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Bradley Beal Is Finally The Player He Was Meant To Be

Even with all the puzzling players floating around the NBA, Bradley Beal has always stood out. He was drafted as a dead-eye shooter, a seemingly ideal foil for John Wall, the Wizards’ supersonic point guard. But despite shooting about as well as can be expected from long distance, and despite possessing many of the tools required of an All-Star guard, Beal has never quite matched his potential.

But this season, amid the Washington Wizards’ rise to legitimate Eastern Conference dark horse, Beal has become the version of himself that Washington fans have always hoped would show up.

The change looks simple: Beal is attempting more 3-pointers than ever before (he’s up to 7.4 per game this season) and making them as well as he ever has (40.6 percent). This has brought his true shooting percentage up to an elite level (60.4 percent), and it has been crucial to the Wizards posting their best offensive efficiency in his time with the team. But Beal’s transformation from a bundle of unrealized potential into a true partner for Wall is not merely the result of taking more threes. He has also made fundamental changes to his game in search of those shots.

Let’s start with the basics: Beal has always been a perfectly good spot-up shooter, but being an NBA star who specializes in shooting is about more than just stroking open jump shots. Just about any NBA-level guard can stand in the corner and hit a decent percentage of the threes that come his way. In the past, the Wizards tried to get Beal to fill out his game by acting like a traditional star guard, running the high pick-and-roll and doing his best Kobe Bryant impression. This didn’t work out so well.

PICK-AND-ROLL OVERALL
SEASON PLAYS/GAME % OF ALL PLAYS PTS/100 PLAYS PTS/100 PLAYS TRUE SHOOTING %
2012-13 2.4 16.5% 56 92.3 51.5%
2013-14 4.5 24.4 73 92.2 50.7
2014-15 4.3 26.1 66 92.4 52.1
2015-16 5.2 29.5 81 97.9 54.7
2016-17 4.7 22.1 101 109.5 60.4
Bradley Beal’s pick-and-roll points per play

Sources: synergy sports technology, Basketball-Reference

Until this season, Beal ran the pick-and-roll the way most guards in the NBA do. He’d hold the ball, wait for his screen to arrive, and then feel out the space the defense gave him, looking to drive or pass. He has improved this part of his game over the years, but he was never better than about average (and often was far worse than that). That’s mostly because, while he has a good first step, he has never been a strong dribbler; when he can’t go in a straight line to the basket, he’ll often lose his handle and have to reset or will dribble ball off his foot and out of bounds.

Having Beal play as though he were a prototypical star shooting guard was not a great use of his talents. So the Wizards have switched things up, getting him open in other ways, away from the ball. After years of spending the greatest portion of his possessions churning out mediocre pick-and-rolls, Beal now gets more shots from running off of screens than from any other play type. And focusing on the off-ball movement has opened up the rest of his game, making him much more effective when he does have the ball.

OFF-SCREEN OVERALL
SEASON PLAYS/GAME % OF ALL PLAYS PTS/100 PLAYS PTS/100 PLAYS TRUE SHOOTING %
2012-13 2.7 18.3% 86.4 92.3 51.5%
2013-14 2.0 10.7 89.7 92.2 50.7
2014-15 2.8 17.0 77.4 92.4 52.1
2015-16 2.7 15.2 90.5 97.9 54.7
2016-17 4.8 22.8 96.3 109.5 60.4
Bradley Beal’s off-screen points per play

Sources: synergy sports technology, basketball-reference

This season’s Wizards commonly start plays with Beal on the wing (or making a run across the baseline to emerge on the opposite wing) and run off a screen that gets him toward the middle of the floor. Because Beal is a threat to shoot off of the screen, the defender has to chase him over it and the screener’s defender has to help discourage a shot. If neither closes him out, Beal can rise up for a shot. If one or both defenders contest, he can use his first step to drive to the rim, which is less congested than it would be if he’d begun the play holding the ball and staring down the defense.

That’s a fairly common play type in the NBA, and one that the Cleveland Cavaliers will often run to get Kyle Korver open. But the important thing about these plays isn’t how effective they are — though at 95 points per 100 plays, they’re a perfectly good option for Beal in the half-court — but how much they’ve helped Beal improve those same pick-and-roll plays that had been weighing him and the Wizards down. Last season, Beal scored a career-high 81 points per 100 plays as a pick-and-roll ball handler; this season, he’s taken that to 103 points per 100 plays. That’s due in large part to the space and matchups he’s able to create coming off of screens, which comes from excising a bunch of the slow, pounding, high pick-and-rolls that get him into trouble.

Many of this season’s Beal pick-and-rolls are hardly recognizable compared to those of past seasons. In fact, some are more like extensions of Beal’s off-the-screen work than they are traditional pick-and-rolls.

Instead of beginning possessions with the defense set, and therefore having to create openings with his dribbling, Beal now often receives the ball after coming around a screen — essentially the play you see above — and then re-engages with the screen for the pick-and-roll going back the other way, or he runs around a second screen set by another Washington big. Instead of immediately exploring the space, however, his first move is now to look for the pull-up 3. It may not sound like much, but the idea is to build Beal’s biggest strength (his jumper) into a primary weapon while minimizing his reliance on things he doesn’t do as well (dribbling and passing).

Not every play can be quite that complex. But even when Beal isn’t curling around screens, he’s finding more opportunities to begin the pick-and-roll action early in the shot clock, when the defense is not yet set (which is when he’s looked his best in previous years). Other times, Beal simply needs to run a standard high pick-and-roll while Wall takes a break. Even then, however, it seems like he goes to his jumper more quickly than he used to and looks a little sharper driving into traffic (though he’s still not above occasionally dribbling the ball off of his shin or missing a rolling Marcin Gortat by several feet).

These tweaks put several kinds of pressure on the defense. First, it has to guard Beal’s initial run off of the screen, which he’s perfectly happy to use to create a shot. But then, if the defense is successful, Beal can turn his defender back the other way around the same screen to begin the pick-and-roll, where he’s also a threat to pull up. And because all this is happening on a dynamic play instead of in a grinding two-man game, Beal has more clear lanes to the hoop that don’t require any of the fancy moves that get him into trouble, like “changing direction” or “avoiding a defender.”

We have to go back to the crates to find someone who both runs a lot of pick-and-rolls and uses them the way Beal does. It turns out that this new-and-improved version of Beal plays a lot like the player he was compared to coming out of college: Ray Allen.

Allen didn’t have a partner like Wall to draw attention away from him, but the way he navigated his screens and made defenders come to him would be right at home in 2017’s NBA.

For the Wizards to make much noise this spring, a lot of things will have to break their way. The defense will have to snap out of a troubling recent downturn (they’ve allowed 111 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, compared to 108 before it), and fellow Zards breakout Otto Porter will need to emerge from a cold spell (he’s shooting 35 percent from three since the break, down from 47 percent before it). But those are more temporary, will-they-or-won’t-they type problems. The biggest change to the Wizards this season is more hardwired than that: Bradley Beal has developed a game that suits his skills, and it’s the game of a perennial All-Star.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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