To say the Washington Wizards have disappointed this year would be an understatement.
They’re 11th in the Eastern Conference, 4.5 games ahead of the Trae Young-led Atlanta Hawks. 17 of Washington’s 24 wins have come in front of its rightfully disgruntled fans. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers (5-24) have a worse road record than the Wizards (7-24).
The offense has been fine, I guess, though the defense (26th in defensive rating) has been nothing short of abysmal. The Wizards entered the trade deadline needing to do something: Either stripping it down or swinging for a win-now piece to save their season.
Of course, they opted to save tax dollars instead. Out went Otto Porter and Markieff Morris; in came Jabari Parker (and his second-year team option), Bobby Portis and the idea of Wesley Johnson.
There are approximately 37 different avenues that could be taken to slander the Wizards. If their on-court product is any indication, they surely wouldn’t be able to defend any of it. But if there’s one saving grace for this season, it’s been the play of Bradley Beal.
(Okay, sorry, moving on…)
Beal has become the complete package offensively while defending at a mostly solid level (though that’s waned some since John Wall ‘s injury). The growth Beal’s shown in Wall’s absence might be the only thing keeping Wizards fans from completely losing it.
Beal is a dangerous shooter, both on spot-up attempts and off movement. His ability to space and relocate draws the eyes of defenders, opening the floor for his teammates. He had a rudimentary handle earlier in his career—good enough to beat aggressive close-outs, but one that left him stranded in isolation situations.
Those limitations made him a clear number two alongside Wall, but that dynamic has changed over the last two seasons. Beal has become more comfortable with the ball in his hands. He sees the floor better, manipulates defenses with more craft and makes quicker decisions.
And Beal still gets busy beyond the arc.
He’s shooting a career-low 35 percent from deep, but that’s coming on high volume (7.2 attempts) and a higher level of difficulty. Only 9.4 percent of his threes have come from the corners. 76.3 percent of his threes have been assisted on—the lowest mark of his career and nearly seven percentage points lower than his career average (83 percent). He’s taking more triples off the bounce (2.5 attempts) while hitting them at a 35.3 percent clip.
The first thing you notice is how fluid Beal is off movement. He has superb footwork and a steady pace that allows him to square up and balance in an instant:
Beal has been able to leverage that threat into downhill damage. His improved handle has made it easier to get to his spots, which has led to a barrage of pull-up middies and shots at the hoop.
Not only is he finishing better than ever (67.3 percent at the rim), he’s getting to the line more, posting a career-best free throw rate (26.8) while averaging 5.3 free throw attempts per game. Through 60 games, he’s drawn 131 shooting fouls.
He drew 135 all of last season.
The most encouraging part of Beal’s development has come as a passer. He isn’t naturally wired to get others involved. Instead, he leverages his own bucket-getting abilities to strike fear in the hearts of defenses.
From there, he’s able to make the necessary reads to generate looks for others. He’s averaging over five assists for the first time in his career. His assist rate has climbed to 23.5, while his turnover rate is slightly down from last season (11.5 to 11.4).
You won’t confuse Beal with James Harden as a top-tier manipulator, but his improvement has boiled down to experience and utilization. He feasts on wide pindowns and Pistol action.
Getting the ball on the move naturally forces defenses to rotate. Beal has done a better job making the right play a beat earlier. He’s been especially good at finding Portis, a front-court spacer that counters teams trapping Beal or playing “drop” coverage.
Portis is shooting 56.3 percent from two and 53.8 percent from three off passes from Beal.
Though he isn’t a high-level creator yet, Beal’s been able to generate good looks for his teammates. Per PBP Stats, Beal has already racked up 174 Moreyball assists (assists on corner threes or shots at the rim) after accumulating 158 last season. He’s been especially adept at finding corner shooters.
His 43 assists on corner threes rank third among shooting guards behind James Harden (68) and Donovan Mitchell (53).
Beal is making the leap from elite secondary option to reliable top dog. He’s generating 39.3 points per game as a scorer and passer. That puts him in the ballpark with Damian Lillard (41.5), Stephen Curry (41.3), Kyrie Irving (40.6) and Paul George (39.0).
I know team success matters when it comes to the arbitrary rankings we give players, but we need to recognize just how good Beal is.
If he isn’t a superstar talent, he’s getting pretty darn close.
Stats are accurate through games played on February 25th
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.