Wizards

Wizards

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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