Wizards

Bradley Beal keeps getting better; how good will he get?

Wizards

If NBA history is any indication, Bradley Beal is either on the cusp of greatness or has already entered that territory and we haven't realized it quite yet. To be fair, getting a proper evaluation of Beal has long been a difficult task, as every time you think you have an idea of how good he is, he gets even better.

In fact, you could argue Beal has improved his game significantly in each of the last six seasons. Last year, he led the Eastern Conference and was second in the NBA in scoring while averaging over 30 points per game. Then, he came back this season averaging more points and more efficiently.

This year Beal is leading the entire league in scoring at 32.9 points per game, all while averaging 5.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals. The points and rebounds are both career-highs.

Those numbers made Beal an All-Star Game starter for the first time in his career. It's a great accomplishment, one that only 10 players receive each year. So, does that mean he has reached his peak?

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"I feel like I can get a whole lot better," Beal told NBC Sports Washington. "I still feel like I haven't really tapped into that elite, elite, elite level. I feel like I'm still on the way there. I wouldn't say I'm crazy far off, but I feel like I'm pretty good and it's picking up."

 

Beal, 27, is clearly still not satisfied with his individual play. He recently described himself as "playing like crap" this season and that was on the night he learned he was first in All-Star votes among fans, media and his fellow players.

Because of that insatiable want to improve, Beal continues to ascend regardless of the rewards and accolades he receives. While making these annual leaps, he's signed two max contract extensions worth hundreds of millions of dollars along the way. Each time he has gotten a raise, he has raised his game to a new level.

Clearly, it is not money that motivates him.

"I think it's just who I am. I'm always my toughest critic. I always just push myself to be better than what I was before. It's kind of like I'm just competing against myself in a way. I don't have that enemy or guy around the league that I look up to and I want to be better than. Like, 'oh, his numbers...' I don't have that," he said.

"I kind of go up against myself on a nightly basis, on a yearly basis. How can I be better than what I was before? What do I need to improve on? I have just kind of always had that since I was younger. That's always kind of stuck with me."

Head coach Scott Brooks has found that to be a common trait for great players. He's also coached league MVPs Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. He played with Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley. The best ones, he says, don't need anyone else to tell them to be great.

"He's pretty motivated," Brooks said of Beal. "I think he's always had that self-motivation. I've always told my players 'he who wins are the self-motivated guys.' If you need a fan vote, a media vote, a coaches' vote or the coach already telling you you've gotta play harder or you've gotta work on this, it's going to be short-lived. Brad's self-motivated. I like that about him."

Brooks has been asked several times this season about Beal's steady improvement and what has specifically been different about him this year. He's listed a wide range of things.

For one, Beal's increased volume and efficiency is a strong indicator he has learned how to combat overloaded defenses. In recent years, while John Wall was out due to injury, Beal had to face the best defenders on opposing teams every night, and often multiple defenders at once. That forced him to round out his game.

Brooks even felt there was some hypocrisy last season when other head coaches guarded Beal like that, but didn't then vote for him to be an All-Star reserve.

 

"It kind of pissed me off that I saw all the coaches' defense against him. Night in and night out they were double-teaming him. If you don't think he's an All-Star, play him straight-up," Brooks said.

Brooks also believes the game has slowed down for Beal when he makes reads off screens. He makes quicker passes and is better now at eliminating extra dribbles.

There are also Beal's free throw numbers. He's averaging career-high attempts (8.2/g) and shooting a career-best percentage (90.2%). Just three years ago, Beal was averaging 4.5 attempts and shooting 79.1 percent.

"My goal coming into this year was to be 90 [percent]," Beal said. "I tell myself every time I step up to the line, I say 90. I just say 90 to myself. I'm shooting with confidence, stepping up and then knocking them down. They're free points."

Brooks also cited something unexpected about Beal: his screen-setting. Though that's not something often associated with 6-foot-3 guards, Beal has already registered 10 screen assists this season after having 15 all of last year. Brooks, in fact, says to expect even more moving forward.

"That's something we're going to tinker with going into the second half [of the season] where he's setting screens and getting guys open," Brooks said. "He's a good screen-setter and teams aren't going to switch."

Beal, of course, works best when he's not a decoy and it's not just the amount of points he scores, it's the variety of ways he can score them. As Brooks described it, "he sprinkles his scoring all over the floor." 

This ESPN graphic demonstrates that well. Though Beal leads the NBA in scoring, he doesn't top a single one of the 11 scoring zones highlighted:

That's because he spreads his shots around evenly. Meanwhile, he's scoring more points at the rim than Joel Embiid, more in the midrange than DeMar DeRozan and more from three than Devin Booker.

Brooks, however, sees potential for Beal to get even better.

"I still see another growth maybe even a few more. That's pretty scary to think about," Brooks said.

That brings up the historical context of what Beal is doing. If you look at the careers of other NBA stars, many had their best years when they were older than Beal is now.

Beal is 27 years old, 27.68 years old to be exact. The average age of All-NBA players, according to a study by Hoops Hype, is 27.7. So, Beal could be right smack-dab in the middle of his prime.

Or, he could be right on the edge of it. The average age of NBA MVP award-winners over the last 30 years is 27.9. Harden and Westbrook were 28 when they won their MVP awards. So was Dirk Nowitzki.

Kobe Bryant didn't win MVP until he was 29. Steve Nash won his two MVP awards when he was 30 and 31.

The Harden and Westbrook comparisons, however, stand out the most as they are guards and their primes overlapped with Beal's. His scoring numbers are also incredibly close to theirs at this point in his career.

 

Beal has now played 577 career regular-season games. Look at how his points and shooting percentages stack up to Harden and Westbrook's:

Harden        12,485 pts / 44.3 FG% / 36.6 3PT% Beal            12,478 pts / 45.5 FG% / 37.7 3PT%

Westbrook  12,384 pts / 43.5 FG% / 30.4 3PT%

Now, remember those were Harden and Westbrook's numbers while they were in their Age 27 seasons, which Beal is playing through right now, and right before they took off to win MVP awards at Age 28. For that to happen for Beal next season, the Wizards would probably need to improve their record quite a bit. Still, knowing all of this, can you fault the Wizards for wanting to see where this goes?

Much of the national conversation involving Beal over the past year-plus has been centered around whether the Wizards should trade him. But just imagine trading a player right before he became an MVP candidate, especially for a franchise with a problem in its past of trading stars away too early.

The Wizards, of course, have no interest in trading Beal and he has no plans on asking out. That has been reported by NBC Sports Washington, as well as many other outlets.

So, everyone might as well forget about the rumors and enjoy Beal for the player that he is.

As you watch, just be careful forming opinions on him. Chances are, he will make you rethink them soon after.

"God blessed me with unbelievable talent and I just try to embrace and perfect it," he said.