Washington fans have a lot to be optimistic about. The team made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago and, if not for an injury to John Wall, looked to have a good chance to advance further. Considering the team hasn’t won a division title since before the Reagan administration, things are definitely looking up. Now, Ernie Grunfeld and the rest of the Wizards front office has the difficult task of navigating through the offseason as a team hovering at or above the salary cap – luckily though, they also may not have to make any major personnel changes in order to improve.
Internal development will continue be the biggest hope for Washington to take the next step in the 2015-16 season. The core is young and athletic, a product of smart drafting by the Wiz management. Still not 25 years old, 2010 draftee John Wall has already emerged as an elite point guard in the league and has another offseason to further polish his game. In the playoffs, the Wizards’s 3rd overall pick in 2013, Otto Porter, finally looked like the player many thought he could be coming out of Georgetown. He shot 38% from beyond the arc and used his length to bother on defense. During the regular season, the Wizards were actually better with Porter off the court, but if he can build upon his postseason performance he will be a valuable contributor going forward. And finally, there’s 2012 first rounder Bradley Beal, whose continued development will be paramount for this Wizards team moving forward.
While Beal’s immense talent is clear, he hasn’t quite put it all together on either side of the ball. During this past season, he missed the first 19 games due to an ankle injury and when he was on the court often displayed his inexperience – natural given that he’s just 21 years old. Nevertheless, there were flashes of brilliance. When John Wall went down with a fractured wrist, Beal stepped up to put in 34 points against the Hawks in game 4 of their playoff matchup, almost leading the Wizards to victory.
Games like those make Beal so intriguing as a possible star in this league. He possesses the rare combination of a silky shooting touch with positional size and athleticism. This allows him to space the floor beyond the 3-point line and finish at the rim through the trees. He has a developing offensive skill set to boot, becoming more and more competent at attacking a defense in the pick and roll, especially after John Wall has tilted the defense’s attention away from him. Beal also possesses all the tools to become one of the better defenders in the league at the shooting guard position. Put it all together, given his talent, age, and the rising salary cap, Bradley Beal might just be worthy of a max extension. In the end, there are a few big things that really set him apart.
For Beal, explaining his value as a player begins with his shooting ability. Dating back to his high school and college days, his shooting was always pretty and potent, which has translated to excellent 3-point shooting numbers in the NBA. Last year, Beal shot 40.9% from beyond the 3-point arc, which was good enough for 14th in the league and the 93rd percentile among among qualifying players, according to stats.nba.com. He’s in elite company, surrounded by marksmen such as Mike Dunleavy, Kyrie Irving, and Danny Green. Further qualifying Beal as deadly from deep is his consistency. Beal shot 39%, 40%, and 41% in years one, two, and three respectively, making him 40% for his career from downtown. While one year of great shooting can often be explained by statistical randomness, Beal has demonstrated a consistent and accurate stroke from deep.
One skill that allows Beal to be so efficient from beyond the 3-point arc is his ability to move off the ball to create space from his defender and a passing lane for his teammate.
While Beal is never directly involved in the play, he is in constant motion on the backside as the Wizards run through various offensive actions. Finally, as John Wall attacks the basket on the third pick and roll of the possession, Beal drifts to the corner, losing his defender and creating an easy passing lane for Wall to find him. It is this type of off-ball movement that Beal has mastered to maximize the amount of open looks he receives.
FINISHING AT THE RIM
In addition to his silky shooting stroke, Beal is one of the better guards in the league at finishing at the basket. Last year, Beal made over 63% of his attempts at the rim, which put him 15th out of 108 guards with at least 100 attempts in the restricted area, and in the 86th percentile (stats.nba.com). He has shown the ability to get past defenders and finish at the rim over size.
Beal fearlessly challenges 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Tyler Hansbrough at the basket and fits a clever layup between their outstretched arms.
While there are a handful of shooters that are just as good as Beal, his advantage lies with his size and athleticism. Standing 6’5” with 6’8” wingspan and a 39” vertical jump, he has the tools to be effective attacking the rim, something that not many others with his shooting touch can do. Further, he has been effective at translating his physical gifs into real on-court production. His skill in the lane shows up on tape and is backed up by statistics. For this reason, he’s an extremely valuable commodity in this league.
BURGERONING OFFENSIVE SKILLSET
Beal and the Wizards have worked to mold his tools into a complete offensive game. Head coach Randy Wittman challenged Beal offensively early on in his career by putting him in a lot of pick and roll situations. This was not his strong suit coming out of the University of Florida but as a result of Wittman coaxing him out of his comfort zone, Beal has began to develop as a pick and roll ball handler.
In this side pick and roll, Beal is patient enough to keep his dribble and string out the defender hedging the pick and roll. Then, just as Marcin Gortat moves into an open pocket of space, Beal threads a perfect bounce pass around the hedging Amir Johnson and just in front of the helping Patrick Patterson. This play is demonstrative of a relatively advanced pick and roll player, showing the patience to wait until he has effectively dragged the help the defender away from the roller and the skill to make the dish.
Here, Beal makes the correct read and hits Gortat rolling to the rim with a smooth pocket pass. He clearly knows the angles to make all the necessary passes out of the pick and roll and has the ability to execute them.
In this play, Beal reads his defender overcommitting toward the incoming ball screen, so he rejects the pick and beats his man to rim, finishing through contact.
He also has the shooting ability to make the help defender pay if he refuses to hedge hard on the pick and roll. Dwight Howard drops back just a step, but Beal punishes him for his slight hesitation and drills the three before James Harden can get around the screen or Howard can step up and contest. He has the wide variety of skills to effective breaking down a defense in the pick and roll and overall, Beal has improved tremendously as a creator on offense. His passing generated seven points per game for Washington, which was one of the better marks in the league for a wing (stats.nba.com). He managed that while still maintaining about an average turnover rate, quite impressive for someone who would have been a senior in college if he had stayed in school.
Of course, as with any young player, Beal has a couple deficient areas that could preclude his ability to be a true #1 playmaker worthy of the max. For all of the positive signs of Beal successfully operating in the pick and roll, he has had a tendency to fall in love with his jumper, particularly from long 2-point range, which has put a major drag on his efficiency.
Beal has the propensity, most likely from a combination of him not completely trusting his ability to make difficult decisions at high speed on his way to rim and him believing in his jumper, to settle for long twos in pick and roll situations and otherwise. Last year, more than 40% of his field goal attempts came from beyond 10 feet but inside the 3-point line, essentially the midrange area. For contrast, Harden, a player with much more efficient shot selection, took just 20% of his shots from that area. Harden and many smart teams around the league have eschewed shooting from mid-range due to its relatively high degree of difficulty, while still yielding just two points. Beal proved doubly inefficient by taking a large amount of shots from mid-range and putting up bricks at a paltry rate of 34%, one of the worst clips in the NBA.
Putting things lightly, his shot selection needs work. But to be fair to Beal, it isn’t all on him. The Wizards as a team shot the 5th most mid-range jumpers in the league, indicative of a larger offensive system that leads to those type of shots (stats.nba.com). To fix this problem, there needs to be a concerted effort by Beal and the coaching staff to get to more efficient spots on the floor. For example, in the pick and roll, the primary option for Beal needs to be breaking down that help defender and getting to the rim, dishing to the roll man or kicking the ball back out to the perimeter.
On the defensive side of the ball, the stats are inconclusive on Beal’s impact. Defensive Win Shares, a calculation of defensive value based on how well a player’s team defends relative to average when said player was on the floor, puts Beal in the upper echelon of wing players at 2.4 defensive win shares. However, a different statistic from basketball reference pegs Beal’s impact defensive impact as slightly negative. Logic says that his true value lies somewhere in between the two measurements. Intuitively, he has the positional size and athleticism to defend at an even higher level than he’s shown. Thus, with effort and concentration he ought to to be able to further improve on that end of the floor.
The final negative consideration with Beal is that injuries have prevented him from playing a full season. He’s played just 56, 73 and 63 games in his first 3 seasons, respectively. The talent is tantalizing but there’s a risk involved because he hasn’t put everything together yet. There are flashes of brilliance but also many signs of youth and inexperience. He’ll have to continue to grow to justify any long term, big money deal that the Wizards decide to give him. But given his talent and age, it’s a good bet that he will.
SO, TO MAX OR NOT TO MAX?
Despite his still undeveloped defensive game and his semi-questionable shot selection, keep in mind Beal is just 21 years old; the same age as many players who will be drafted this Thursday. A guy like Jimmy Butler, who only recently emerged as an elite shooting guard, took until his age 25 season to finally break out. Beal still has years of growth ahead of him.
For further comparison, Beal’s value above replacement (VORP) was 1.3 last year, his age 21 season (Bball ref). At the same age, Klay Thompson was a replacement level player with VORP of 0.1. Butler was still at Marquette. While he hasn’t quite produced to the level many had hoped, Beal is well ahead of his peers at the same age.1 Also, keep in mind that NBA players tend to peak around the age of 25, which has to be a vital part of the calculus determining Beal’s worth.2 Through the life of his contract, which will run from his age 23 through 26 seasons, it’s likely he will be improving every year. Thus, in giving him the max, the Wizards are paying for projected future production rather than prior output, a sign of a good investment.
Additionally, with the expected increase in the salary cap due to hit the NBA starting in 2016-17 season, Beal’s max contract will make up a smaller and smaller portion of the cap every year after it’s signed. To get a bit into the specifics, the max contract for a player with 0-6 years of NBA experience is about 23.5% of the salary cap. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump from $67.1 million this upcoming year to $89 million in 2016-17. So, Beal would see the first year of this spike reflected in his deal, which would have a starting salary of about $20 million.3 However, because the cap is expected to take another big jump from $89 million to $108 in 2017-18, his contract would make up less than 19% of the salary cap the next year. So with that massive leaps in the cap looming, a max contract will look more reasonable every year, especially given Beal’s age and potential to continue improving.
Beal is the perfect player to excel in the modern NBA. His sweet stroke and finishing ability make it so his best spots on the floor also happen to be the most efficient areas on the court. With further refinement, Beal will be a nightmare for opposing teams as an efficient scoring machine and defensive menace. In the proper frame of reference, given his skill set, age, and the increasing salary cap, a max contract seems more than fitting for Bradley Beal.
1. Thompson received what essentially was a max extension from the Warriors and Butler is in line for max contract this offseason. Beal also compares well to Eric Gordon, another young shooting guard who received a max deal coming off his rookie contract.↩
2. There has been some debate over the exact age players tend to peak and what span of years tend a make up players prime. A general consensus is somewhere around ages 24-27. Further reading: http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=9840; http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703478704574612553424283372; http://basketballprospectus.com/unfiltered/?p=399↩
3. All of this is of course banking on the cap projections being somewhat accurate. The projection I’ve seen says the cap will be $89 million in 2016-17 and $108 million in 2017-18. http://www.blazersedge.com/2015/4/17/8447785/nba-salary-cap-projections-2015-2016-2017-2018-luxury-tax ↩