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Bradley Beal ranks among the NBA's elite guards —whether anyone realizes or not

Bradley Beal ranks among the NBA's elite guards —whether anyone realizes or not

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- The weekend is here. That means the chance for socializing, perhaps hanging at the local watering hole, at your kid's basketball game or with friends and family. Since you're reading a Wizards article, we'll assume you and (hopefully) those in this hypothetical social circle track the NBA.

If there's a lull in the conversation, float this topic: How many guards are at this moment definitively better than Bradley Beal?

We're not talking historically. For example, nine-time All-Star Chris Paul's career undoubtedly trumps the Wizards' leading scorer, but an inability to remain on the court because of constant injuries are now the predominant factor when gauging the 34-year-old's status.

Ignore upside. 76ers' Ben Simmons, thanks to his unique combination of size and skill may eventually turn into a true franchise-altering player who averages a triple-double over an entire season. Right now the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft isn't fully-formed considering he's yet to make a 3-pointer in his brief career or even attempt one halfway through his second season despite the league's bomb's away mentality.

The player today, right now. That's the conversation. 

Yes, the use of the word "definitively" offers a subjective wrinkle in this barroom debate. My house, my rules. If a player's name enters your headspace and rather than fast-break past a Beal comparison you pause with a hesitation dribble even for a moment, that's not definitive. 

James Harden and Stephen Curry. Even the Beal family waves those scoring savants past their uber-talented kin. 

Kyrie Irving has handles for days and hit one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history. Russell Westbrook isn't performing at his 2016-17 league Most Valuable Player level, but he remains an athletic force of nature.

That's it, that's the list. 

Perhaps Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson join the elite of the elite if I play this exercise out not shortly after witnessing Beal latest's stellar performance in Washington's 113-106 win over Milwaukee Friday night. 

Right now my take is Lillard, an absolute offensive force with ice water in his veins isn't the same kind of two-way threat as Beal. Nobody denies Thompson's role in Golden State's three NBA titles, but this hasn't been one of his better seasons. 

Kemba Walker might join Irving as a starter in the 2019 All-Star game. DeMar DeRozan's mid-range game is flourishing with the Spurs. Victor Oladipo? Mike Conley? Kyle Lowry? All studs, but not locks over Beal. 

Rookie Luka Doncic is unreal. Everyone would trade anyone on the Wizards' for him. For now, he doesn't join the "definitively" list, at least not until he participates in the pressure-packed NBA playoffs or plays in more than 40-ish games.

(Wait, what about Jimmy Butler? Ben, come on, stop this nonsense!)

Talent, yes, but until storm clouds stop following Butler stop after stop, nah. Players rally around Beal. Teammates look side-eye at Butler.

(I feel a disturbance in the force. Some of you are baffled and immediately skipping ahead to the comments section so you can lodge a complaint or are opening a new tab because such audacity requires a sharply-worded tweet. I'm @benstandig on Twitter. Say hi.)

If this thought process has anyone feeling uncomfortable, good. That's the point. Conversations need to change. 

Bradley Beal isn't just a mature human with a textbook jumper who some assume rides in the sidecar next to teammate John Wall. He needs to be recognized on another level because that's where his game is these days. 

These days means more than the eight games since Washington learned Wall would miss the remainder of the 2018-19 season because bone spurs digging into his left heel require surgery, but let's start there. 

In that stretch, Beal is sixth in the league with 28.6 points per game while averaging 4.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Only Harden, Curry and Westbrook match those statistics among NBA guards, and none swiped 2.4 steals per game like Beal. His 3-point percentage, a bit wonky overall this season, is just under 40 percent on 8.5 attempts per game.

"Beal's a great individual player," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday.

This isn't just about individual talent or some hot statistical streak, though kudos for Beal's 32-5-7-3 line against the Bucks. Beal's tone-setting ways now permeate through the Wizards' actions.

Washington, 18-25 on the season, has won five of its last eight. Its moved within two games of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

That includes wins this week at Oklahoma City, and home over Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Such triumphs seemed implausible throughout most of this chaotic campaign let alone a week ago. 

Washington hosts Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Sunday, its final game in the states before jumping the pond for a meeting with the New York Knicks in London. 

The deep Raptors are 2-0 against the Wizards this season. If clicking and Kawhi Leonard plays, they have too much firepower for the short-handed Wizards, logic says. The Thunder, 76ers and Bucks might disagree.

Washington is playing without Wall and Markieff Morris. It's relying on waiver claim pick-up Thomas Bryant at center, Jeff Green for 30 minutes a game, Sam Dekker and Chasson Randle for needed stints off the bench. 

"Our team is totally different from the beginning of the year," Beal said after Washington's fourth consecutive home win. "Guys are injured, guys are out. The guys that we activated, it is just getting those guys adjusted and getting adjusted to everybody’s role and how we are going to be. It is just a matter of us getting it together. I think we are finally at that point where we can turn the corner.”    

None of this was part of the plan. On paper, this shouldn't be working. 

This is why we're having the conversation about Beal and the NBA's best.

Move beyond these eight games. Beal is on pace to set career-highs in scoring (24.4), rebounding (4.8), assists (4.8) and steals (1.3). Only four other players match each of those numbers: Harden, Curry, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those aren't just players. That's a league MVP ballot.

Losing Wall took a five-time All-Star off the court. Washington is 7-4 without its point guard this season and 27-25 over the last two seasons. That's not happening without the stats and style of the player many still consider the Wizards' other All-Star guard.

When folks write down the league's best guards, Bradley Beal doesn't automatically come to mind. Those days are over. This "definitively" exercise doesn't mean Beal is the fifth or sixth best guard in the league ahead of Lillard and Thompson. He isn't automatically better than the other top 10 contenders like Oladipo and Butler, who will score mad buckets and crush souls in the weeks ahead. 

But, maybe. That's the point. 

Those who watch the Wizards game in and game out see the galvanizing force. Those that don't probably and perhaps understandably discount Beal because of Wall's presence, and for this season, the team's struggles. 

Perhaps the next time they ponder the NBA's best guards, Beal's name isn't an afterthought but a leading contender. There just aren't much better options definitively right now.


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Scott Brooks practices tough love in benching, calling out Moe Wagner

Scott Brooks practices tough love in benching, calling out Moe Wagner

WASHINGTON -- Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has shown some different traits this season, now that his primary goal is player development. He has been much more willing to both bench players within games and then afterward offer harsh assessments as to why.

Second-year big man Moe Wagner got that treatment on Sunday night in the Wizards' 135-119 loss to the L.A. Clippers. After starting the game and playing 14 minutes in the first half, he played three minutes in the second half.

And during his postgame press conference, Brooks didn't mince his words when offering an explanation.

"His head wasn't in the game," Brooks said. "When you're a young player, you've gotta lock in. You have to do what we need to be done. We talked about it. We talked about it at halftime and he didn't want to do it."

Brooks has employed a similar strategy with other young players. Both Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura have been benched and then criticized publicly, albeit to different degrees.

In the past, Brooks has stopped short of publicly calling out players, particularly veterans and stars. But clearly he sees this as a tactic that can help light a fire under young players who have not yet established themselves in the NBA.

Wagner, for one, didn't take issue with Brooks' assessment.

"He's not wrong," Wagner told NBC Sports Washington. "I didn't have the energy I usually have... I think that's the biggest thing when you're young, the consistent effort and the consistency of doing your job. It's easy to do it every other night, but you have to do it every night."

Wagner's numbers weren't awful on Sunday. He had seven points and six rebounds and was 2-for-2 from three. 

But he had some head-scratching moments on defense and seemed to flop looking for fouls at times when he may have been more impactful playing within the team's defensive system.

"[I need to] do the easy things right. Just do your simple job. Don't overdo it. Don't do crazy stuff out there," Wagner said.

Wagner, 22, is playing heavy rotation minutes for the first time. Last year with the Lakers, he only appeared in 43 games and averaged 10.4 minutes per night. He is learning on the fly how to find consistency at the NBA level.

The good news for Wagner is that Brooks doesn't have much of a choice whether to play him. With Thomas Bryant out for at least a few weeks due to injury, he is the best center on the roster. 

But Brooks dropped a line that should serve as a warning to Wagner, that nothing is guaranteed, even in the situation the Wizards are currently in.

"I don't believe in doghouses, I believe in a fair house. If he doesn't do what we need, we move on to the next guy," Brooks said. 

"Everybody deserves that opportunity that works hard every day in practice. Next man up. Hopefully he will come back and be locked in against the Hornets. And he will."


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Scott Brooks, Bradley Beal rip officiating after loss to Clippers

Scott Brooks, Bradley Beal rip officiating after loss to Clippers

WASHINGTON -- Wizards head coach Scott Brooks and guard Bradley Beal have a general policy when it comes to answering questions about officiating. Usually, they avoid details because they don't want to be fined by the league. Often, they say plenty with what they leave unsaid.

Sunday night was not one of those times. After the Wizards' 135-119 loss to the Clippers, both the coach and player broke character, rolled their sleeves up and gave the refs a good old fashioned takedown.

Brooks went first and initially said (sarcastically) the officials got all the calls right in the game. After that, he said what he was really thinking.

"When they grab you and hold you and the rules are saying you've got to call a foul, that's a foul. We don't get that. [Bradley Beal] doesn't get that and it's frustrating," Brooks said.

"The rule is you can't grab a guy with two hands. It's not my rule, it's not their rule; it's the NBA rule. If they're not going to call those more, what are we going to do? We're gonna get frustrated, we're gonna get [technicals] and that's not fair. That's not fun for the coaches, that's not fun for the players, that's not fun for everybody."

Beal, who 20 points and five assists but shot 5-for-18 from the field, didn't hold back, either. And he even explained why he felt he had to speak up this time as opposed to other games when he has been more tight-lipped.

"Honestly, [my frustration] is out the roof. It really is. It's really unfair and unacceptable that they allow a lot of stuff to go on with me out there and I do not calls. Period. It's just unacceptable," he said.

"They fine us for saying something. When we do say something on the floor it's 'oh, I didn't see it' or 'it wasn't my call.' I'm just so tired of hearing that. There's three guys out here. I know nobody's perfect, but the blatant ones have to be called and they're not being called. That s--- ain't fair."

Brooks got a technical for arguing a first-half play he thought should have been a charge taken by Moe Wagner. Davis Bertans and Ish Smith, two of the Wizards' more mild-mannered players, also got T'd up.

Brooks thought Smith getting a technical embodied the evening perfectly.

"When Ish [Smith] gets a [technical foul], I know something's going on. That guys is the nicest guy on the planet. He gets a technical by just telling a referee to call it the same on the other end," Brooks said.

Beal was not assessed a technical, though he said he was appreciative of Smith and Bertans sticking up for him. He also said he feels like the lack of respect from referees has been worse this year and suggested the Wizards aren't getting the respect other teams like the Clippers do because of their 7-15 record.

To be fair, the numbers didn't exactly back up those claims on Sunday. The Wizards had 30 free throw attempts, three more than L.A. did. And Beal led all players with nine. He made all nine of them. Beal is also ninth in the NBA in free throw attempts at 7.2 per game, up from his average last season of 5.5.

This was, though, clearly something that had built over a series of games. And the Wizards are averaging the fifth-fewest free throw attempts per game this season at just 20.4 per contest. The Clippers, for comparison, are fourth in the NBA at 26.2.

But when the Wizards are in a close game with a team like the Clippers, who have way more talent than they do, it is hard for them to accept when they feel the referees aren't giving them a fair chance.

And for Brooks, it was particularly bad for Beal, whom he says "gets held all the time." And it's bad for rookie Rui Hachimura, who made all seven of his free throw attempts but should have had more if you ask his head coach.

"He attacks and he gets zero free throws. I understand nobody knows him, but we know him. That doesn't mean anything. You should be able to get to the free throw line with the way he attacks," Brooks said.