Bradley Beal Still Has so Much Upside

He's never going to be James Harden, but when you scale his production against his age it always feels like there’s another tier the one-time All-Star is destined to crack.

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Dec 21 2018, 3:32pm

Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Take a peek at Bradley Beal’s statistics in just about any category over the past three seasons and your glass-half-full takeaway might be that he's more consistently great at being consistent than anybody else. From an analytical perspective, there’s little to no variance in his production.

Context is anything but constant in today’s ever-churning NBA, and there are different ways to measure Beal's growth than a quick glance at his numbers. Almost a year removed from his first All-Star Game, Beal is no longer John Wall’s right-hand man and has (arguably) eclipsed him as the face of whatever these Washington Wizards have become. But, A) That’s not necessarily a good thing—it’s fair to theorize about the correlation between Beal’s hierarchical rise and the Wizards inability to reflect it as an organization—and B) Numbers matter!

Beal’s statistical leap came two years ago, in the fifth season of his career, and since then his minutes, points, assist percentage, usage rate, etc. have all plateaued—the Wizards scored 109.7 points per 100 possessions with Beal on the court last year; this year they’re 0.1 points per 100 possessions better—while other important numbers are down (such as three-point percentage, which is a volatile stat that’s also a career-low).

Last year, with Wall out, Beal experienced a narrative breakthrough, filling in for Wall while expanding his game to areas that directly made life easier for teammates. There was more play creation and a solid response to defenses that suddenly offered more attention. But spotting anything new or dramatically polished about his game isn't easy, which begs the obvious question (delivered with as much respect as possible for someone with Beal’s talent): Is this it?

I don’t think so—by a long shot—but it’s understandable to drift the other way. At 25, in the seventh year of his career, Beal is fantastic but tantalizing. His game is smooth until he spikes it with rugged aggression, and his apex as a bucket-getter is topped by only a handful of players. Look hard enough and a few slight signs of improvement do indeed appear; if there’s any one thing worth focusing on, it’s his sudden urgency to attack the basket.

A third of Beal's shots are at the rim right now (a career high) and he’s making nearly 70 percent of them (also a career high). That’s...not nothing. He’s now confident enough in his handle to just go wherever he wants, whenever he wants. Before he was traded to the Phoenix Suns, Beal's ex-teammate Austin Rivers was surprised by his knot-tight ball-handling until he saw it up close every day. “Obviously he’s an elite shooter and scorer,” Rivers told VICE Sports. “I just didn’t know he had all the handle.”

“He’s the best scorer on our team,” Wizards guard Tomas Satoransky told VICE Sports. “It’s very difficult [to guard him], especially when he has spacing and he’s attacking you in transition. He’s got so many options and his step-back is top-three in the league. James Harden, him, and I don’t know who else. But that step-back is on point.”

All this is terrific, but it’s still hard to extract Beal from the toxic environment he’s currently leading. How would he do as LeBron’s right-hand man in Los Angeles? Or as a first option for a competent organization that surrounded him with more sensical pieces and depth. (Like, picture him on last year’s Toronto Raptors instead of DeMar DeRozan. Does that team get to the Finals?) Beal will never be as good as James Harden, but whenever I scale his production against his age it always feels like there’s another tier he’s destined to crack. It probably won’t happen this year and may never occur next to Wall. And that's a shame.

“I think he has the capability of improving for the next, I don’t know, four or five more years,” Scott Brooks said. “His ball-handling is much better, his decision-making, his playmaking, his pick-and-roll game. Overall he’s going to be one of the best two-way guards in the league.”

Health willing (the man plays a ton of minutes), there’s another leap lurking in Beal, somewhere. Basketball fans everywhere should hope it eventually sees the light of day.