WASHINGTON -- The 23-year-old point guard grew up in a rough neighborhood in Raleigh with a father that was in prison and a mother that worked two jobs to make sure their family got by. He constantly struggled to deal with his father's death and absence in his life, developing an anger problem as an adolescent before several mentors and his own growth steered him back on the right path and shot him into stardom. He plays with amazing ferocity, speed, intelligence and athleticism, seemingly capable of making any play at any time. His only downfalls: staying level emotionally, a shaky jumper and trying to do too much.
The 20-year-old shooting guard grew up in a blue-collar area of St. Louis with parents that were athletes and four football-playing brothers. As he got older, everyone in the family recognized that he was the one with the brightest athletic future and banded together to help him reach his potential. In an attempt to toughen him up, his parents forced him to do drills where he had to finish through his two younger brothers, both of whom were offensive linemen. He plays with amazing poise, never getting too high or too low emotionally. His downfalls: becoming a more complete playmaker and not trying to do enough.
John Wall and Bradley Beal make up the NBA's backcourt of the future, a future that is increasingly blurring with the present. Their opposites attract like peanut butter and jelly, making it even weirder that nobody's found an appropriate nickname for the duo. On offense, Wall's speed and vision blends perfectly with Beal's sweet shooting stroke. On defense, Beal's ability to mark his assignment by the book allows Wall to play free safety.
In Game 4 against the Bulls, they were omnipresent. Their statistics have been better -- Wall shot just 4-15, for example -- but with Nene sidelined, they were the initiators on every play. They pressured Chicago's guards into woeful performances. They were the offensive threats that Chicago geared to stop. And every time the Wizards got into a tough spot, it was one of them, and not one of the more experienced players, that read Chicago's defense properly, worked free for the right kind of shot or set someone else up for an efficient look.
"They're playing beyond their years," Andre Miller said.
The only obstacle stopping the duo from reaching this point was time. Time for the two to mature. Time for the two to learn how to lead instead of just thriving individually. Time for the two to round out their games and fine-tune their preparation. If you ask members of the Wizards, they'll say this has been a long process that began two and a half years ago when the team abandoned ship on their less mature youngsters and traded them in for able-bodied veterans. The tough work since then has prepared the two young guards for this moment.
"I think now these guys aren't just playing basketball," coach Randy Wittman said. "They're understanding a little bit that this is a job."
Whether that growth would have nevertheless occurred organically is tough to say, but the Wizards have kept an eye on the long view throughout. As a rookie, they hired Sam Cassell, nearly fresh off his playing career, as an assistant coach to help develop Wall's game. Cassell played nothing like Wall, and that was the point. The Wizards felt Cassell would be a great resource in helping him develop his perimeter shot and in-between game. An hour before each game, you'll see the two practicing jump shots and floaters, jabbering away at each other as they do. It's still a work in progress, but Wall shot 41 percent from the right elbow and 35 percent from three-point range this season, both respectable numbers.
More importantly, the threat of the improved jumper has opened up the lanes Wall needs to use his superior court vision. The Wizards' best set play Sunday was to give Wall the ball on the right wing, station a big man at the top of the key and react as the Bulls tried to push Wall baseline. Wall read the third defender each time, finding Marcin Gortat rolling down the lane or Ariza wide open in the opposite corner.
"I always tell these guys that I don't really worry about scoring unless I'm hot," Wall said. "A lot of teams will focus in on me like they focus in on Brad. I don't mind being the decoy."
Beal, meanwhile, was challenged to diversify his game. After limiting his role as a rookie, the Wizards dramatically expanded it, placing him in regular pick-and-roll situations and staggering his minutes so he'd have to carry a group of reserves to start the second and fourth quarters. Fans grew frustrated at his propensity to attempt low-percentage contested long two-pointers, wondering why a brilliant shooter was being used like a ball-dominant guard instead of popular dopplegangers Ray Allen and Reggie Miller.
But the Wizards knew that the experience would help Beal develop down the road even if it caused him to take a temporary step back. In this series, he's read Chicago's stifling coverages like a 10-year pro. We're down the road, and the struggles are paying off.
Bulls on the Brink
Defensive adjustments power Wizards' win
•Bullets ForeverBradley Beal and the Wizards were determined not to let Mike Dunleavy beat them again. From the opening tip, their defensive effort ensured he wouldn't.
Bulls on the Brink
"It helps out the guy next to me because sometimes he gets tired," Beal said while motioning toward his backcourt mate. "If he's tired from going, going and going, I can run pick and roll and he can be the second guy that's flying off the next pick and roll."
There were other heroes in Game 4 for Washington, of course. Ariza hit all the threes and played equally aggressive defense. Trevor Booker stepped up in the absence of Nene before fouling out; he rewarded himself by doing his postgame interview on his back while holding his knees, covered in ice bags, in the air. Wittman has proven himself as a coach on the biggest stage, making strong in-game adjustments, calling well-executed after-timeout plays, devising an offensive system that's lit up the vaunted Bulls defense for 108 points per 100 possessions and managing his rotation with few complaints.
But for the first time in this series, it was the young backcourt that lifted everyone else up, not the other way around. They set the tone from the opening minutes, when Beal jumped a Noah pass for a breakaway layup, then stayed with Dunleavy on the next play, forcing a miss that Wall turned into a fast-break three for Ariza with his vision and speed.
"They're competing every possession," said Marcin Gortat, who criticized the team's seriousness earlier this month in comments many believe were directed at Wall and Beal. "They're giving extra effort even if they miss shots. They're fighting. They're engaged."
There will come a day when that young backcourt is no longer young and will do the lifting more consistently. The day is rapidly approaching.