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Is Bradley Beal more than a 2nd option?

Dec 4, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) shoots the ball against Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the first half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Bradley Beal went off for a career-high 51 points against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Washington Wizards guard joins James Harden and LeBron James as the only players to hang 50-plus this season. Pretty good company.

His accomplishment would seem even more impressive when considering that he isn’t even the Wizards’ first scoring option. With John Wall sidelined with knee soreness, he is right now.

Otto Porter, the usually-third-but-now-turned-second option, went 1-of-9 from the field in the game. If Washington was to win, it was going to need a big night from Beal. However, he had been in a slump, making only 16 of his last 49 shots (32.6 percent) in the previous four games combined before making 21 of his 37 attempts in Portland.

Beal took what the Blazers gave him, and then some. He didn’t inflate his point total with 3s (he made only five) or repeatedly bulldoze his way to the rim. He attacked from all angles, like a Panda Ninja:

(Via NBA.com)

So why the slump?

“Thinking too much,” Beal told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post. “I was trying to think about plays and get guys shots, to get them easy ones, and I was myself trying to make every play, and I can’t make every play.”

That’s the difference between players like Beal and players like Harden and LeBron. Harden and LeBron can make every play. That’s not a knock on Beal — few players can do what Harden and LeBron do — but it’s worth noting in order to understand Beal’s role on whatever a contending version of the Wizards would look like.

Beal isn’t in the class of his 50-point peers. He’s a rung or two below that, with guys like Klay Thompson. Beal has developed into one of the premier guards in the NBA. After entering the league as a known 3-point shooting threat, he evolved his game. He’s a better all-around scorer now.

As SB Nation’s Tim Cato points out, Beal is using the threat of his 3-point shot to catch opponents off guard. Defenders are often aggressive jumping out to defend him, at which time Beal blows by them with the dribble. From Cato: 

By leveraging the threat of his 3-pointer, Beal is shooting more than 34 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the rim, tied for the best mark of his career. He’s also shooting nearly 65 percent at the rim, the best figure in his past three seasons, when his attempts within three feet of the hoop rose considerably.

Here you can see Tony Snell close out hard, only for Beal to blow by him for a wide-open dunk:

 

He can do more than those straight-line drives, too. The scouting report says to go over screens against Beal, and he has developed a good handle to poke the defense and be a crafty finisher:

 

Beal is creating for himself more than ever. Only four years ago, nearly 65 percent of Beal’s shots were assisted. Now, per NBA.com, the split is 50-50:

(Data via NBA.com)

He’s also helping create for others. Beal has been the ballhandler in pick-and-rolls in 25.8 percent of his possessions, and he’s scoring a credible 1.01 points per possession. Beal knows how to use screens well, and has developed a give-and-go game with Marcin Gortat:

 

Where Beal struggles is in a slowed-down isolation game. Nearly 90 percent of players are better in isolation situations than Beal, per NBA.com. That could be a symptom of small sample size, with only 60 possessions being categorized as isolation plays, but Beal has never been more than an average isolation player throughout his career.

That’s okay. Wall is an awesome isolation player, and the offense moves through him. Beal is the ultimate complement, a devastating catch-and-shoot threat who can attack off the dribble, and take some of the pressure off Wall by being able to create for himself and others.

At 6-foot-5, Beal is getting better as a defender, though he still has ways to go before he’s on a comparable level to Wall or Porter. Luckily for him, though, he’s on a roster full of dynamite wing defenders — from Wall and Porter to Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. Beal doesn’t need to be great, just average. He’s fine.

Beal tops out as a great second option on a contending team, the Klay Thompson to John Wall’s Steph Curry. Scott Brooks needs those players to get where Washington wants to go, but he’ll also need Wall. Despite Beal’s 51-point explosion, the Wizards have dropped six of their last 10 games and are sliding down the Eastern Conference standings. Hopefully for them, Wall can return soon.

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