Now that Bradley Beal is back in the starting lineup, playing starter's minutes and playing in back-to-backs, it's worth revisiting whether or not his status as a max player going into restricted free agency has changed.
So far, it hasn't. In 13 games he has played with the Wizards going into the All-Star break, after returning from a stress reaction in his lower right leg for the fourth year in a row, Beal is shooting 83 of 153, 54.2%, from the field.
He played 32 minutes in two of three games earlier in the week before logging 37 -- two above what was projected to be his maximum by some close to the situation -- in Thursday's 99-92 loss at the Milwaukee Bucks.
"Hopefully we can keep these extended minutes where they are," said Wizards coach Randy Wittman after Tuesday's game in New York. "It's hard. You play 32 minutes one game, 16 the next, 22 the next. I told the doctor to go on vacation and let’s hope he does that after the All-Star break.”
He was joking, but the Wizards have to be careful. Before the onset of Beal's injury Dec. 9, he played 40-plus minutes in five of seven games. In the other two, he logged 38 minutes. A stress reaction, a dark spot on the bone, is a precursor to a season-ending fracture that heals with rest.
The Wizards are using a different method of tracking Beal's movements, which is now possible with the SVU cameras used in each NBA arena, such as the distance he's running and how much he's cutting.
After the data is received, they huddle to determine what his minutes should be. Going into a week off because of the All-Star break might've factored into the sharp minutes increase Thursday.
Even though Beal said when he returned that he could be facing a minutes cap for the rest of his career, there's an expectation that he will receive a max offer when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer and the Wizards will give it to him.
Beal is finishing at almost 60% at the rim and has made a concerted effort to eliminate long two-point shots from his game. He's shooting a career-high 46.3% from the field and making almost 40% of his three-point looks. If Beal can stay off the injury list, he can take off like John Wall did when he signed a max offer based on his ceiling and potential rather than his accomplishment at that point of his career.
"That's one of my goals for this whole year, increase my efficiency, my shot selection. I try to eliminate those long twos as much as possible," Beal said. "It’s awesome to be able to see my percentages go up."
The open market will ultimately set Beal's pricetag, and at least one team that's betting on his potential should make him a max offer. Then the ball is in the Wizards' court on whether or not to match it to retain Beal.
They'll have no choice because letting him walk for nothing as the salary cap grows from $70 million to almost $90 million isn't really an option for a franchise that'll be at a crossroads as it remakes the roster with or without Kevin Durant.
Scorers in today's NBA are more valuable than ever. Beal has a good reputation because of his character and attitude, too. A replacement player of that level, which they'd have to have in stow before allowing Beal to leave, aren't just waiting around in bunches. There's competition from 29 other NBA teams to land them which drives up the price automatically because of supply vs. demand.
"If he was not injured, he would've been an All-Star this year," Mark Bartelstein, Beal's agent, told CSNmidatlantic.com on Thursday. "That's the way he was going."
There's a confidence now, unlike in past seasons when Beal had the stress reaction in his leg, that everything is under control because of the protocols in place. His minutes will be watched closely. And none of it is expected to interfere with his summer activity with USA Basketball to compete for a spot for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
This is Beal's make-or-break year in more ways than one. If he avoids any more setbacks with his leg, he's still in prime position to cash in.