his attempts (41.2 percent from deep).

The Wizards are still just 5-4 in that span, but they have played at a higher level.

“He has a calming influence on our team,” coach Scott Brooks said, “because he’s confident in his playmaking. … He’s evolved over these last couple of years, more so than ever.”

Beal’s performance against the Raptors marked just his second career triple-double. Coincidentally, his first also happened earlier this season without Wall, posting a 40-11-15 stat line against the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 22.

In doing so, Beal became just the 12th player in NBA history to have two games in which he finished with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Only seven of those of players — James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain and Pete Maravich — did it twice in a season, like Beal.

After the Wizards’ win Friday over the Milwaukee Bucks, Beal said he’s improved at facing the extra attention from defenses. He added he’s able to read how teams are defending him and can find ways around.

Part of that is due to Beal’s footwork. Nurse said Beal is one of the best “start-stop-start” players in the league, meaning he can effortlessly cut and turn on a dime to juke defenders and create separation.

Nurse said the footwork makes Beal hard to keep track of.00

“He’s really crafty with the ball,” Nurse said. “He’ll take his time rubbing off a screen to make sure his defender gets hit. He’ll burst, stop, cross screen and get you on his back, start again. He’s just difficult with all his herky-jerky stop-start. That’s the only way I can put it.”

It’s not just Beal’s scoring that has lifted the Wizards. His playmaking ability has drastically improved. He’s averaging a career-high five assists per game, and he’s more comfortable as the engine driving the Wizards’ offense.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Beal said. “I definitely think it’s definitely better from last year and every time I’m in a situation, it’s slowing down for me more and more.”

Opposing coaches speak highly of Beal, which could be a good case for his All-Star candidacy. Beal is unlikely to be voted a starter, given he’s behind in the fan vote and the Wizards’ lack of success overall.

Still, coaches decide the 14 reserves (seven in each conference). With Beal seeking his second-straight nomination, his recent play has made a compelling case.

“Brad has really developed into an unbelievable basketball player on both ends,” Brooks said.

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