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Hughes: What Bradley Beal is working on this offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Bradley Beal has steadily improved his game year-over-year each of the last six seasons, in one way or another, and in 2020-21 that led to the best season of his career so far. He started the All-Star game and made the All-NBA team for the first time.
Making third team All-NBA means he was a top-15 player last season. If he is to keep improving from here, there are only so many more levels he can reach.
But Beal has a particular focus this summer as he aims to level up once again.
"Deeper threes. I’m not trying to compete with Dame [Lillard], I’m not Logo Lillard. But I want to shoot deeper threes and shoot more threes," Beal told NBC Sports Washington.
"You know I need to shoot more threes. You probably say it all the time. And, obviously, make them. I have to make them."
To understand Beal's trajectory as a three-point shooter requires important context. Last season, he shot a career-low 34.9% from three and made just 2.2 threes per game, his lowest average since 2015-16, his Age 22 season.
Beal, though, still averaged a career-high 31.3 points per game to lead the Eastern Conference because threes aren't his only source for scoring. He also used to be rightly regarded as one of the game's best three-point shooters, as he shot 39.9% from three through his first five NBA seasons.
The context would be how his role changed, particularly as his former teammate John Wall began dealing with significant injuries. Beal's three-point shooting dropped off after the 2016-17 season, with his percentage in the four years since falling to 35.8.
That could be explained as simply as Beal had to become more of a primary playmaker once Wall went down. He became the top priority of opposing defenses and has since been treated with a heavy dose of double-teams. Wall, it should be noted, is also uniquely good at finding his teammates open shots.
The change has also led Beal shooting more threes off the dribble and, like most players, he's more accurate on catch-and-shoot plays. Beal's percentage on pull-up threes the last four seasons is 32.2, compared to 39.3% on catch-and-shoot. He has averaged 3.0 pull-up threes per game the last four years, more than double what he shot the previous four years (1.2/g).
There is also the matter of tougher defenses. According to the NBA's tracking data, only 20.7% of Beal's threes last season were considered open or wide open. Now, compare that to 2016-17 (Wall's last healthy season) when that number was 38.7%.
It isn't just Beal's percentage he would like to improve, it's also the quantity of attempts, as he noted. Last season, he shot 6.2 threes per game, his lowest amount since 2015-16.
Beal's three-point shooting should be helped by the Wizards' overall improvement in that area this offseason. Through a series of roster moves, they addressed what was one of their biggest weaknesses in 2020-21, when they ranked in the bottom-third of the NBA in all three-point shooting categories.
New additions like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Aaron Holiday should add space to the Wizards' offense immediately. Meanwhile, first-round pick Corey Kispert could develop into one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the league if his pre-draft projections prove correct.
The return of Thomas Bryant should also help, as he has hit 41.1% of his threes the past two seasons. More shooters should mean more room for Beal to operate, and perhaps fewer double-teams.
When it comes to deeper threes, Beal took a step back last season. After shooting 35.8% on 6.3 attempts per game from 25-to-29 feet in 2019-20, Beal shot 34.5% on 4.4 attempts last year. For comparison, Lillard hit 41.4% on 7.2 attempts per game from that range last season. The only player better at that volume was Stephen Curry, who knocked down an absurd 42.7% of his 9.1 attempts on average.
In addition to three-point shooting, there is another area of his game Beal is honing in on this summer, which he's been less associated with throughout his career.
"Shooting more [threes] and a little bit more post-up. I want to post up a little bit more. That’s probably why [USA Basketball coach Gregg Popovich] thinks I’m a little bit more thicker, too. I want to be able to get to the block and make something happen down there," he said.
The Popovich reference was a nod to the Team USA coach's remark about how strong Beal looked during their pre-Olympics training camp. But posting up is definitely an area Beal could improve in, if he intends to. Last season, he posted up on only 1.2% of his plays, the fourth-lowest rate among qualified players. And his 0.91 points per possession on those plays was tied for 91st in the league.
Examples of guards who use post-ups effectively would include Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul. Neither employs the post-up much more often than Beal, 1.8% of the time for Irving and 1.3% of the time for Paul last season, but both are much more efficient. Irving averaged 1.30 points per possession, while Paul averaged 1.21, both among the top-13 players in the NBA in the category.
Beal has become one of the most effective and consistent scorers in the NBA. But as he looks ahead to his Age 28 season, he sees three-point shooting and posting up as keys to taking his game to new heights once again.