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WASHINGTON – The hair on Bradley Beal's chin is starting to fill in, progressing from peach fuzz to a solid soul patch. He wears a headband now, a throwback to his "Iverson days," when Beal was a kid from St. Louis trying to mimic one of the game's most prolific scorers of his era in every way, from his fearless play to his flawless braids. And the smile has basically been banned from making any more on-court appearances, replaced by a determined, menacing scowl.
Beal's inner assassin escaped into public consumption last postseason – when the Washington Wizards shooting guard took his cues from the ultra-confident Paul Pierce, trash talking and cursing the Toronto Raptors out of the first round. Pierce is gone, but that edgier, cockier Beal appears to be here to stay, if the early part of the season is any indication. After becoming the first Wizard since Gilbert Arenas in 2009 to score at least 100 points in the season's first four games, Beal appears poised for a breakout campaign and was asked if this was the kind of start he envisioned.
"I'm not an oracle," Beal said, allowing himself to laugh briefly at his own joke, "but yeah."
The jab-step, step-back 3-pointer that Beal buried with 0.3 seconds left to give the Wizards a 102-99 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday at Verizon Center was as ruthless as they come. For anyone unsure, check Beal's reaction after it dropped, after John Wall rushed him for a chest-bumping celebration and the crowd went bonkers. Beal never cracked even the slightest grin because he expected to make it, telling his teammates not to worry after Tony Parker tied the game on the previous possession because he was going to win it.
"I told everybody don't worry about it," Beal said.
While Beal's play so far has gone according to his plan, his week began in disappointing fashion after he and the Wizards reached a mutual agreement to shelve contract negotiations until next July after failing to come to terms on an extension.
The Wizards view the 22-year-old Beal as a foundational piece for the organization, a future star who has already teamed with Wall to form the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference, a duo that's surging on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the best in the league. But the Wizards also have plans to upgrade the roster next summer – preferably with the signing of a four-time scoring champion who was born and raised in the area and will be a free agent in 2016 – and need Beal to exercise both patience and faith for that to occur.
"This is where I want to be. I'm not looking at any other teams. I'm not looking to go anywhere else. I believe in this team we have in this locker room. I'm a big cornerstone of this team, so I'm here. I want to be here. Hopefully, the front office knows that. I'm pretty sure that they know that," Beal told Yahoo Sports. "It's a business at the end of the day. I can't let that affect the way I play, nor will I ever let it. It's money at the end of the day. And I just want to go out here and play my butt off, each and every night and get what I deserve. Earn every penny that I get. If that's the max, then it's the max. And if it's not, it's not. At least I can look at it and say I gave it my all."
Beal stands to make more money by waiting. Since Wall was already named the team's designated player when he agreed to a five-year, $80 million extension in 2013, Beal was eligible for only a four-year extension worth more than $90 million. By becoming a restricted free agent, Beal could sign a five-year contract with the Wizards worth more than $120 million.
The incentive for Beal to sign a rookie extension, however, was more for the security of not having to worry about the risk of injury, since he has missed parts of his first three seasons with stress injuries in his right leg. When Anthony Davis agreed to his record, five-year, $145 million extension with New Orleans only a minute into the free-agent negotiating period, Beal fully thought the Wizards would quickly take care of him, especially since Wall received his deal before making his first All-Star team and following a season in which he missed 33 games with a knee injury.
"When you're in that situation, you're sitting there waiting, like, 'Here we go,' " Beal, who went third overall in the 2012 draft, told Yahoo Sports of his reaction to Davis's extension. "But it didn't happen. It's no hard feelings and you just have to move on. It was frustrating at first, but I understood it. I couldn't be selfish about it. I couldn't think, 'Oh, they don't want me.' Because that's not the case. They're just being smart with what they want to do. And I honestly, I respect it, because it makes sense for both sides to wait until next year anyway."
The Wizards offered an extension for less than the maximum with a purely strategic purpose, considering Beal's talent would surely command such a deal with the deluge of television money arriving next year. But Beal's cap hold will be $14 million next summer, as opposed to $20 million had they agreed to an extension. With the extra room, the Wizards could chase Kevin Durant and add some help to a roster that currently has just four other players under contract for 2016-2017 – Wall, Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre. Washington would then be able to go over the salary cap to retain Beal because it owns his Bird rights.
"That's the goal. Obviously, that's the goal," Beal told Yahoo. "I trust what they're doing. I understand what they're doing. I have no [anger] toward [team president] Ernie [Grunfeld] or anyone else in the organization. I know at the end of the day, this is where I'm going to be and hopefully that I continue to be here. I don't even worry about it. I'm worried about this season and controlling what I can control. I'm not in there arguing back and forth with Ernie like, 'I need this!' I'm just out here playing and doing what I do and letting my game speak for itself."
The Spurs employed a similar tactic last season when they persuaded Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, to hold off on his rookie extension so the team would eventually have the financial flexibility to sign a marquee free agent, such as LaMarcus Aldridge. Leonard had the best season of his career, winning Defensive Player of the Year, but admitted that playing for what he hoped would come wasn't always easy.
"Because I didn't know," Leonard said. "I just let my mind stay focused on basketball and let the rest take care of itself. I don't play the game just for the money. I really love to play and I just focused on my team … on myself, how I could improve and how I could help us win."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn't worried about how Leonard was going to respond to having to wait: "He trusted us. We think that everything comes at its own pace, at the appropriate time, and I think he understood that. His agent understood. He knows our history, so it wasn't a problem."
Leonard followed the plan perfectly, agreeing to re-sign on July 1 but waiting to make it official two weeks later, after Aldridge signed using the available cap space. Now that the Wizards and Detroit with Andre Drummond are both set to copy the latest Spurs trend, Popovich wasn't the least bit flattered or amused. "I don't pay attention to what they're doing," he said.
That Leonard was Beal's first opponent after failing to agree to an extension seemed almost fitting. But it also represented a huge step in Beal's growth as an offensive weapon capable of producing against the game's best perimeter defender. Leonard arrived in Washington having already flustered two of the game's best scorers in Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony this season. After scoring 26 points in the Wizards' comeback win over Milwaukee last Friday, Beal declared in an on-court postgame television interview that, "Nobody can stop me." He saw no need to amend those comments – in, fact, he repeated them – after wearing down Leonard by relentlessly rubbing off screens and diving to the basket.
"He's a great defender. He's an awesome defender. Great competitor. He's definitely one of the best to ever guard me. He's tough," Beal said of Leonard. "At the same time, I'm not going to let anybody keep me from being me. No matter who it is. I'm not taking anything away from him or anybody else in the league; it's just me being confident in myself. It's just me coming into my own, I guess."
Beal has adjusted his game, vowing to take more 3-pointers and "stop shooting those damn long twos" after heeding the advice of Pierce and watching film with his trainer, Drew Hanlen. He has also adjusted his attitude, with that nasty streak sticking around for a while. He's motivated to be a better player, to earn the contract he believes he deserves and to help the Wizards advance further than the second-round inferno that has ruined the past two seasons.
The smile might come back. He might even shave. But Beal has no intention of letting up with so much at stake this season.
"I promised that every time I stepped on the floor, I was going to give it my all," Beal told Yahoo. "I'm not playing for anybody else but my family, the man upstairs, myself and these guys in this locker room. The biggest thing for me is making sure I'm confident in myself and continue to prove to myself and prove to my teammates that this is what I'm going to continue to do for the rest of the year."
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