TORONTO -- Bradley Beal was born for this. He was built for it. Watch the Washington Wizards guard curl around a screen, rise up for a jumper and hit nothing but net. He looks nothing but natural, like nothing can faze him.
Beal is only 19 years old, but you wouldn't know it. There's nothing 19 about how he carries himself. On the floor he rarely forces anything -- he's smooth, smart, steady. In the half-court, you'll almost never see him take more than three dribbles. Listed at 6'3 and 207 pounds, he's sneaky with his speed, strength and athleticism. Explosive fastbreak dunks, reverse layups and rebounds in traffic shouldn't look so easy.
Washington is playing like a playoff team lately and Beal is playing like a polished professional. The Wizards have won three games in a row, seven of their last nine and 14 of their last 25. Beal's averaged 20.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in his last six games, shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from behind the three-point line. After the rookie scored 21 against Houston Saturday and grabbed an offensive board to seal the game, point guard John Wall referred to Beal, big man Nene and himself as the team's stars.
“It means a lot, but I don’t see it that way,” Beal said. “That’s John’s opinion. In my eyes I still have a lot of work to do. Those two are definitely the stars, this is their team. I’m really just trying to make a big impact as best as I can and just trying to help the team out.”
Such sentiment would sound fake from some players, but from Beal it's for real. Off the court he's quiet, polite, respectful. On the team plane he sits silently in the back row, headphones on. The No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, he has high expectations but low hype, no personal brand, no signs of a sense of entitlement. What he does on the court may eventually land him on magazine covers, but in no way does he court that attention.
If Beal received any recognition earlier on in the season, it wasn't the good kind. The Wizards began the year banged up, with Nene's left foot and Wall's left knee keeping them out of the lineup. As Washington lost its first 12 games and 24 of its first 28, Beal had to adjust not only to the size and skill of NBA competition, the deeper three-point line and the travel -- with the Wizards short on offensive options, he was often their most marked man.
He averaged 12.1 points on just 35.3 percent field goal shooting at 26.9 percent from beyond the arc before January. As effortless as Beal's game appears now, he struggled to find his footing at first. Nothing is easy in a losing locker room.
"Earlier this year, guys hardly ever spoke to each other," Beal said.
Beal stayed tough through those times, commanding respect with the way he handled himself. Beal's taken his bumps, including hard fouls and hard falls, collisions with cameramen, chipped teeth courtesy of teammate Cartier Martin in practice and a right wrist sprain that kept him sidelined for five games after attempting to play through it.
As the team turned things around, the atmosphere improved immensely.
"Guys are a lot closer," Beal said. "We're starting to hold each other accountable. We're giving each other teaching points, being leaders on the team ... It was kind of an adjustment for us. In order for us to win, we started realizing what we needed to do and we became a lot more closer and we're starting to understand each other."
If there wasn't a sense of family in the locker room before, it's arrived with their midseason push. But as that grows, Beal's actual family is backing him up.
All season, teammates would see Beal getting shots up at night with his older, bigger brothers, Bruce and Brandon. The two ex-NCAA football players live with him and, after games, they'll all usually go straight home and play video games rather than go out. At the gym, they hardly say a word while Bradley puts in his work. They don't need to.
Beal's younger brothers, 300-plus-pound twins Byron and Bryon, attend his former St. Louis high school, Chaminade College Prep. They play on the offensive line. His parents met at Kentucky State, where Bobby played football and Besta played basketball. He talks to them every day.
"That's just how close we are," Beal said. "I have a real small circle. It's just something that we are. It's the way I've always been since I was little. We always just kept to each other."
Beal gives his family all of the credit for the maturity for which he's so often complimented. "That's the way I was raised," he said. "My parents did a great job ... I act way older than how I am, a lot of people mistake how old I really am when they hear me talk."
Besta taught him his sweet shooting stroke and is still keeping tabs on it.
"Every game," said Beal. "It never stops. Sometimes I gotta tell her to chill out because I'm a little older now. But she's still watching film. She probably watches film more than I do and she's up countless hours watching and critiquing my shot. She's been helping me out a lot. Both my parents, my whole family, they're always behind me 100 percent. My mom, she's probably my biggest critic by far. That's what made me into the player I am today, just her pushing me and making me want to do better."
Beal's done much better as the season has gone on. While he played well enough in December to earn Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month -- an award he'll likely receive for the third straight time at the end of February -- he's been entirely more efficient since January, averaging 15.9 points on 45.7 percent shooting and 50.5 percent from behind the three-point line.
Beal is shooting the same number of shots but he's learned how to approach them. Assistant coach Sam Cassell, master of the midrange game, encouraged him to focus on easier opportunities instead of thinking about that ugly three-point percentage he was carrying around.
"Last month, he really pounded on me to start going inside rather than outside first," Beal said. "And then once I started doing that, I started making my shots and then my field goal percentage went up. And then eventually I started knocking down more threes. So it's really just getting my confidence together ... It always feels good to see the ball go in the hoop and it's easier to see a midrange shot go in than a three."
Down the stretch against the Rockets, before that rebound in the final seconds, Wizards assistants remarked on how confident and decisive he looked. They saw a different guy than the one who early in the season looked over to the bench wide-eyed when an opposing team switched on a double-screen, making them chuckle at his rookie moment.
"I'm making better reads now," Beal said. "The game's starting to slow down for me, which is making it that much easier for me. And my teammates did a great job of setting me up and putting me in positions to be able to make plays happen. And it was just all a matter of time. It's just a whole learning experience and I'm starting to realize how guys are starting to play me and realizing what they're trying to take away from me and increase those weaknesses, so to speak, and try to turn them into my strengths."
When watching film, Beal wants to keep improving at reading defenses. He wants to see himself move without the ball even better, protect the ball when he puts it in the floor and use his strength to finish with contact.
Last week late in a game against the Toronto Raptors, Beal spoke up in a timeout, getting on his guys for not competing until the very end. Though it was far from what his teammates were used to, it was welcomed.
"It's been like night and day," said Washington guard A.J. Price. "It sounds cliche but it's the honest truth. From when he first came in, 19-year-old -- he's still 19 -- but just a quiet rookie trying to find his way. We all been there before so we all knew what he was going through: just kind of staying in his lane, not trying to get out of his place. You can see the more comfortable he's got over the past couple of months, that's led to him becoming more vocal on the court and off the court. It's just showing that he's going to be a leader for us."
"I'm weird, my leadership comes along with how I'm developing," Beal said. "I feel a lot more comfortable now so I'm going to speak up more. These guys, really, they open arms to it. They always want me to speak up. First couple months, I didn't even talk. I'm a real quiet guy, I keep to myself sometimes but now I have to realize that I have to be a leader, I have to be vocal. These guys really look up to me to be able to somewhat put the team on my back in certain situations. I really have to step up in certain situations, just speak how I feel sometimes."
That took time as a freshman at Florida last year, too.
"I felt the same way," Beal said. "I took a backseat, kind of. These guys are a lot older so I'm expecting them to be pounding my head with knowledge and pounding me on what I need to do and what I need to get better at. But at the same time I can encourage them or teach them things and what they can do and help them out as well. It's the same thing at Florida. Those guys were older than me, and as the year kept going throughout, coach [Billy Donovan] looked at me to be a leader, and I was a lot more vocal and I led by example as well."
It's easy to tie Beal's breakout to Wall rejoining the lineup on Jan. 12. That's one game after the Wizards' season took its turn with a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, where Beal hit his first game-winner.
But while Beal says, "It's so much easier with him out there," and Wall is adept at finding three-point shooters, to give Wall all the credit would be simplifying it. The surge started with a New Year's Day loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Beal tied his then-career high of 22 points, shooting 4-for-7 from behind the three-point line after missing his last 17 three-point attempts of 2012. Three days later, he broke that career high with 24 points in a two-point loss against the Brooklyn Nets
Wall has absolutely assisted Beal and his team, but since his return, the shooting guard is actually shooting better with him on the bench.
"I'm glad that he started to get himself going before I came back and Nene came back fully healthy so everybody wouldn't say ... he needed us to do good," Wall said. "He's talented enough to do what he do without us there, we just want to be there to help him and make the job easier."
Wall helped Beal even when hurt, telling him to stay with it and be extra aggressive. Now able to play together, it's obvious how they take pressure off of one another. Beal's shooting and scoring ability complements Wall's penetration and passing and it's a bonus that they get along away from the floor. The two first met when Beal was a high schooler and Wall watched him closely in college. If anyone is grabbing Beal to go get some food after a shootaround, it's Wall.
On the surface, the outgoing, 22-year-old Wall is very different from the soft-spoken Beal, but they're the same in the ways that matter. They're both mature, talented and committed to building something in Washington.
"It's a lot of fun because we're similar," Beal said. "We love to play fast, love to get up and down and we like to have fun and have a lot of passion for the game. We love the game, we love to win and I think that's what really connects us."
"It's great, we're building a great chemistry and it came like this," said Wall, snapping his fingers.
For Beal, adjusting to the NBA didn't come like this, but it almost never does for players his age. The fact he's playing with such poise makes his early struggles feel like a distant memory. It's as if he broke through a rookie wall placed right in front of his starting line.
"He was a baby when he came in and now he's a young boy," said Wizards swingman Martell Webster with a laugh. Webster said he sees an "immaculate" sense of urgency from Beal on the floor.
"He has his head on his shoulders and he's very focused on being a great basketball player," Webster continued. "When you have that mentality in anything, you'll do the necessary steps it takes to achieve that."
"He's still got a lot of steps to go, but the kid is playing phenomenal," said Webster. "I keep telling him just stay humble and keep that hunger in his gut. As long as he has that, it's going to take him a long way in this league."
Earning compliments about your mentality and maturity is more difficult than having teammates talk about your talent. Try finding a single soul who'd question Beal's humility or his hunger. Beyond these recent performances, beyond the point production, that's why he seems like such a sure thing.
In the bonus:
Some other notable quotes about Bradley Beal:
Wizards head coach Randy Wittman, on how Beal has developed: "It's him, that's what allowed him to take the next step. It's learning the league, it's learning the game. All this is new to a guy that's coming into our league, especially at 19 years old. It takes you a little while to adjust to the speed of the game, the caliber of the players night in and night out, where your opportunities come. That's all new and so it takes you a little while to adjust to that and I think he's done a nice job with that and then has taken off from there."
Price, on how Beal is playing relative to expectations: "Far ahead. Way farther ahead than where I thought he'd be at. And for me, I thought he was, I knew he was capable of playing the way he's playing. I think highly of his game, anybody on this team can tell you how much I love his game and what he does and he's still exceeded where I thought he'd be at at this point. He's playing unbelievable.
Beal, on how he wants to be perceived: "I'm just a real humble guy and I'm real down to earth. I'm always working hard and that's basically it really. I always want to be the best and I'll always work hard to be that. And just making sure that I always have good character and that I'm respectful. That's what people remember the most about people ... I want them to know about me on the court, but off the court as well. And just know what kind of person I am."
Beal, on his humility: "A lot of people aren't blessed and fortunate as I am to be in this situation and I have to take advantage of it. I can't take anything for granted. I just have to keep working hard and making sure that I always want to be better and serve as a role model to younger kids because I know there's a lot of kids that look up to me. So I have big shoes to fill."
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