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NBA Saturday: Is Bradley Beal Worth a Max-Contract?

Bradley Beal is very talented, but is he worth a max-contract considering his notable injury history?

Jesse Blancarte

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Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards will be a restricted free agent this summer. Beal enters free agency at an ideal time considering the fact that the salary cap will rise to an estimated $92 million this offseason and the fact that this year’s crop of free agents is relatively weak.

Earlier this week, Beal made it clear that he expects to receive and sign a max offer from the Wizards.

“I want to be valued the right way,” Beal said to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post. “I feel like I’m a max player and that’s what I’m looking for. If Washington can’t meet that requirement then I may be thinking elsewhere. I’m pretty sure that they probably won’t [let me go]. At the end of the day, that’s where I want to be. I think a deal will probably get done but you just never know.”

Castillo soon after reported that, according to people with knowledge of the situation, the Wizards will offer Beal a max offer when free agency opens. However, the Wizards, according to Castillo, will look to come to terms with Beal as soon as possible, while holding off on officially signing him in order to maximize their spending power in free agency. This will allow the Wizards to pursue a max-level free agent, like Kevin Durant, while maintaining the right to sign Beal afterwards using his Bird Rights.

Considering all of this, the substantial likelihood is that the Wizards will retain their 22-year-old shooting guard this offseason. The question, however, is whether Beal is worth such a heavy investment at this point in his career.

Before evaluating Beal’s four-year career in the NBA, it must first be noted that not all max-contracts are the same. A max-contract for Beal will look a lot different than a max-contract for a player like Dwight Howard, who has 12 years of NBA experience under his belt and thus can earn a higher percentage of salary relative to the cap. Also, with the cap rising so significantly this summer, we all need to adjust the way we think about player salaries and contracts in general.

A lot of people were shocked with some of the contracts free agents were offered last season. This included players like Al-Farouq Aminu, who was offered a four-year, $30 million contract, and Khris Middleton, who was offered a five-year, $70 million contract. However, both of these deals will seem like relative bargains moving forward with the cap rising and salaries becoming increasingly inflated. The same may be true for Beal’s deal in a few years assuming the cap continues to climb.

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The first thing to note about Beal is how young he is. At 22 years old, Beal is one of the youngest top-level free agents in this year’s free agency class. Consider that Beal is just a few months older than Buddy Hield, who will be one of the top overall picks in this year’s draft.

The flip side is that Beal has already dealt with an assortment of injuries in his short NBA career, including injuries to his wrist, back, ankle, nose, toe, shoulder and pelvis. The most concerning injury is a recurring stress injury to his right fibula. This sort of lower-body injury is worrisome for a young player, especially one who hasn’t put a ton of miles on his body. Nevertheless, Beal insists he is past his injury issues.

“I hear about it all time, but that doesn’t define me as a player,” Beal said. “That won’t stop me from growing as a player and it won’t stop me from being who I am. The injury thing, that’s behind me. I’m moving forward. I’m past it. I’m focused on my career from here on out. Hell, Steph Curry was hurt his first four years. Look at him now. John [Wall] was hurt his first three or four years. Look at him now. I’m not worried about it. People are going to say what they want to say. At the end of the day, it’s not going to affect me or the money.”

While Beal insists that his injury history won’t affect the money—which he is probably right about—it probably should. Beal has never played in more than 73 games in his career and averages just about 62 games played per season so far. While Stephen Curry did in fact struggle with recurring injuries earlier in his career, which he overcame, there are others who haven’t been so fortunate.

Eric Gordon was on a similar trajectory as Beal early in his career. He was a promising two-guard who posted similar, and in several ways, better stats than Beal.

Eric Gordon Early Career StatsEric Gordon’s statistics over his first four seasons

Bradley Beal Early Career StatsBradley Beal’s statistics over his first four seasons

An assortment of injuries have plagued Gordon’s career over the last few seasons. He went from being one of the most promising up-and-coming guards in the league to almost an afterthought. Beal will hopefully have more luck than Gordon on the injury front, but Gordon’s story is a reminder that injuries can derail even the most promising of players.

Assuming that Beal can overcome his injury history, there is a lot to like about his game and his future. Beal has one of the smoothest shots in the league, a skill that is at an absolute premium these days. Beal has shot 39.7 percent from three-point range over the course of his career, and has shot over 40 percent from distance in two of his four seasons in the NBA. Also, Beal posted a career-best 54.7 True Shooting percentage last season.

Here is Beal’s shot chart for each of his four seasons in the NBA, which shows, for the most part, an increase in volume and overall accuracy:

Any contract for a player as young as Beal has to contemplate future potential. Though Beal may not be worth every penny he’ll be paid early in his contract, he has the talent and potential to one day outperform a max-contract.

Part of the reason this is true is because Beal is more than just a good shooter. Of course, shooting alone is a very nice skill to have, but being limited to that caps a player as an Anthony Morrow or Steve Novak kind of player. But Beal can do more than just hit shots from distance.

Beal was featured heavily in Washington’s offense last season (25.2 percent usage of possessions), often operating in the pick-and-roll (29.5 percent of the time). Unfortunately, Beal wasn’t exactly the most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler in the league, generating just 0.81 points per possession (59.7 percentile) and turning the ball over 15.7 percent of the time.

Despite mediocre efficiency numbers this season, Beal has a strong handle and good instincts. He looks for easy passes out of the pick-and-roll and then will look for his own offense if none of his teammates are open. The ability to play on the ball allows for teammate John Wall to be used off the ball in creative ways, and gives the Wizards a uniquely talented back court similar to what the Toronto Raptors have enjoyed with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

Also, Beal’s comfort level with the ball helps make him a threat in transition. Beal generated 1.18 points per possession in transition this season and often times threw pinpoint passes to streaking teammates for easy layups. Already having John Wall—one of the fastest players in the league—to lead the break is a nice weapon for the Wizards, but having two guards who can lead the break so effectively is a luxury.

So we know that Beal is a strong shooter, developing playmaker and a nice fit next to Wall, but what about his defense?

Earlier in his career, Beal seemed to have the tools and defensive instincts to become one of the better defensive two-guards in the league. For whatever reason—perhaps injuries—Beal has either leveled out or regressed as a defender. Beal, like Gordon, isn’t the longest defender, but has the strength and athleticism to stick with his opponent and force them into tough shots.

Beal is at his best when defending an opponent in isolation, but struggles at times chasing opponents running through multiple screens. Like many young players, Beal often times loses focus on his opponent for a split second, giving them time to get a step ahead going through a screen, which often leads to an open look. This in part explains why opponents shot particularly well against Beal on three-point looks around the top of the arc this season.

Bradley Beal Defensive Shot ChartBeal ranked 65th among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus this season, falling behind guys like Leandro Barbosa and Vince Carter. RPM on its own is not a sufficient means to evaluate a player’s defensive impact, but it can give some context to how that player performed throughout a single season.

Again, Beal has the physical tools to be a good defender, but he needs to improve moving forward. It’s not clear why Beal regressed so much defensively this season, but the Wizards have to bank on him finding some of the defensive tenacity and instincts he had earlier in his career.

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Between multiple injuries and a drop off in defensive impact, Beal, at best, is a risky investment on a max-contract. However, signing Beal to a max-deal this summer is a necessary move for the Wizards considering they can still pursue a top-tier free agent, Beal is still deceptively young, he has significant room to improve and he combines with Wall to make a uniquely skilled and effective back court.

If Beal is right and his injury troubles are mostly behind him, then this contract will look like a decent-to-good investment years from now. But if Beal runs into the same extended issues that Gordon and other players have, then the Wizards may ultimately lament investing so much money in an injury prone player.

 

All statistics used in this article are current as of May 28, 2016 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, StatMuse, NBA.com/stats and NBA Savant.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve

While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.

Dennis Chambers

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In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.

The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.

Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.

For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.

“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”

Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.

Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.

Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.

In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.

“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.

“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”

From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.

Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.

“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”

With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.

After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.

“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”

Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.

Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.

“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”

Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.

The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.

So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.

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Donovan Mitchell Emerging as a Core Piece for Utah

Donovan Mitchell is proving a building block for the Jazz in life after Gordon Hayward, writes Michael Scotto.

Michael Scotto

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All-Star Gordon Hayward broke the hearts of fans in Utah when he left during free agency, but rookie Donovan Mitchell is starting to mend them one play at a time.

The 6-foot-3 guard has helped Utah win seven of its last 11 games, including five straight wins, by averaging 20.2 points, 4.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game. After a slow start, Mitchell has found his rhythm, shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from downtown and 81.6 percent from the foul line during that span.

Mitchell ranks second on Utah in scoring (16.4) and usage percentage (28.3). Among all rookies, he ranks third in scoring (16.4) and fourth in steals (1.3) and free throw percentage (82.0).

While Mitchell currently ranks among the top rookies in his class, he isn’t thinking about winning Rookie of the Year.

“I don’t, to be honest with you,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders during a video interview on November 18. “I would say the first two or three games I was kind of thinking about it, to be honest with you. I had the names saved in my background of the guys who were projected to win it, and that was all I would think about.

“First of all, that’s selfish, and that’s not who I am. I want to go out there and be able to help my team impact and win in any way possible. I think, thinking about the Rookie of the Year award leads to more of a self-driven thing and selfish type of thing, so I just want to focus on being able to make the playoffs. That’s the biggest thing. Make the playoffs. Help my team win in any way possible in any way that I can.”

Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award, and Mitchell responded by having a career night with 41 points hours later.

Mitchell joined Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin as the only rookies to have 40 or more points, four or more rebounds and four or more assists on 25 or fewer field goal attempts since 2000, according to Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett. Mitchell also became the first rookie since Stephen Curry in 2010 to hit five or more 3-pointers in consecutive games, as Dowsett noted.

“Utah got a star, man, for real,” All-Star opponent DeMarcus Cousins told reporters after witnessing Mitchell’s 41 points first hand.

Without Hayward, Utah has attempted to turn the page by becoming an even stronger defensive team in front of center Rudy Gobert, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The former Louisville Cardinal was an All-ACC Defensive Team member. General manager Dennis Lindsey gave up former lottery pick Trey Lyles and Utah’s No. 24 overall selection (Tyler Lydon) to move up Denver’s No. 13 selection and take Mitchell.

After the draft, Lindsey continued to add players with a defensive mindset, such as Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, who remains a serviceable wing defender at 33, and Ekpe Udoh, who was the Euroleague leader in blocks per game (2.3) in back-to-back seasons for Fenerbahce. Udoh also was the Euroleague leader in rebounds per game (7.8) last season.

As a result, Utah is causing the second most turnovers in the league per game (17.2) and is holding opponents to the fifth fewest points per game (100.0).

“We’re a solid defensive team, and I think with guys being out, guys have stepped up, and that’s the NBA,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders. “Guys are ready to step up whenever their number is called, and I think we’ve done a great job of that. We’ve had a little bit of, a few lapses throughout the season, but just going out there, just playing the way we know we can play. With Rudy being out, it’s a big test to see who’s going to step up defensively, and I think we’ve all responded the right way. We’ve just got to continue it.”

While Mitchell has picked up his play immensely, the rookie is absorbing veteran advice from his teammates to help avoid the dreaded “rookie wall.”

“You know, basketball, the life of basketball, this whole season can consume you and stress you out a little bit, so being able to find something to do in your downtime,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders. “Rest is important. Sometimes, like I said, getting your mind off of things, going out, whether it’s watching Netflix. I’m big, I’m an avid Netflix watcher, going to Top Golf, and I go to a lot of the university high school basketball games to just keep my mind free, and just go out there and do whatever, so when you get into the game time, it’s time to focus.”

Mitchell hopes to hang up his sneakers many years down the road after a long and prosperous career. When he does, he knows the legacy he wants to leave behind.

“Just a kid who’s underrated,” Mitchell told Basketball Insiders. “I love that role. Just going out there and works his butt off every day. Don’t like being outworked, and just going out there and just trying to prove to people wrong, and go out there and do what I know I can.”

Through a quarter of the season, Mitchell has proven to be a building block for the future in Utah as the organization turns the page from the Gordon Hayward era.

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Westbrook Key to Oklahoma City Finding Its Winning Way

In order for the Oklahoma City Thunder to get back on track, Russell Westbrook needs to return to his MVP form.

Dennis Chambers

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The first three weeks of the 2017-18 season haven’t gone exactly to plan for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After general manager Sam Presti pulled a couple of heist-caliber moves for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this past offseason, the Thunder entered this season poised to stake their claim as the top challenger to the Golden State Warriors’ throne. Pairing George and Anthony alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook would surely lead Oklahoma City back to their days of true contention.

Not so fast.

Instead of early season dominance, the Thunder entered Friday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers at 4-7, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the lowest of which coming at the hands of the Sacramento Kings.

Following a loss to the Kings — which preceded a loss to the Denver Nuggets — Westbrook voiced his lack of concern for the Thunder’s slow start, shouldering much of the blame himself.

“I’m not worried,” Westbrook said. “I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you close, as a unit, as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room, and I will be better. Like I said before, I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better. We will be better, so I’m not worried.”

If you take a look at the raw numbers for Oklahoma City’s new big three, prior to Friday night’s game and Paul George’s explosion, across the board everything seems to be fairly even between the three star players. Each player’s shot attempts per game are separated by a few tenths of a point. Westbrook and George had scored 214 points going into Friday night; Anthony had 229. By all accounts, each player looks more than willing to try and get their new star teammates the ball.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem for the Thunder.

In order for this basketball love triangle to work in Oklahoma City, Westbrook needs to go back to playing his MVP-caliber game and asserting himself as the clear alpha dog on this team.

Now, that’s not to say that he shouldn’t cater to the strengths of his new teammates. He absolutely should. But coming off one of the most historic seasons in NBA history, Westbrook looks like a shell of his dominant self this year, and it’s hurting the team.

Perhaps it’s just an adjustment period to playing with new guys. Or perhaps Westbrook wants to be more accommodating and welcoming to George and Anthony as they try to find their place on what is already established as Westbrook’s team. It’s even possible Westbrook doesn’t want his play-style to push away two more star players as it already had done with Kevin Durant. Whatever the case may be, it’s apparent that in the early returns of this season, it’s not working.

Yes, Westbrook and Durant weren’t alway a match made in heaven on the court. But they were their most dangerous when Russ was just being Russ. In Durant’s last run with the Thunder, a run that many conveniently forget was just one win away from reaching the Finals, Westbrook put up his jaw-dropping all-around numbers in the postseason playing alongside arguably the NBA’s second best player.

Throughout those 18 games, Westbrook averaged 26 points, 11 assists, 6.9 rebounds, and nearly 22 shots a night. Those numbers helped put pressure on the 73-win Golden State Warriors and pushed them all the way to the brink of elimination.

Thus far in 2017-18 season, Westbrook’s scoring numbers have taken a noticeable dip. Again, with the influx of new talent, that’s to be expected to a degree. However, it’s the main source of the Thunder’s losing problem. At just 19.7 points per game, Westbrook is on pace for his lowest scoring output since his sophomore season in the league. His 17.7 shots per night would also be his lowest figure since 2013-14 which was plagued by injury.

Oklahoma City is Westbrook’s town. The Thunder are Westbrook’s team. While we seem to be fully engulfed in the sharing-is-caring, superteam era of basketball, their still needs to be a pack leader. The Warriors are Steph Curry’s team. Yes, Durant is the better player and showed up as the Final’s MVP, but all things run through Curry. It’s his culture and his team. Same should go for Westbrook. Of course, let your all-star teammates shine in their moments, like George’s 42-point outburst Friday night, but maintain always that you’re the alpha dog.

It sounds archaic, and maybe a little too much like a macho man mentality, but it’s worked for Westbrook in the past, and that’s clearly his identity. He’s the homegrown superstar who didn’t fly the coup like Durant. He’s sticking around to do right by the team, and the city.

The best way to keep star players like George and Anthony from leaving too is by winning. Walking away from a contending situation is a hard thing to do. And unless something miraculous happens, those two won’t have the opportunity to go join a 73-win team like Durant did. Oklahoma City could be their best shot at a title. In order for that to become a reality, Westbrook needs to refind his MVP-form and assert himself as the guy for the Thunder.

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