LAS VEGAS -- There's been a single phrase Washington Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell has used to describe the team's first-round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft over the past three days. No matter what has been asked about Bradley Beal after the first three Wizards summer league games, Cassell ends his monologue like this.
"Bradley Beal," Cassell said after the Wizards' second game, "is the least of my worries right now."
Part of that is because he's clearly the most decorated player on the Wizards' Vegas Summer League roster. But in repeating this refrain, Cassell is providing a precursor to what so many coaches will say about Beal throughout his career. For better or worse, he's the kind of player a coach is simply going to love.
A lot of that is due to what's pretty clear on the surface. At just 19 years old, Beal is mature beyond his years. On the court, he maintains the same, cool demeanor no matter how much he is scoring. Almost nothing rattles him.
"If you just walked into the gym, and [the score is] 100-100, you wouldn't know if he had one point or 30 points," Cassell said about him at one point.
Beyond that, he's unselfish, willing to create for his teammates or fade into the background to let them shine. He's mature off the court, taking good care of himself and emerging quickly as a top public speaker in the locker room.
A deeper look, though, reveals just how seamlessly Beal fits into any coach's schemes. He won't always dazzle in the scoring column, and while he stuffs the stat sheet well, there will be plenty of games where his box-score production will seem mediocre.
But coaches don't think like fans. They think about process before results, execution before completion, versatility before production, reliability before upside.
From their perspective, Bradley Beal is a gem.
Beal's calling card is his shooting, but that's become such an urban legend that it obscures the versatility of his game. If anything, his jump shot is closer to being a weakness than a strength. That's not to say Beal can't shoot, because that's far from reality. But just like any shooter, the stroke comes and goes. The beauty of Beal's game is that he finds ways to get things done even when he's not scoring.
I don't mean this in terms of production, really, though Beal has done a nice job stuffing the stat sheet. It's more that it's a wonderful luxury for a coach to be able to switch his role so often and not have to worry about Beal losing his rhythm.
If you think about it, Beal played three distinct roles offensively in the Wizards' first three Summer League games. In the opener, he ran off baseline screens, caught the ball on the move and made immediate decisions. In the second and third games, the Wizards used him as a primary ball-handler, letting him go to work running pick and roll to drive to the basket or set up his teammates. Between those experiments, Beal also had stretches where he was simply a spot-up shooter, letting his teammates get involved in the action.
Procedurally, he succeeded in all three roles. Sometimes, the shots didn't fall, but he created the looks the Wizards' coaches wanted. Most shooting guards can do one or two of those things. Very few can do three.
"I really wasn't worried about scoring too much," Beal said after the second game on Saturday. "Everybody can score on this team. I was just trying to get my teammates involved."
Lots of players say something like that. Then, they dominate the ball and try to run the show in a misguided attempt to stay aggressive. Beal can do that if necessary -- as he explained at one point, the only thing stopping him from playing like that is himself. But he doesn't have to in order to be effective for his team. He can switch roles depending on what they need and whatever the coach wants.
There's a more specific application of Beal's versatility too. While many fans like to think of set plays as if they're designed for one specific endpoint, the reality is that different actions all fold into each other. They have to, because NBA defenses are too good to consistently get beat by the first action. Without players that can adjust on the fly, any team is going to have too many empty possessions.
In the Wizards' case, Beal perfectly solves a huge weakness in their offense. For several years, the Wizards could have had used a shooting guard who could come off a baseline screen and immediately go into a pick and roll. Their offensive system relies so much on this kind of action, but if the shooting guard can't adjust when the initial play is cut off, the entire offense bogs down. The shooting guard could be the best catch-and-shoot player in the world, but even the best won't be open every time. When they aren't, they need to be able to go quickly into a pick and roll to facilitate additional ball and player movement.
This was something the Wizards' previous starting shooting guards, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford, couldn't do. For starters, neither is naturally proficient at setting up his man coming off the screen. Young became a lost cause because he had trouble remembering the plays, while Crawford remains a work in progress. But beyond that, their natural inclination was to go into an isolation when things bogged down, because that's the kind of players they are. The Wizards tried using Young in pick and rolls before they traded him to the Clippers, and it failed because Young, who is used to just beating one guy, took too long to read the help defender before making a decision. Crawford has better vision than Young, but he, too, wastes valuable dribbles surveying the defense instead of turning all the different pick and roll reads into natural instinct.
These deficiencies made it impossible for the Wizards to open up the playbook as much as they'd like. No coach is going to resort to plays where the off guard has multiple responsibilities if the shooting guard can't handle those plays.
Beal, though, has no such deficiencies. As such, the Wizards should be ecstatic. A whole new section of the playbook can now be dusted off.
So much of this is possible because of Beal's on-court intelligence. You can't be a versatile player without being able to learn the mechanics of several different roles. That's why Beal's peers have already noticed how quick a learner he is.
"He don't play like he's 19," John Wall said when asked about his new teammate. "He plays like he's been in the league for a couple rounds."
On-court intelligence is difficult to pin down, but it matters so much. If you think about it, every player must make a large number of decisions on every single possession. Every step, every dribble, every movement by anyone on the court triggers an immediate reaction. Players are essentially making choices at each of these steps, but due to the speed of the game itself, there's simply no time to really think about all these decisions. Instead, the players have to train themselves to act on instinct.
But this can also make player development difficult. A coach must toe the line between maintaining that instinct and still providing instruction. Too much of the latter can paralyze the player's brain and cause him to play too slowly. Too little of the former can prevent growth.
That's why it matters that Beal understands team dynamics so well. A coach doesn't have to tell him that all the movements he makes on the court happen because he's making hundreds of little decisions. He already knows. From there, it's just a matter of figuring out a way to address one or two decisions that could be improved.
You might think that the above characteristics make Beal seem more like a role player than a star, and you might be right. Beal probably doesn't have the traditional ceiling of, say, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Andre Drummond. He's definitely more of a "safe pick" than either guy.
But that's not the same thing as saying he doesn't have much potential for growth. On the contrary, it means the opposite.
One rival team executive, whose team checked into Beal before the draft, told SBNation.com that his ability to play within a system will actually give him more opportunity to develop his game. As the executive explained, the coach is more liable to give someone like Beal more freedom to freelance in games, and if he makes a mistake, the coach "will give him the benefit of the doubt" and let him try it again sooner rather than later.
By contrast, other talented players that aren't as good at succeeding within the team construct won't get that same kind of latitude.
"For other players, when they get more responsibility and mess up, the coach will think, 'Well, here he goes again,'" the executive said. "They might get two chances all year to try a new move in a game. But they're more willing to forgive a guy like Beal, which means he'll get so many more chances to develop his game."
That in-game experimentation is critical to player development, but only so many players will ever earn a coach's trust. The rest are forced to only try to get better in practice, and while that is useful, it also saps confidence, lessens the amount of information a player can use to improve and pigeonholes a guy into a certain role. It's hard for players to improve obvious weaknesses without being given the capacity to fail, but coaches are reluctant to give players the opportunity because they feel like they can't trust them to do what they're supposed to do. This is how incomplete players remain incomplete players despite all their work in practice and in the offseason.
With Beal, though, this is less of a problem. He'll miss shots, and he won't be perfect with his assignments every time, but in general, his process will be right. That means, in the coach's' eyes, that even if Beal fails while experimenting, at least he doesn't mess things up 90 percent of the time. They'll easily accept that tradeoff.
That's how coachability can produce upside.
Beal, of course, is not a perfect prospect. For all this talk about process, he still needs to make the results count more often. He was 1-7 on jump shots in the Wizards' loss to the NBA D-League Select squad on Sunday night, missing short several times because his conditioning, while solid for a 19-year-old, still needs improvement. His shooting motion in practice is beautiful, but in games, it needs to be a little more fluid. He can also be overpowered defensively by bigger players, and he needs to tighten his ball-handling on pick and rolls.
All that might explain why his individual numbers could look underwhelming. Other players from his class could very well produce better traditional statistics and more highlights.
But through it all, he'll be doing exactly what his coach wants him to do. All a coach can really ask is for his players to be in the spots that will produce the best chance of success. That's how Beal plays, and that's how he'll make his teammates better and give himself more opportunity for individual growth.
A team like the Wizards has employed so many players who don't function well in a team setting. It will be refreshing for them to rely heavily on a prospect who embodies the complete opposite of that mindset.