- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Bradley Beal doesn’t need to read the opposing team’s scouting report to know what the priority is when they face Washington: Do whatever it takes to get the ball out of the playmaking guard’s hands.

Most of the time, it didn’t matter. A three-time All-Star and one of the best scorers in the NBA, Beal was going to do whatever Beal wanted to do. 

At least that’s how it went until this year. This season, the unguardable, unstoppable Beal looks decidedly mortal. The double teams, traps and blitzes that defenses throw at him nightly seem to be taking a toll on the Wizards’ leader. His scoring average is down nearly nine points from last season — dropping to 22.4 from 31.3 per game. That’s a startling drop-off for a player who finished second in scoring last year.

“I’ve been (crappy) all year,” Beal said recently. “I have to be better.” 

What’s puzzling about Beal’s rut is that this is no longer a case of a small sample size. Washington has played 28 games — more than a quarter of the season — with Beal appearing in 25. Over that time, Beal is shooting 44.5% overall, but just 26.8% from deep. The latter is by far a career low.

The three-point struggles are made stranger by the fact Beal was seen as a sharpshooter early in his career — shooting at least 40% from deep in three of his first five seasons. 

In general, Beal’s usage rate — a player’s possessions that end with a field goal, free throw attempt or turnover — is down. But the guard’s turnover rate is up to a career-worst 13.8%. He’s also taking three fewer free throw attempts per game.

Beal’s struggles were arguably masked early on in the year. They were easier to ignore when the Wizards were consistently winning, when they jumped out to a 10-3 record. Some of Beal’s decline in production was even welcomed — marking a reflection of Washington’s improved supporting cast.

But the Wizards have fallen off lately. Monday’s 113-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets marked the Wizards’ fifth defeat in six games. Washington’s record has slipped to 15-13. In Denver, Beal played off the coverages in front of him: He had only 19 points, but a season-high 10 assists. 

“He’s seeing multiple bodies every possession,” coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “So he’s not going to get clean looks. We’re going to run offense through him and he’s going to make the right play. At times, he’ll be able to facilitate and score. But because he’s going to see so many different schemes and so much attention, at times, it’s tough. … I know he’s frustrated, but that’s something he’s got to work through.” 

Unseld said the defensive focus on Beal will lighten when teammates start to consistently make shots.  Even during Washington’s strong start, the Wizards ranked as an average offense.

Specifically, the Wizards could also use more from starting point guard Spencer Dinwiddie. After averaging 17 points and six assists over the first 12 games, Dinwiddle has cooled off over the last 12 games by averaging 9.3 points and 4.3 assists per contest. The 28-year-old is coming off a torn ACL and has had to adapt to a new team after joining the Wizards this offseason.

Dinwiddie and Beal, too, are learning how to play with one another. Unseld said he’d like to see both players become more aggressive. Adjusting to a new point guard is nothing new for Beal — having done it when John Wall was injured and Russell Westbrook was acquired last year —but this time, he’s also having to adapt to a new playbook in the process.

“We’ve definitely got to play a little bit faster,” Beal said of working with Dinwiddie. “We gotta be a little more aggressive, attacking the paint, attacking to disrupt, attacking to cause havoc.”

Even when Beal was scoring in high volume, the Wizards weren’t always better off for it. Washington famously lost an NBA-record 11 straight games when Beal had scored at least 40 points — until that streak was finally snapped last year. Overall, the Wizards are 8-22 — 3-15 since 2019-20 — when Beal scores more than 40. 

But more often than not, the Wizards benefit when Beal establishes himself as one of the game’s top scorers. Right now, he’s searching to find that level again.

“I have to produce and lead this team like I want to,” Beal said. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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