Bradley Beal's career has followed a sort of incremental, but consistent upward trajectory that has made it difficult to get an accurate read on his stature as an NBA player.
He began his career hobbled by injuries, which helped make his subsequent rise as a star fly under the radar, despite him entering the league as the No. 3 overall pick. And in each of the past five seasons, he has taken a significant leap forward in his improvement.
That has produced this effect where every time you think you have an idea of what Beal is, he proves you wrong by getting even better or by adding something to his game. That has led Beal to essentially be underrated in perpetuity. You can't properly rate him because once you do, he does something to throw your assessment of him out the window.
The 2019-20 season was yet another example. He had already established himself as a multi-time All-Star. Many probably thought that was going to be it, that he would plateau.
But then he went out and averaged 30.5 points per game, second in the NBA and first in the Eastern Conference. He did that while averaging a career-high of 6.1 assists and while carrying a 52.0 effective field goal percentage.
Beal scored with efficiency and filled up the box score. He is as well-rounded an offensive player as you will find the NBA.
Ironically, he wasn't named an All-Star this season, yet the numbers he put up were beyond the average All-Star. He took another major step, even if the league didn't recognize him for it.
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If we have learned anything about Beal during his eight NBA seasons, it's that we should probably expect him to keep going, to keep getting better, to next year be a noticeably different player. He also has league history on his side.
Two years ago, Hoops Hype published some fascinating research on the average prime age of NBA stars. They found that the average All-NBA player was 27.7 years old. Beal just finished his Age 26 season. He turned 27 in June. That means he could just be entering his prime with his best years still ahead of him.
There are, of course, no guarantees, as Beal should realize watching his teammate John Wall the past three years. Wall also had his best statistical season at Age 26, but his Age 27, 28 and 29 seasons have been decimated by injuries. The saddest part has been the timing.
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But assuming Beal can stay healthy, as he has been able to in recent years, we now arrive at a familiar question: what actually is his ceiling? That has been a moving target for years at this point and Beal keeps making it more and more difficult to answer.
Statistically, it's hard to imagine Beal doing much more than he did this past season, aside from raising his three-point percentage from 35.3, which was down from his career mark of 38.0. But there are always more levels to reach.
Beal has been an All-Star twice now, but has yet to make All-NBA. He has also yet to enter the MVP conversation. He is still looking up at the NBA's best players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, with a lack of team success not helping his cause.
If the Wizards became true contenders, a lot of those things would likely take care of themselves. But in absence of a major team improvement, Beal can arguably reach new heights by doing two things: taking over more games and assuming a larger role defensively.
Those two areas are also relative to team success. To take over in the fourth quarter and lead your team to victory, your team first needs to put itself in that position. Beal gets far fewer opportunities than some of his peers on better teams. But if he takes advantage of those moments when they are presented, it could have a major effect on the Wizards' record.
When it comes to defense, Beal has to sacrifice something to carry his outsized role on offense. If the Wizards were better and he had more help with scoring, maybe he would have the energy to guard the other team's best player on the other end.
The very best players in the NBA are two-way players. That goes for current times and throughout history. All the greats were also good on defense.
The truth is that it's hard to decipher what Beal can do to make another significant leap. His game is so well-rounded now that it is hard to pick apart. And, as history has shown us, it's a fool's errand trying to categorize his abilities. You know he's probably going to just raise the bar again, just like he did this season.
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