Bradley Beal took another step forward in spite of new challenges

In February 2017, Kevin Love was sidelined with a knee injury which forced him to miss the All-Star game that season. Bradley Beal, on the heels of signing a five-year $127 million dollar deal and turning in his best season to date, seemed like the obvious choice to replace Love. However, Commissioner Adam Silver went with established veteran Carmelo Anthony as Love’s replacement, forcing Beal to wait yet another year for his first All-Star game appearance.

The extra year was worth the wait as Beal undoubtedly earned his spot this season. He averaged 22.6 points per game on 46 percent shooting while playing in all 82 games for the first time in his career.

It was clear from the start of the season that Beal was on a mission to take his game to the next level. In the first week of November, Beal averaged 38 points per game over a three-game stretch against the SunsCavaliers, and Raptors. A little over a month later and with John Wall sidelined, Beal exploded for a career-high 51 points against the Portland Trail Blazers.

On January 25th, Beal and the Wizards hit a fork in the road. News broke that Wall would miss 6-8 weeks for minor knee surgery after a 121-112 loss in Oklahoma City. It looked like the season could spiral out of control and quickly but after back-to-back home wins against the Thunder and Raptors at home, Washington stabilized and Bradley Beal delivered the ‘Everybody Eats’ soundbite that encapsulated their approach to surviving Wall’s absence.

Even though the ball was spread around, Beal was spearheading the Wizards’ attack, as Washington went 8-4 in February to stay among the top five teams in the East. He became the team’s de facto backup point guard behind Tomas Satoransky and showed off how much work he had put into diversifying his game as he averaged 6.7 assists during the month of February.

Beal’s improved ability to drive and finish in traffic forced defenders to send extra help and create easy opportunities for his teammates.

He also got significantly better at making quick decisions off the curl. His ability to read the floor opened up easier scoring opportunities for everyone. In the clip below against the Celtics, he reads the Celtics’ defense before they can make the switch and delivers the ball to Ian Mahinmi rolling to the hole for the easy dunk.

His passing wasn’t the only part of his game that took a big step forward – his ability to create his own shot did too. 52 percent of his made field goals were unassisted, up from 40 percent last season. He became much more adept at driving and finishing through traffic and improved his step-back jumper, something he’ll need to continue to refine if he wants to be in the discussion with elite scorers like James Harden and Stephen Curry.

But just like the Wizards, his production dipped once the ‘Everyone Eats’ honeymoon ended. He averaged 20 points and 5 assists per game over the last two months of the season, however, he exerted a ton of energy to do so. He was often forced to play upwards of 40 minutes per night and against sub .500 teams like the Hawks, Knicks, and a very shorthanded Celtics team.

The heavy mileage he racked up took a toll on him after the All-Star Break. His numbers slipped across the board and as he slid, so did the team. Washington stumbled into the playoffs losing 11 of their final 16 games, even as Beal maintained a heavy workload. The tumble culminated with a 13-point performance in the Wizards’ loss to the Magic in the regular season finale.

It looked like that the fatigue carried over into the playoffs. Beal was nearly invisible in the first two games of the playoffs before he caught a second wind. Over the final four games, he averaged 27.8 points per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and going 18-of-34 from deep.

When you’re the third overall pick, the pressure and expectation to perform right away is enormous. Beal did not ascend to this All-Star level right away but rather, made improvements to his game every year for six straight years. He’s proven that he can shoulder the load of the team and his nagging injury problems appear to be in the rearview mirror.

In the summer of 2016, it looked like a very risky deal giving an injury-plagued player a max deal. But over the past two years, Beal has been more than deserving of that contract and is one of the few free agents in the 2016 class whose production mirrors their paycheck.

The arrow is still ascending up for the sixth-year shooting guard who will turn just 25 this summer. And with all the chatter surrounding the Wizards and if they should make a trade or chop up their core; it’s really hard to imagine a scenario where Beal isn’t in Washington for the foreseeable future.

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