Bradley Beal is more athletic than we thought

The Washington Wizards’ season should’ve been over the moment John Wall elected to have surgery on the nagging bone spurs in his left heel. It really should’ve been.

Wall has been the franchise’s catalyst since entering the league in 2010, handling a herculean workload and a near monopoly over playmaking duties. Dribbling the ball up the floor is one thing; creating offense on an every-down basis is something else entirely. It takes ridiculous stamina, not to mention the burst needed to actually breach the lane and generate looks for yourself and teammates.

Washington didn’t appear to have a replacement with that skillset. Bradley Beal, the team’s other star and perhaps the obvious heir, has always been a secondary creator. He’s supposed to be a basketball fan’s platonic ideal of a shooting guard, “shooting” being the operative word. He wasn’t an “explosive” athlete entering the NBA, and after a series of stress injuries in his shin early in his career, durability has been a question, too.

But something happened this season even before Wall went down. Despite their roles and reputations, Beal looked quicker, stronger, springier than his backcourt partner. Ironman Wall was hobbled. Oft-hobbled Beal was healthy. Tuning into a Wizards game was like observing a physiology experiment. Injuries affect athletic performance. Who knew?

Beal, though, doesn’t just look healthy. He looks freaking powerful.

Since Wall’s injury, the 25-year-old has logged 38.8 minutes per game and posted a 30.5 percent usage rate. The former number paces the NBA over that span, while the latter would be a career high.

A first-option workload isn’t anything to scoff at. It’s draining. And taking on that challenge for 39 minutes each night should be unthinkable for Beal, the same dude who three years ago admitted he might need a permanent minutes restriction to preserve his body.

But the bubble wrap’s off. Scott Brooks is working his remaining star, perhaps irresponsibly so. He’s hit the 50-minute mark twice this season and now ranks second in the league in total minutes. He hasn’t rested for a single game, not even back-to-backs.

The thing is, long and short-distance athleticism usually trend in opposite directions. The more energy you exert over the course of a game, the less you have left to jump high or sprint fast. Try running 2.82 miles – Beal’s nightly average, second-most in the league – and finishing up with a 40-yard dash.

But Beal’s short-distance explosiveness has only improved.

He’s sinking 68.2 percent of his shots at the rim on the season. That number flirted with 80 percent for much of the year, which is unsustainable for anyone who isn’t Shaq or Giannis. Even after a recent dip, he still ranks in the league’s 97th percentile in finishing per BBall Index’s talent grades.

Beal has always been crafty at the rim, his preferred moves usually involving going under or around shot blockers. Now he’s going straight through them. The chiseled Florida product has become an expert at leaping into defenders, squaring his body in mid-air, and hanging until he has a clear look at the hoop.

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Sure, he’s not dunking on fools (though he can also do that). But these plays are more impressive than yamming over an outstretched arm. Leaping ability, body control, core and upper-body strength – you need all of the above.

Beal still has the pretty finesse finishes, too. He uses whatever move the play requires in the restricted area. He’ll usually jump off his stronger left foot, but he’s a menace off two feet, as well. He takes no time to load up, so his second jump is cat quick.

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You may even spot the mythical right-foot, right-hand layup, which takes obscene coordination and weak-leg spring.

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Always a shooter in theory, Beal is becoming a slasher in practice. His career year at the rim has accompanied a career year getting to the rim. In the past, he was all crossovers and head fakes, using his skill to breach the paint. He’s blowing right by dudes now.

The first-step still isn’t special, but the second and third have a newfound zip. Once he lowers his shoulder and turns the corner, his defender is toast, whether he uses a screen or not. After posting 5.8 points per game off drives last season, the 2018 All-Star is averaging 7.6 this year.

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Slower wings (DeMarre Carroll, here) need to sag off to stop him. Bigs who switch onto him can forget about it. If a point guard picks him up in transition, the St. Louis native can ram them all the way into the paint, give a final bump for good measure, and rise up. The Wizards list him at 207 pounds, but have you seen those shoulders?

Beal’s physicality comes across in ways that aren’t so obvious, too. He’s making Paul George plays – the kinds of tip rebounds, out-of-bounds saves, and deflections that happen outside the course of normal half-court work.

His 79 loose balls recovered rank fifth in the league. He’s closed out on more three-pointers than all but five players. He’s taken 11 charges so far this season after drawing only four all of last year.

You can see the activity and alertness, but you can also see the raw athleticism and barbell strength.

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Scouts described Beal as “smooth” and “fluid” when he entered the NBA. Hell, I even used the former term in an article I wrote less than two years ago. That’s not the only vocabulary that comes to mind when watching him now. You can also throw in “tireless,” “powerful,” “explosive,” even “violent.”

Most players reach their athletic peak in their early-20s, stay there for a few years, and then gradually dip. But Beal’s early-20s were marred by debilitating stress injuries that put a ceiling, quite literally, on his game.

His recovery from those early years has been spectacular to watch. The seven-year pro has started 199 straight regular season games, taking on progressively more minutes and a progressively greater offensive burden. His body hasn’t just held up – it’s become bigger, stronger, and faster than ever.

Now 25 and in his physical prime, Beal’s having his best season yet. That’s not a coincidence.

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