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WASHINGTON – Bradley Beal cupped a hand under his blood-trickling nose, waved toward his bench, and the thousands of fans who battled through a snow-crippled city to get to the Verizon Center on Monday night let out a collective groan. A 40-something man in a Wizards sweatshirt muttered an expletive. Indeed, the sight of Beal walking off the floor is as familiar as the one of him on it.
Beal’s latest injury – a broken nose and a concussion, courtesy of a wayward forearm from Boston’s Marcus Smart – didn't keep him out long and he returned Thursday after a one-game absence, yet it’s a reminder of the fragility of the fourth-year guard. Beal missed 54 games in his first three seasons and has already been sidelined 21 games in this one. The primary culprit: a troublesome right leg that has been plagued by stress reactions, a chronic problem that Beal, 22, admitted recently could force him to monitor his minutes for the rest of his career.
Beal’s health problems are an issue for the struggling Wizards (20-24) in the short term and loom as a larger one this offseason, when Beal hits free agency for the first time. Privately, Washington officials are eager to make a long-term commitment to Beal; when healthy, he is an All-Star-caliber guard, one who averaged 23.4 points during the Wizards’ playoff run last season. The Beal-John Wall backcourt ranks as arguably the best young duo in the NBA, and Washington knows that its ability to lure a topflight free agent – hello, Kevin Durant – will be significantly enhanced with both its guards under contract. Yet team officials have to be leery of dangling a max-level contract in front of a player with a recurring injury that could plague him for the next decade.
“Stress reactions and stress fractures come from repetitive impact activities,” said Dr. T.O. Souryal, the Mavericks’ former team physician and the host of a sports medicine radio show in Dallas. “Unfortunately, basketball is full of repetitive running and jumping. Practices are more impactful than games in some situations. Recurrent stress reactions are pretty rare. In general, they are worrisome; you have to manage them so they don’t progress.”
Beal has worked to address issues that could lead to recurrence, his agent, Mark Bartelstein, told The Vertical. He has increased the padding in his sneakers. He has added more vitamin D to his diet. He took a more gradual approach to returning from his most recent injury in December, easing back into things rather than immediately ramping up when he felt healthy. Some shooters don’t elevate much on 3-point shots; Beal does, increasing the impact, a factor that is compounded by the hundreds of jumpers Beal puts up in practice. To that end, Beal has adopted a more regimented program designed to minimize impact as much as possible.
Some things are beyond control – Beal, athletic and active, routinely ranks among the top players in the NBA in distance traveled on the court, per SportVU data – but Beal’s team believes it has a handle on the problem.
“It’s been frustrating for Brad because he’s a great competitor and he wants to be there for his teammates, his coaches,” Bartelstein told The Vertical. “The good news is that we have got this thing figured out.”
Teams with an eye on Beal, a restricted free agent this summer, have expressed caution. “He’s one of the best pure shooters in the league,” a general manager told The Vertical, “but I’m scared of him.” Healthy, Beal would be a lock to secure a $15 million-plus annual contract. He still may, but teams – including the Wizards – could seek some protection. An example is Brooklyn’s recent deal with Brook Lopez, the skilled center who has been plagued by foot injuries. Last summer, Lopez signed a three-year, $60 million deal to stay with the Nets. The team protected itself by inserting language that permitted them to cut Lopez’s salary by 50 percent in 2016-17 and 75 percent in 2017-18 if Lopez suffers another significant injury to the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, with benchmarks Lopez can hit each season to fully guarantee subsequent years.
The Wizards could attempt to construct a comparable deal. Ideally, they won’t have to. In a perfect world, Beal returns healthy, continues a rapid ascent to join the league’s elite perimeter players, and Washington solidifies a foundation that can at least entertain the idea of competing with Cleveland in the coming years. The Wizards want to make Beal wealthy, so long as he can stay on the floor enough to earn it.