It was one of the more frigid January nights in the nation’s capital, but inside of Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center ensued a battle that nary a paying customer believed they would witness.
It was 2013 and the 4-28 Washington Wizards were seen as nothing more than an undisciplined bunch being led by John Wall—another entitled pro athlete who was given too much, too soon.
Kevin Durant—the man whose homecoming this night was—was the opposite.
Durant was the quintessential stud. Hard working, dedicated to his craft and doing whatever was necessary to win. As a resident of the Western Conference, he was making his annual trip to the District of Columbia.
Unfortunately for him, a rookie shooting guard that few had ever heard of ruined it; some kid named Bradley Beal.
Out of necessity, Beal had become the alpha and omega of the Wizards’ offensive repertoire. He had the requisite skills: a quick first step, good ball handling ability, a dead-eye jumper and passing accuracy, but not the experience.
The problem? Wall, who would normally have ball-handling and play calling duties, was diagnosed with a stress injury to his left knee four months earlier. And to this point, for head coach Randy Wittman, the results weren’t reassuring. The Wizards sputtered out to a 4-28 record, were staring at the prospect of another lost season, and were now welcoming the defending Western Conference Champion Thunder into their building.
But on this night, Beal stole the show—especially when it mattered most.
After Durant tied the game on a 24-foot three-pointer, with 12.2 seconds remaining, it was Beal who coach Wittman entrusted with the game.
He was initially denied the ball when he cut diagonally from the three-point arc to the sideline, but would eventually receive at mid-court, isolated against Sefolosha. Kendrick Perkins—who was guarding Kevin Seraphin—attempted to trap Beal after Seraphin set a screen for him and rolled to the rim.
For a split second, Beal looked apprehensive. Dribbling to his right, then to his left. He stepped inside of the three-point line, picked up his dribble and pump-faked Perkins into next week.
Pivoting with his right foot, Beal stepped in and past Perkins’ outstretched arm and released an off-balanced, leaning 16-footer. Perkins nearly recovered in time, slightly bumping Beal as he released, but Beal’s introduction to the NBA would not be thwarted.
To this point, Beal had made some clutch shots for his Wizards, but none against this level of competition and under such difficult game conditions.
I remember on that night—as a rookie playing just his 33rd professional game—believing that Beal was special. Off the top of my head, the only other rookie shooting guards that I could recall exuding the same type of confidence and ability to control a game with such poise were Vince Carter and Dwyane Wade.
If Beal is lucky, he may one day be mentioned in a conversation along either of those two greats. One shot doesn’t make a career, but I have always been of the opinion that it could reveal something about a player.
One game doesn’t make you a Hall-of-Famer, but one game and one performance can show that you have the potential to get there one day.
This was Beal’s night.
The most difficult thing an NBA general manager has to do is make player personnel decisions. He determines which players he pays and which players he drafts. He rolls the dice, often having his correct decisions forgotten about and rarely credited and his mediocre or poor ones questioned. Fortunately, over the course of the previous two Collective Bargaining Agreements, the league has added mechanisms to protect against paying for a mistake for an inordinate amount of time.
No longer will a general manager have to pay the likes of Eddy Curry or Erick Dampier for six or seven years.
There is a similar protective mechanism against drafting the wrong player. Only the first two years of a player’s rookie contract is guaranteed, meaning that a general manager can cut bait after two seasons if he is willing to admit that he made a mistake. It rarely happens, but the Milwaukee Bucks did exactly that with Joe Alexander—the eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft.
However, although a general manager doesn’t necessarily pay for a mistake for as long as he did once upon a time, the price and regret of lost opportunity? It cuts deep.
Back in 2005, the Atlanta Hawks selected Marvin Williams with the second overall pick in the draft. Billy Knight, the general manager at the time, opted for Williams over both Chris Paul and Deron Williams, despite the fact that the club desperately needed a spry point guard prospect.
Similarly, the very next year, in 2006, the Chicago Bulls drafted LaMarcus Aldridge with the second overall pick. That was a good idea.
The Bulls then traded Aldridge to the Portland Trail Blazers for a package built around Tyrus Thomas, who was selected fourth overall.
(Not such a good idea)
The Bulls only paid Thomas for three full years, opting to trade him during his fourth season.
Although the drafting of Williams by the Hawks and the acquiring of Thomas by the Bulls were not horrible basketball decisions based on the talent either player, they become atrocities when viewed in hindsight.
Would the Hawks have been better off with Chris Paul? Would the Bulls have fared better with LaMarcus Aldridge? Of course.
Years later, we now know, in each situation, what would have been the “better” decision.
As it relates to Beal, the theory is quite simple.
As a general manager, you are very likely to know whether you made a wise decision on a player during their first season as a professional. Obviously, the player needs to be given an opportunity to showcase his talents. Some coaches are simply not fond of giving youngsters copious amounts of playing time, often believing that it takes two to three years of riding pine to figure out the NBA game.
So occasionally, yes, you will run into examples like Jermaine O’Neal or Jeremy Lin—guys who legitimately had little opportunity to showcase their talents before proving themselves years after their careers began.
But for the most part—a promising younger player, especially one selected with a lottery pick—will get opportunities to go out there and show the world why he is in the league.
And if that player has the potential to be elite—if he has the potential to be an impact player who can one day lead a team and put it on his shoulders—that is something that will be seen quickly after the player has his opportunity.
What separates the players from the stars and the superstars is consistency. Superstars show up every single night and find ways to impact games, no matter what. That is a skill that takes time to develop. But from the very beginning, even in spurts or sporadic occasion, the flash should avail.
So on January 7, 2013, as the basketball world watched, I was not yet convinced that Beal had that trait, but by the end of the night, when his Wizards prevailed 101-99, I did.
Common, the acclaimed hip hop recording artist and actor who hails from Chicago, said it best in The Light, one of contemporary hip hop’s better love ballads.
Granted, we known each other for some time
it don’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine
In other words, I can look out my window and see whether the sun is shining, just like I can see how you conduct yourself, lead your team and handle the final possession and shot of a competitive game and know whether or not you belong in this league.
Today, if you ask Durant about his feelings on Beal, the first thing Durant will probably recall is that cold winter night in 2013. In the grand scheme, it was just one game, but when asked specifically about Beal, most who attended would remember it as the night when his discernible light began to glisten brightly enough for all to notice.
Over the next 15 months, Wall would return and Beal would continue to progress, improving on both his catch-and-shoot proficiency as well as his one-step dribble pull-up. Before our very eyes, the tandem has transformed into one of the top young backcourts in the entire league, right along the likes of the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
In April 2014, with the ever-improving Beal and Wall’s marked improvements, the Wizards qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They would defeat the Chicago Bulls in the first round and win a playoff series for the first time since 2005.
In the playoffs, Beal led the team with 19.2 points per game on a blistering 41.5 percent three-point connection rate. He added five rebounds and 4.5 assists per game—nothing short of outstanding for a sophomore shooting guard making his first playoff appearance.
As Beal is set to begin his third season, recall that impact NBA players traditionally make leaps in their junior years. The eyes and expectations are firmly on the Wizards and especially Beal. Although he is expected to be sidelined for the first six-to-eight weeks of the season with a non-displaced fracture in his left wrist, he will eventually emerge as the team’s alpha-scorer, once again.
With Klay Thompson and James Harden, Beal is one of the three talented young shooting guards that are toiling and, maybe, ending the drought that the league has had there for what seems like a long, long time.
In 1996, Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen entered the NBA. Vince Carter (1998), Richard Hamilton and Manu Ginobili (both 1999) came shortly thereafter. Joe Johnson entered in 2001 and Dwyane Wade in 2003.
In 2004, Andre Iguodala emerged and the following year, in 2005, was Brandon Roy.
It wasn’t until 2009—when James Harden and DeMar DeRozan entered the league—that we began seeing newfound strength at the position. In 2011, Klay Thompson entered the league and in 2012 came Beal.
Looked at differently, since 1996, only three classes have featured more than one shooting guard who would become an All-Star. Bryant and Allen of 1996, Hamilton and Ginobili of 1998 and Harden and DeRozan of 2009.
In total, Bryant (16), Allen (10), Wade (10), Carter (8) and Johnson (7) combine for 51 NBA All-Star Game appearances. Wade is the only shooting guard on that list that was drafted within the past 12 years. The longevity and sustained greatness of this past generation of shooting guards is a major reason why, but the truth of the matter is that they haven’t exactly been pushed by the past decade’s incoming crop of shooting guards.
Today, the tide is turning.
The league may currently be in its golden age of the point guard, but the Beal is making his mark as a true shooting guard who has All-NBA potential. With him, the future of the Washington Wizards is far from bleak.
Like that cold January night back in 2013, eyes are on Beal, but for a different reason. With his flashes and his impressive all-around ability to control a game, the Wizards will build a better tomorrow upon the success of yesterday.
They will do so on the capable shoulders of one of the best third-year shooting guards this league has seen in quite some time.
They do so with Bradley Beal—a rare impact shooting guard whose star shines as brightly as any we have seen over, perhaps, the past decade.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.