Right about the time rookies start to feel the rigor of their first NBA season – somewhere between 30 and 40 games, with back-to-backs and extended travel college players don’t face – Beal produced his best week of the season and showed why everyone was so high on him in June.
Beal had a 3-pointer at the overtime horn and free throws at the end of the second OT, twice tying a game the Wizards ultimately lost to the Nets on Joe Johnson’s buzzer-beater. Three nights later, he drained a very tough lane leaner with 0.3 seconds left to give league-worst Washington a stunning win over league-best Oklahoma City.
“A lot of players come in this league and don’t hit shots like that ever,” said forward Trevor Ariza, one of the few Wizards with a winning pedigree. “To get started that early, that’s what we’re looking for.”
In between, Beal managed just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting in a loss to Miami. The up-and-down-and-up-again nature of his week was somewhat of a microcosm of his rookie season. But Beal is handling it well.
“He’s starting to consistently give you good performances,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “Even (at Miami), he went 4-14, they were really good, quality shots. He’s playing the right way and staying aggressive; he just had an off shooting night. I’ve seen him stay level instead of going through a rollercoaster that you’d expect a 19-year-old to go through.”
“I’m staying level-headed, still being humble, and I still have a lot of work to do,” Beal said. “Yes, it’s a big shot, but there are still a lot of things in the game that I didn’t do well and want to improve on.”
Beal was one of a handful of rookies – Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Dion Waiters, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist among them – who were virtually guaranteed a starting spot entering the season. One could argue that he has made the least of his opportunity.
Despite averaging 13.1 points, Beal has shot below 37 percent. His points-per-shot is a disappointing 1.04 and his adjusted field-goal percentage – factoring in 3-pointers and free throws – is just 42.2 percent.
But Beal also has played alongside no less than six point guards, none of them named John Wall. The floor general position has been such a mess for the Wizards that Wittman actually tried Beal at the point for brief stretches of games last month. He also has dealt with a sore back.
And Beal is more than just a shooter. His 3.6 rebounds are more than Lillard or Waiters and his 2.6 assists and 0.97 steals rank fifth among rookies.
“Each game for him is a learning process; we fail to understand that sometimes,” said A.J. Price, one of the many point guards used by the Wizards. “He’s playing against guys for the first time, he’s seeing guys for the first time. As the seasons going on, he’s becoming more and more comfortable and you can see it in his game. He’s playing with a ton of confidence.”
Perhaps most important, Beal has stayed positive throughout an extremely trying season for the Wizards. After virtually every game, he restates his belief in Wittman, his teammates and himself, regardless of how bad things have become.
“People were saying a lot of things, you know, ‘Has he hit the wall?’” Wizards forward Martell Webster said. “No, that kid has a passion.”
Beal should be further buoyed by the return of Wall, who has missed the entire season with a knee injury but may return as early as Saturday vs. Atlanta. Coupled with his confidence, the teenager could still make a run at Rookie of the Year.
“He’s definitely found his comfort zone,” Ariza said. “He’s stepped it up. It’s come from all the work that he’s put in over the past few weeks. He looks great.”
On to the rankings.