Needing to close out a big game against Louisville to advance to the Final Four, Florida did something it didn't do much over the course of the season: it turned to freshman Bradley Beal, and not upperclassmen Erving Walker or Kenny Boynton, to bring the game home.
By now, you know exactly how that turned out. There was one blown layup with four and a half minutes left. There was not one, but two drives to the basket erased by Gorgui Dieng. There was a great defensive play negated by a mind-blowing traveling call. There was a really good look at a three-pointer that fell short and a rebound in traffic that ultimately resulted in another missed three. It ended up in a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
For college fans, the display ruined the perfect narrative of the talented freshman who seized control of a veteran team when it needed that most. For NBA fans like myself, though, the exchange was important for another reason. Failure can lead to tremendous growth, especially for an 18-year-old kid. Failure, in this case, will cause said growth, because so much was already needed to even get Beal to this point.
To understand why Beal needed to fail to grow, one must understand exactly what happened at Florida this season. If you think about it, Florida didn't really need Bradley Beal. The core of the backcourt that led Florida to the Elite 8 in 2011 was back. Point guard Erving Walker and off-guard Kenny Boynton were plenty good enough on their own to lead Florida to big things this year. They ranked first and second in shot attempts in 2011, so asking them to defer to a freshman was out of the question. Toss in Mike Rosario, a Rutgers transfer who was a 16-point scorer in a loaded Big East, and the Gators' backcourt had an embarrassment of riches.
This was not an ideal situation for a freshman to live through, especially one as team-oriented as Beal. There were all sorts of reasons to shrink into a complementary role. In fact, that was something he was very worried about when he first stepped on campus.
"I know that coming in the first couple of games, and throughout half of the season, I was kind of worried about what my teammates would say and things like that. I didn't want to step on anybody's toes, messing up team chemistry and anything like that."
For four months, Beal had to figure out where he fit in. He was capable of doing pretty much anything he wanted, but didn't always know how to help with what was needed. Few things were consistent. He had some games where his shot was falling and some where it wasn't. He was sometimes ball-dominant and sometimes merely a spectator. He tried turning himself into a mere spot-up shooter, but that only meant that his entire game was dictated on whether his shot was falling.
Coach Billy Donovan knew Beal was better than that. He knew that Beal was one of the rare players capable of dominating a game while still playing within a team setting. It was only a matter of unlocking that potential. Finally, as Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated noted, Donovan told Beal to stop worrying about his teammates' feelings. As we saw during this NCAA Tournament run, those words awoke Beal and his teammates.
And so, for the last couple weeks, Beal dominated games in subtle ways. He ran to the corners and snuck past his primary defender to snag offensive rebounds. He ran the pick-and-roll to force switches, then swung the ball quickly to the weakside to ensure the Gators could take advantage of the mismatch. He moved into open space and released his jump shot with confidence. He became a better team defender. Basically, he enforced his will on games in subtle ways, allowing his teammates to be themselves.
The only thing left was closing out the Louisville Cardinals. Here, Beal made all the right plays. We look at the result, but we forget all that Beal did to even put himself in those positions. He made big-time moves to blow past his primary defender to get to the basket. He made an unbelievable defensive play to get in the right spot to intercept the pass in the final minute. He created a very good look for himself to tie the game. All that was missing was actually converting on those plays.
That failure will sting. But once Beal really rolls the tape, he'll realize that, on a team of upperclassmen, he was the one trusted with finishing the job, and he would have if he could just have finished the play. Confidence from failure is a strange thing, but when the player involved did so much to go out of his way from even being put in position to win the game, even failure is better than not trying.
What does all this have to do with Beal's NBA chances? Normally, there's reason to be skeptical of breakout performances in the NCAA Tournament. The whole body of work still matters more than a few games at the end, because just when you think someone turns their entire game around, there's a three-minute stretch like the end of the Louisville game when the player falls short. Moments like these stick in the minds of many when the whole product is statistically underwhelming.
But in this case, the way Beal methodically put together his many attributes speaks volumes about his future. The shooting guard positon has changed in the NBA. No longer does the position require a universal skill set. Instead, the role depends on the team. The reason there's such a shortage of classic off-guards is that teams no longer want classic off-guards. They want players capable of fitting in and dominating. They want players who can run the offense as well as they can participate when the offense is being run. We're in the middle of this transition, so the existing talent pool at the position hasn't quite evolved to fit the profile.
Now, consider the journey Beal traveled at Florida this season. As an 18-year-old freshman, Beal figured his game out to the point where he ran the offense as much as he participated in it being run. The other top perimeter prospects in this class can do one or the other. Austin Rivers can run the offense, but never really learned to play well with his teammates. Jeremy Lamb participated as it was being run, but could never wrestle control from Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright. Harrison Barnes had his chance to run the North Carolina offense with Kendall Marshall out, and all we learned was just how much he needed Marshall to raise his game.
But Beal? He earned that duality, overcoming on-court adversity to do so. Now, the final lesson is simple: don't let one tough experience as the go-to creator erase the confidence earned though a season of soul-searching about his game.
Given all he learned this season, that seems like a pretty doable task.