It’s laughable to characterize the Wizards’ play-in game as a coming-out party for Bradley Beal, a 27-year-old three-time All-Star who, over the past two seasons, has averaged more points than every other player in the NBA.
But the trajectory of Beal’s ascent, from awesome two-guard to hell-wrecking cornerstone, is still hard to process. Right now he’s thriving among elite company: The only others in NBA history to average at least 30 points per game in consecutive seasons are 10 icons (including Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Kobe Bryant) either already enshrined in the Hall of Fame or inevitably headed there as a first-ballot inductee. Meanwhile, according to Basketball-Reference, Beal’s odds on receiving an invitation to Springfield are 2.6%.
Scoring isn’t everything, but considering it’s what he’s best at—on a team with no other efficient shot creators—there might not be a single player in the league who experiences a wider disconnect between how well they perform and how thoroughly they’re appreciated than Beal, who has never made an All-NBA team and wasn’t an All-Star last year despite averaging 29.1 points, 6.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds before the break.
Now, with the eight-seed locked up and another superb regular season in his rearview mirror, as Beal (with a strained hamstring) heads into Tuesday night’s play-in game against the Celtics, it’s worth interrogating why his game, numbers and consistency haven’t been held in the same esteem as several fellow stars who aren’t any more important or effective than he is. Put in more frank terms: Why isn’t Brad Beal a bigger deal?
The Wizards have seldom found success in the postseason. In his eight seasons before this one, Beal competed in only seven playoff series. He’s never reached the conference finals and hasn’t been to the second round since 2017, when Isaiah Thomas’s Celtics eliminated Washington in seven games.
Compared to, say, Damian Lillard or Kyrie Irving, two guards at a similar age and experience level, Beal has zero memorable playoff moments. (In that series against Boston, he scored 71 points in the last two games—including a game-high 38 in the finale—but the Wizards still lost Game 7 by double digits.)
Even with a late-season charge that featured an impressive 17-9 record since April 1, the Wizards still finished a nightmarish 2020–21 season four games under .500 with the ninth-lowest net rating in the league; they were also outscored by three points with Beal on the court. But the team’s struggles precede this season. And they’ve tainted how Beal’s perceived: There are 15 players who’ve logged at least 20,000 minutes since he entered the NBA back in 2013. Out of those 15, he ranks 12th in win shares.
“When you win, the rewards and awards come,” says Drew Gooden, the Wizards’ color commentator and Beal’s teammate for three seasons. “That's how this league is. … If you’re not winning basketball games, nobody's gonna know who you are.”
For the most part, though, Beal has thrived in spite of his surroundings: all the injuries, wasted draft picks, depressing trades and cap-crushing free-agent signings that have helped make the Wizards one of the more depressing and dysfunctional franchises in professional sports. Put Beal on the Suns instead of Devin Booker, or the Jazz instead of Donovan Mitchell, and there’s a good chance he’d be an MVP candidate. Sometimes it takes restraint to watch him and not daydream about an alternate reality where he’s on the Pelicans with Zion Williamson or down in Miami beside Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. There are many nights when his production seems wasted in Washington because, well, it very often is.
But Beal consistently produces despite playing with rookies, sophomores, cast-offs, misfits and an all-time oxygen-eater who in the last five years was cold-shouldered by Kevin Durant, Paul George and James Harden. The way Beal gets his numbers in the face of constant double and triple teams, against detailed scouting reports that are mapped out to deny him the ball and make every touch a slog, is remarkable.
In a tight win against the Raptors earlier this month, Beal couldn’t help but comment on Nick Nurse’s kitchen-sink gameplan, which worked until it didn’t. (“As soon as I walked out of the locker room, they had a guy on me,” Beal said after the game.) He finished with 28 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Watch how many defenders—especially Russell Westbrook’s man—swarm him below. This type of attention is a recurring theme.
“Kendrick Perkins posted a clip [on Twitter] of Steph Curry being guarded by four people. And he asked who else in the NBA is getting guarded like this? And I quickly responded: Bradley Beal,” Gooden says. “There's been times where I’m amazed, there’s four people guarding him like it’s a high-school basketball game. You have three to four people trying to guard you, to stop you in one possession, and you’re capable of averaging 30-plus points.”
Beal isn’t the strongest or fastest at his position, but he has runners, floaters, turnarounds, fallaways, stepbacks and sidesteps that are accessible through approximately half a million different fakes, jabs and dribble combinations. There’s no road map to slowing down a fearless player who can move in any direction at any given time and is impervious to switches even when they involve some of the NBA’s most intimidating stoppers.
Beal’s impact on Washington’s offense is bested by only a handful of players with their respective teams—including the league’s three leading MVP candidates. Few are more potent driving the ball as frequently as Beal does; only Zion and Giannis Antetokounmpo had more and-ones this season.
Beal is also odd in that there’s no unique part of his skill set that defines who he is. At the same time, there isn’t anyone else like him: a 6' 3" combo guard who flourishes on a heavy diet of dribble hand-offs and off-ball evasiveness (about half his baskets are assisted).
His game has evolved into an amalgam of B+/A- moves and counters that are subtle enough to elude 4K resolution, usually topped off with a jumper that turns the ball into a marshmallow whenever it hits the rim. If someone asked 15 NBA fans to close their eyes and think about the one type of play they most associate with Beal, there might be 10 different sequences that come to mind. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does separate him from others who’re in or near his class.
Lillard throws darts from the logo. Trae Young pumps the brakes on his body to access the free throw line. Irving routinely executes a tumbling routine on his way to the rim that would leave a panel of Olympic judges dumbfounded. Curry turns every possession into an obstacle course just to create the centimeter of space he needs to detonate. Chris Paul is an executioner from the right elbow.
All of them enter a realm of leisure while pulling off their respective go-to moves. They set them up right before delivering a punch line everyone in the building can see coming from a mile away. That anticipation is part of the theater. But instead of shoving any one move down his opponent’s throat, what Beal does is react and respond to how he’s being guarded, play after play, until you look up and somehow he has 36 points.
But sometimes it seems like Beal is choosing to walk uphill, especially when you consider his long-time reluctance to fully embrace the three ball. A career-low 26.7% of his shots were threes this season, and just 12.4% were off the dribble (only 30.4% went in). “I think that's where Brad can expand his game and he knows it,” Gooden says. “He's a better three-point shooter than he’s shot this season. I think Brad is a guy that can be a capable 43% to 44% three-point shooter in this league.”
His game could be more casually dominant, but instead pretty much everything he does often looks as difficult as it is. Even though the Wizards finished with the fastest pace in the league, only 7.1% of Beal’s points were plucked from fast breaks (another career low and 167th out of 174 guards who’ve appeared in at least 40 games).
It’d be too dramatic to call his approach self-defeating; Beal has been nearly unstoppable for two straight years. But by tweaking his game in a few areas, he could plausibly, somehow, get even better.
It’s possible that beyond all the losing and failure to impress in the playoffs, Beal’s inability to establish or inspire any consistent foothold in a national audience’s imagination—beyond the outlandish numbers that populate in box scores beside his name—is another reason why he’s proportionately overlooked.
His game adheres to strict fundamentals while also dabbling in fluid, improvisational unveilings that are just about impossible to solve in real time. He’s deliberate and relentless, simple and breathtaking, constantly improving in astute ways.
It’d be refreshing to reframe Beal’s status outside his team’s record, given how much is out of his hands and the load (with a top-five usage rate) that makes every possession particularly exhausting. Yet somehow he comes through efficiently, with a winning impact, at a scale very few players in NBA history have ever reached. Beal’s actual accomplishments don’t draw as much attention from broader media coverage as the hypothetical trade rumors that would free him from an environment that’s otherwise prevented him from becoming a legitimate household name.
It’s fine if you want to see Beal in a more relevant location, positioned to wreak havoc in the second round, conference finals (where the Wizards haven’t been since they lost the Finals in 1979) or lifting a very good team to greatness. But understand that it’d be malpractice for this organization to Wizards to deal someone so imposing, who fits in myriad systems and lineup permutations with very few, if any, worrisome offensive flaws, knowing he plans to re-sign once he’s eligible for a new max contract in 2022.
Players this good, who show up each year slightly more polished than the one before, don’t come around very often. And whether Washington chooses to be patient and organically develop intriguing prospects like Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, or exchange several attractive assets for another All-Star caliber player (Domas Sabonis or Pascal Siakam could be available at the right price, with their respective franchises approaching a crossroad), it’s almost impossible to annually stay out of postseason contention with someone like Beal steadily improving on your roster.
It’s safe to say he won’t be rewarded with a signature shoe or string of nationally televised commercial spots off a play-in game or first-round series. But, as much of a consolation prize as it feels, showing out before a wider audience in games that hold actual stakes wouldn’t hurt a reputation that still doesn’t accurately reflect the talent that’s there.
“Have a 40-point game, a 50-point game,” Gooden says. “People are going to take notice. … I still think he could get better, is the scary thing. It’s not like I’m seeing him flatlining right now. If this is a stock, it’s going up in value.”