By now, most people will agree that Bradley Beal is a keeper—and that isn’t just because his agent, Mark Bartelstein, recently said, “I’m sure lots of teams would like to have Brad, but the Wizards have absolutely no intention of trading him.”
But that’s not all that interesting. Beal was projected to be a “keeper,” and was expected to produce as the No. 3 pick in the last draft. And he has. Beal was named December’s Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, and, over the last three games, the former Florida Gator has averaged a plus/minus of plus-10.7 per game, along with 18.3 points (63.6% from 3-point range), 3.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists.
What’s more interesting is the reason why he’s been able to get better game by game, even before John Wall made his season debut. The easy analysis would be to say, ‘Oh, the game is finally slowing down for Beal.’ He even said so himself after Monday night’s 29-point thumping of the Orlando Magic: “The game’s starting to slow down for me more, and I’ve gained a lot more confidence.”
You hear that all the time in sports, but what the heck does that even mean? The answer to that question is actually pretty cool.
New York Times contributor Charles Siebert talks about game speed and player development in a recent edition of the newspaper’s magazine. In the cover story, actually. It’s titled “The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot.” The story revolves around undrafted rookie linebacker Pat Schiller, Siebert’s nephew, and his path to relevancy as a member of the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad.
Here’s an excerpt from Siebert’s coverage of football’s preseason:
It’s as though rookies are kept penned in a mental cage of the playbook schemes they’ve been studying from the start of camp. You can almost hear the whirring of all the Xs, Os, arrows and bent-Ts inside their helmets, like so many gnats they would love to have swatted away with one good hit.
“They give you all this information,” Jerrell Harris told me after one practice. “But without the actual reps, if you don’t pick things up off the mental, then you’re just out there flying around.”
I always heard that rookies are overwhelmed at first by the speed of the game at the pro level. But everyone I asked about this had the same response.
“It’s not the speed,” the third-year linebacker Robert James told me. “It only seems like the game is a lot faster because you’re always trying to figure out what you’re doing and where you’re supposed to be. Once I began to learn the defenses, the game slowed down for me.”
Much of the learning in the N.F.L. begins with unlearning. In college, Pat told me, coaches stressed never crossover running with your feet so that you can keep your depth and be available to make a play. In the pros they tell you to crossover run.
“It’s no longer ‘keep your depth.’ ” Pat said. “In the N.F.L., everything is downhill right now. Get to the ball as fast as you can. Those things you perfected to a T in college are no good here.”
For Pat and the other free-agent linebackers, what made the N.F.L. learning curve especially steep was the lack of extra time on the side with coaches.
“You don’t get the patient schooling of college here,” Bart Scott, a Pro Bowl linebacker now with the New York Jets, who started out as an undrafted free agent, told me by phone. “It’s mostly on you to find ways to figure it out. To be mature. To be a man.”
I asked Scott what advice he would give Pat.
“Get with a vet and track him,” he said. “Everything he does. Learn it. Copy it. Then try to outdo it.”
Professional football and basketball are different worlds. But the learning curve for young players, whether they’re on grass or maple wood, is pretty similar. With that in mind, I caught up with the rookie Beal in the locker room before Monday night’s game. He was kind enough to peel off his Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and chat about his progression before heading out for shoot-around.
Q: What’s been the toughest transition from the college game to the pros?
Beal: Probably the toughest things is the amount of games—how weary it gets on your body and just making sure you’re taking care of your body. These guys are really good. It’s the NBA. Every team is good, every player is good. They’re here for a reason. So, the biggest thing I’ve had to adjust to is my mental approach to the game. Being focused, knowing my personnel, knowing what guys’ capabilities and tendencies are.
Q: Have you had to “unlearn” anything in the NBA?
Beal: Not really, not at all. The only things that is really different is defense—you can’t really help as much because of defensive three seconds. But the way Coach (Billy) Donovan coached us at Florida is similar to the way Witt is teaching us. Coach Donovan is very NBA-like in the way he coaches and everything like that. That really helped me out a lot.
Q: How do you prepare for a game?
Beal: Just making sure I know what I’m doing and who I’m guarding. In terms of offense, just making sure I’m aggressive and just making sure I’m taking the right shots—taking shots within the offense. Making sure I’m going within the team flow and, at the same time, doing what coach wants me to do and what I need to do for the team.
Q: Are there any shooting guards you’ve been studying?
Beal: D-Wade, I love how he uses his body on offense. Just the way he’s able to create his shot, get into your body and finish—the man’s a strong finisher. Ray Allen, his ability to shoot the ball. And then you have Kobe, who can do just about anything. So, I’m always taking notes on these guys, learning how they move without the ball, how they make their cuts, and how they make their reads.
Q: Kevin Seraphin is molding his game after Nene’s. Is there anyone in this locker room who’s helped you?
Beal: Everybody, since day one. Everybody took me under their wing and just showed me what I need to do in certain situations, how to handle things. John (Wall) especially, just ’cause he’s the leader of the team. When he was out, he was really something of a mentor. He’s telling me things, two different perspectives: what he sees and what I see on the floor. He’s really helping me out a lot and just saying what I can and can’t do in certain situations.
Q: Has the game slowed down?
Beal: The game just slowed down on its own. That’s just how I am as a player. It just took me a while to get the feel of things, and, once I started doing that, the game became a lot easier for me. I’m starting to make better reads, easier reads, things I can use on both ends of the floor. It’s becoming more fun now, so that’s the most important thing to me. Once I’m having fun, I’m really playing pretty well.
Q: How important have game reps been?
Beal: Probably a big part. I’m getting a lot of minutes. Coach has been putting a lot of confidence and faith in me to be able to do what I need to do on the floor, and I’m taking advantage of those minutes. There are rookies who don’t have the opportunity that I have, so I’m really just taking full advantage of it. I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have and I’m just going to keep working harder.
“When you do things fast, it means you’re confident,” Pat Schiller told his uncle Charles Siebert. Beal’s playing fast alright, but where will he go from here? Well, ESPN Insider David Thorpe thinks that Beal can become ”a primary scoring threat with abilities to hurt teams all over the court,” and I think he’s right. He’s third among rookies in points per game (13.3), behind Damian Lillard and Dion Waiters, and his floater is becoming a legitimate weapon. Beal has now scored 10 or more points 23 games this season, a team-high, and has led his team in scoring in 12 of the Wizards’ 35 games. But he can also do more than just put the ball through the hoop. He’s ranks 12th among rookies in rebounds per game, but first among rookie guards (3.6), and ranks fifth among rookies in assists per game (2.6).
“I’m really level-headed and humble,” Beal told me. “I just have to keep working. I have a lot more things to prove.”