One question crossed everyone’s mind inside the Washington Wizards’ crowded locker room following their 130-126 win over the Charlotte Hornets Saturday night.
Bradley Beal didn’t shy away from asking it.
“What should our expectations be this year with John out," the Wizards' leading scorer asked a handful of reporters.
John, of course, is John Wall, Beal’s backcourt partner and the long-time face of the franchise. Earlier in the evening, the team confirmed reports that the five-time All-Star point guard would undergo season-ending surgery on his troublesome left heel.
Recalibrating expectations occurred immediately.
For many on the outside, the thoughts were unkind. The Wizards ended the calendar year with a disappointing 14-23 record. For a postseason berth, they must make up ground over the final 45 games without arguably their best player.
With the medical news fresh and coming after weeks of organizational chaos, Beal sensed trepidation while waiting for a response.
“You guys think we’re done,” he said.
Beal wasn’t confrontational, but confident and curious. The 25-year-old claimed a genuine interest in the opinions of those holding recorders. He lingered for a few moments even after a member of the team’s PR staff offered him an exit ramp.
“I think it does matter what y’all think sometimes. I mean, you guys are fans of the game,” he said.
Many celebrated Beal’s work last season when the Wizards gobbled up wins in 10 of 13 games immediately after Wall underwent a knee procedure in January. The box score numbers stood out. His mental approach and internal guidance shined brightest.
Some NBA talents are All-Star worthy. Not all are equipped to take charge. Beal, who entered the league in 2012 mature far beyond his 19 years on the planet, learned early in life he possessed those traits.
“Leaders are born, not made,” Beal said last February in Orlando during Washington’s initial surge without Wall. “I feel like I have always been a leader ever since I was a kid. Every team I’ve been on, I’ve been a leader. Now I feel like this is what it was destined to be.”
Don’t confuse self-belief with conceit. Those in Beal’s life before NBA stardom back up his claims.
“He’s got the ‘it’ factor,” said Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan who coached Beal during the guard’s lone season at Florida. “He had at it a young age. He’s really smart. He’s bright. He’s a team guy. He’s a great worker. He knows how to impact winning. Winning is a high priority for him.”
Chasson Randle, one of the potential cult heroes on the Wizards roster, played with Beal for the gold medal-winning Team USA squad in the 2009 Under-16 World Championships.
“You could tell his greatness was on the rise,” Randle said of Beal, who led Team USA in scoring.
Last season’s shorthanded group eventually wore down without one of their two All-Star’s but kept playoff hopes alive until Wall returned late in the regular season. Their 20-21 record without their offensive engine was respectable and not far behind the eventual 43-win pace.
Qualifying for the postseason this time remains possible in the top-heavy East. The Wizards’ remaining strength of schedule ranks 20th overall, though a brutal stretch comes soon. With Saturday’s win, Washington moved four games back of Charlotte for the seventh seed.
Beal understands holding serve this time won’t work.
“I don’t think it will help us right now because we’re (nine) games under .500,” said a candid Beal Saturday. “We’ll need an additional (bump) to make up the games.”
However, for the front office, the focus isn’t the remaining 45 games, but the next 17. That’s the number of contests before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. At that point, if not sooner, the Wizards must determine if they should add help, stay pat, or pull the ripcord.
The real intrigue lies behind door number three. Should the inconsistencies continue or long-term planning takes hold, trading away expiring contracts or other pieces comes into play.
Punting on the season would kick off draft lottery talk. Perhaps the Wizards luck their way into one of the elite prospects including Duke’s power-packed forward Zion Williamson. That’s arguably their quickest path toward rejoining the conference title contenders.
Whatever the plan, there’s a major difference between this scenario and last season’s journey: Wall won’t rejoin the team this time.
Beal embraced additional responsibilities then and now. He’s ready for the challenge with unwavering focus.
“I’m trying to shoot for the playoffs,” Beal said with a knowing grin stretched across his face.
The reporters never fully answered his question. It didn’t matter. His expression alone made Beal’s expectations clear even without Wall, no questions asked.
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