Bradley Beal has tried to carry the Wizards with his shot-making and demeanor. | Photo by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol

Beal's leadership has been key without wall

BY BEN STANDIG | FEB. 25, 2018

The silly bickering over whether the Wizards are better with or without John Wall led to ignoring the real story: They are thriving under the leadership of Bradley Beal.

Raise your hand if you had the Wizards winning nine of 12 games after learning Wall would miss 6-8 weeks following his latest left knee surgery on Jan. 31. All you fibbers put your hand down. Even hopeful members of the organization were not anticipating such success.

Yet, those involved knew the shorthanded team could lean on Beal. Not just for his team-leading 23.7 points per game or his underrated defensive prowess, but also his intangibles.

“(Brad) has an incredible approach on the personal level,” Wizards center Marcin Gortat said following a recent road win over the Magic. “Even if one of us is wrong or saying something he doesn’t want to do, he just doesn’t (talk) back. He keeps it to himself. He’s just trying to play basketball the right way. It’s impressive. You can always count on him.”

The 24-year-old made his first All-Star appearance this month in Los Angeles. All the players in the league’s showcase game are incredible talents, but not every All-Star can handle a take-charge role. Beal knows he has those goods. This discovery is not new.

“Leaders are born, not made,” Beal told The Sports Capitol in Orlando. “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.”

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The tone from Beal is not filled with conceit. Listen to others state opinions on his leadership qualities and it’s clear Beal’s take is anything but reckless.

“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.”

“Bradley has a unique, authentic gift that he was born with,” said Beal’s mother, Besta, via text message to The Sports Capitol. “He takes a lot of pride in himself and he’s very passionate about motivating others and making them feel they are important. He was built on morals and values and he understands that being a leader is through his own actions on (and) off the court.”

All Bealophiles are aware that Besta Beal set the foundation for his textbook jumper with an early emphasis on one-handed shooting. From there, whether during sessions as a 13-year-old with trainer Drew Hanlen to becoming one of the nation’s top recruits to his five-plus NBA campaigns, Beal put in the work.

The proof is evident this season with his potent step-back jumper topping off an enhanced dribble-drive game. Beal is one of two NBA players averaging at least 23.0 points, 5.0 assists, 4.5 rebounds, one steal and two 3-pointers while shooting at least 49 percent from the field since Jan. 1. Stephen Curry is the other.

The leadership part came installed with the equipment.

“He is still young and has ways to go but can get there,” Besta Beal said. “I can see through his performance in his communication with his teammates that he’s climbing the ladder to be the leader.”

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No Wall means more touches and tons more shot opportunities for one of the NBA’s top shooters.

“He’s our main scorer now that John’s on the shelf for a little bit, so everything goes through him,” Wizards guard Jodie Meeks said.

Yet Beal passed on any volume shooting instincts. He is taking 0.5 fewer field goal attempts in the last 12 games without Wall. Keith Hernandez wouldn’t call him chucker.

“I’m staying in my game,” Beal said.

Beal’s scoring average is down some from his season numbers while teams focus on him with Wall off the court. Yet, his assists (6.8), steals (1.6), rebounding (4.7) and free throw percentage (90.2) are up.

“He takes pride in doing everything,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after the win in Orlando. “It’s something we should always do. Everybody should be focusing on being a two-way player.”

Beal can get his. He dropped 36 points on Valentine’s Day at New York as Washington rallied from 27 down for the largest comeback in the league this season. Another 24 points came in Sunday’s 109-94 win over Philadelphia as the Wizards ended the 76ers’ seven-game win streak.

“He’s a walking bucket,” Gortat said. “He can get a bucket whenever he wants. He plays for everybody else, too.”

Just do not mistake calm for passive. There is an edge lurking.

The national media interpreted Beal’s “Everybody eats” comment following a sharing-is-caring team win over Toronto on Feb. 1 as a shot at Wall. Beal subsequently explained the collective misread of his statement. He also did not let the chattering class bully him. Two days later In Orlando he drolly dropped the line again following the win.

Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 32 points in the first half for the Knicks in that momentous comeback. He finished with 37 and went scoreless for the final 21 minutes. Beal, composed yet ruthless, explained why his counterpart went from bold to cold in the second half.

“He started chirping a little bit,” Beal said on the team’s postgame show. “I told him he wasn’t going to score for the rest of the game — and he didn’t.”

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The Wizards (35-25) are fourth in the Eastern Conference despite all those head-scratching losses and 36 games missed by starters due to injuries. That puts them on pace to finish in the same spot as last season. However, that finish would not be in line with preseason expectations.

Their recent 9-3 run includes improved ball movement and connected defense. It also includes a comical national debate over whether the Wizards are better without a player who scores, deftly sets up others for the same and chews up heavy minutes each game.

The Wizards possessing a higher winning percentage without Wall (60.8), in a 23-game sample size, than with him (57.9) prompted that discussion. It’s also a non-starter because Wall was playing while hurt. The connection between Wall’s ailments and the Wizards’ struggles is clear.

Wall won’t be back for another 2-4 weeks. That means the Wizards, who entered the All-Star break playing their most consistent basketball of the season, will try to maintain that flow without him. Beal’s calming yet confident personality helped create the rhythm before the schedule stalled. The relationship between his vibe and the team’s play is apparent, even if he is not ready to make such claims.

“I don’t know,” Beal said. “That’s hard to say. I don’t want to make it like me versus John. It’s not that at all. We have no choice but to step up. John is a valuable part of the team. We’re a lot better team with him. We’ve had some success over the last few games, but we’re not perfect. We still have a long way to go… I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a full-out reflection of me, but I’m definitely…stepping up more into the leadership role.”

Good bet his teammates also recognize the real story coming out of the All-Star break: The Washington Wizards are thriving under the leadership of Bradley Beal. For now, that is what counts. Whether they contend during the postseason will largely depend on Wall’s health. They need both to finally surpass the failings of the past.

“If we’re going to have John back and having these two and the whole team on the same page, it’s going to be incredible,” Gortat said.