WASHINGTON – Bradley Beal had been looking forward to spending NBA All-Star Weekend in the Dominican Republic before momentarily getting his hopes up for a trip to New Orleans. When Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love was forced to sit out the All-Star festivities because of a knee injury, Beal stood as a reasonable replacement pick except for one problem: He only stands 6-foot-5 and the Eastern Conference was severely lacking in big men.
Someone joked with Beal this week that he could play a little small forward if need be.
“I’ll play the four,” Beal jokingly replied, grabbing his biceps to reveal his strength.
“Five,” someone responded.
“I’ll play the six,” Beal said with a laugh as he walked away.
Beal was willing to do whatever had to be done to make his first All-Star team, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver decided to go with mainstay Carmelo Anthony, perhaps to address the size problem on the East squad or to reward the now 10-time All-Star for having to put up with the never-ending saga of being a New York Knick. Either way, Beal’s snub – considering he is the second-best player on the team with the conference’s third-best record – may have done more to draw attention to the role he has played in the season’s most remarkable turnaround.
On a pick-your-positive roll call for the Washington Wizards’ unexpected rise into a contender, Beal averaging a career-high 22.2 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting is near the top. Coach Scott Brooks has encouraged him to expand his range – “He tells me, ‘Shoot 20 3s a game.’ Nobody has ever told me to do that,” Beal told The Vertical with a laugh – and Beal, who has made a career-high 148 3-pointers this season, is beginning to reveal more of that borderline arrogant side that he often hides beneath a modest, laid-back demeanor.
“I’ve always had it,” Beal told The Vertical of his cockiness. “It’s just bringing it out; being more of a dog, tough, showing a little more emotion, too. It was always there. I had to develop as well, because nothing is perfect. Being a little bit cocky, a little more confident in myself, I’m just having a little bit different approach to it. [Brooks] instills a lot of confidence in me. That, in itself, tells me to be aggressive and have freedom.”
John Wall has been spectacular since December, whipping out between-the-legs bounce passes and whirling no-look dishes while earning his fourth consecutive All-Star appearance. But since his arrival in Washington in 2010, and especially since Beal came along two years later, Wall has wanted someone else capable of relieving him from the burden of carrying the franchise. Beal has had his moments when he looked the part, particularly when he led the Wizards in scoring in their past two playoff appearances. But injuries and an inefficient game that relied on long two-point jumpers stunted his ascent. The Wizards believed enough in Beal’s potential that they awarded him a five-year, $127 million contract that raised a few eyebrows around the league. Wall urged the detractors to be patient with their criticism, stating, “Let him earn it.”
“I understood what he meant by it. It wasn’t any disrespect. It was, ‘Let him grow into the player he’s capable of being.’ And a lot of people didn’t see the potential in me, but he’s seen it and the team’s seen it. I appreciated it,” Beal told The Vertical. “A lot of people, they always look at it, you’re a max player, you’re supposed to average 30, win a championship every year, all of these big accolades, but you have to realize that it’s all about development. It’s all about getting better. And, it’s all about your potential. Maxes are given out these days and guys are showing their potential, guys are proving it, and I was happy John backed me up on that, too.”
Beal’s consistency has given Wall the ability to play more under control, and the attention he attracts has opened the floor for Otto Porter and Markieff Morris to pop up with the occasional big game. At the news conference announcing his signing last July, Beal acknowledged that he never imagined getting a contract that would make him and his family financially secure. Beal had heard the debates about his worth but declared that he would dedicate himself to paying back the Wizards by performing like a franchise player and not just someone receiving hefty paychecks. That meant passing on an invitation to participate in the Olympics, strengthening his body and cutting back on the junk food and candy.
“My mom [Besta] has a saying, ‘Never let them see you sweat.’ It doesn’t bother me when people say stuff,” Beal told The Vertical back then. “I don’t wear it on my sleeve. It’s on the inside. And it’s definitely motivation to just continue to get better, and I think the more doubters, the more haters, the better.”
That calm has come through on the court, where Beal has been playing as if he isn’t worried about the expectations that come from having the largest contract in Wizards franchise history. “It’s being with a free mind, ever since I signed the deal,” Beal told The Vertical. “I think I was more pressed about signing the deal than I was after the deal, and now that it’s over with, I can relax.”
The Wizards looked dead in the season’s first two weeks, raising panic among the fan base about the direction of the franchise. Beal wasn’t much help during a 2-8 start in which he called out his teammates’ effort after a close November loss in Orlando, despite his own poor play, and missed another three games with hamstring soreness. Angered that he wouldn’t reach his goal of finally playing all 82 games and disappointed that he wasn’t meeting his own expectations, Beal returned with a vengeance and the Wizards have been better for it. All nine of his games with at least 30 points have occurred since his return, and he joins Michael Jordan and Gilbert Arenas as the only Wizards in the past 15 years with at least three 40-point games in the same season.
“It was just a reality check,” Beal told The Vertical about missing those three games. “I had a mindset going into the year, just being aggressive, just being me. When we got off to the slow start, it was like, I knew this wasn’t the team we were supposed to be. I wasn’t playing the way I knew I was capable of playing. Just come out and play the way you know you can play and have fun doing it. Things just turned around.”
Beal was denied the chance to replace Love, but he doesn’t believe that it is crazy for the Wizards – a franchise that hasn’t won a division title in 38 years – to consider returning from the All-Star break intent on replacing the Cavaliers as the top team in the conference. “That should be our goal. It’s possible. Sometimes coming into your season that’s not your main objective, to be the top seed, but when you have an opportunity in front of you, why not go for it?” Beal said. “There are still other teams, but we know the way we’ve been playing and with the confidence we have, we know we can move up.”
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