On Sunday, Bradley Beal played in only his fourth game since March 3, and his first since March 20, after being sidelined with ankle issues. His return and continued chemistry with John Wall — playing like he really, really wants that max contract — were basically the only reasons to watch one of those sad late-season games between lottery teams when Toronto visited Washington on Sunday. Beal did not disappoint, racking up 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including a blistering 6-of-9 from 3-point range, with a good chunk of those 3’s coming when Wall ran a high pick-and-roll and kicked to Beal on the weak-side corner.
That’s basically what Washington envisioned when they snagged Beal with the no. 3 pick in last year’s draft. But Wall began the season injured, and Beal had to carry too much, too soon as a key cog of what was then the league’s worst offense by a considerable margin. When the calendar flipped to 2013, Beal was shooting under 40 percent overall and a hair below 30 percent from 3-point range; critics were ready to dub him the latest Washington draft bust.
But he’s been on fire since Wall’s return. He’s shooting 48 percent overall, and 50.8 percent percent from 3, when he’s on the floor with Washington’s franchise point guard, and a much higher share of his attempts in those Wall minutes come from the tastiest spots — the corners and the restricted area, per NBA.com.
After his rousing return, Beal sat down (or stood up, actually) for an extended one-on-one with Grantland.
What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
How are you feeling after your first game back?
I feel good. My ankle feels great. I’m just hoping I can continue to keep it strong and prevent it from being injured again.
You were a game-time decision tonight, and there was a lot of suspense over whether you’d play. When did you know you were going to play?
[Laughs]. Oh, I knew a few days ago.
Really? I don’t think the higher-ups in the organization were quite so sure.
Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t think Coach knew. But I knew in my head I was going to play.
What made you certain?
I just already knew. My ankle was feeling good. I was shooting the ball well, and I was working out with the team. I just knew.
Are you in any pain now postgame?
Nope, none at all. I wouldn’t have stepped on the floor if I was hurt.
Even before the injuries, you never showed signs of hitting the rookie wall. If anything, your season was following the opposite pattern. Any secrets to rookie wall avoidance? Were there times when, even though your performance didn’t show it, you felt beaten up by the long season?
Oh, I always felt that this was a really long season, but my mentality is very strong. I stay very confident. The mind beats the body any day. I mean, your body may be weary, but you can’t tell yourself that. I always remind myself to stay confident — to stay humble and keep working hard, and just fight through it.
Your shooting percentages are a bit below average without John Wall on the floor, and very, very good when you play with him. He seems to make things easier for you in obvious ways — all those corner 3’s you got today, for instance. Is the difference as big for you as it looks to be from the outside?
Oh, hands down. He just makes life so much easier since right when he got back. The floor is so much better spaced — who are you gonna guard? Are you gonna leave me open to guard John? Are you gonna leave Martell [Webster]? Who you gonna guard? It just makes it difficult for the other team. He does a great job of finding me, and I just keep shooting.
The numbers show the same trend with Nenê. That could obviously be the result of you, John, and Nenê all sharing the floor, but does a big guy like that — a big who passes and cuts — have sort of a similar impact for a shooter like you?
Oh, definitely. He’s a great passer. I mean, honestly, he’d probably rather pass first than shoot the ball. He’s one of the best passing bigs I’ve ever seen. Ever. Whenever he has the ball, he gets mad sometimes that we don’t cut.
Does he yell at you? Get really mad?
Oh, yeah. He definitely snaps a little bit if we don’t cut at the right times. [Kevin Seraphin, standing at the next locker, lets out a baritone chuckle: “He’s always yelling.”]
Does he have a catch phrase he uses? Does he swear?
No, he doesn’t cuss. Well, he cusses [Seraphin laughs again], but he doesn’t just go off on us.
Did you watch Florida at all today?
Yeah, a little bit. Yeah.
Have you talked to the team at all as they went through the tournament? Or did you just keep your distance?
I wished them luck, but that’s about it. I’m not going to bother them, you know what I’m saying? Whatever their pregame routine is, I’m not gonna interrupt what they’re doing. It’s their team now. It’s not my team. It’s up to those guys.
Back to Wall: When he started the season hurt, did you say to yourself in those first few weeks, “Man, this is going to be more responsibility than I’m ready for, or at least more than I’d prefer so soon”?
Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, with any rookie coming into a situation like I am, I think anybody would feel like that — like the pressure’s just all on you, like you just have to be the guy. I was pressuring myself too much early in the year to do that, instead of just playing my game and playing like I am now.
Before you got hurt, the coaches had started calling that little pick-and-roll at the elbow/foul line area for you to work off the dribble. Do you like that play? Is it easier than a high pick-and-roll way up top?
I’m comfortable with any pick-and-roll, honestly. I’m so used to it. Last year, with Florida, and Coach [Billy] Donovan, that’s all we ran. So I was kinda comfortable with that already — whether it’s a high pick-and-roll, or a pick-and-roll in the lane, it honestly makes no difference. I feel comfortable making a play for myself or one of my teammates.
What’s the biggest difference between NBA pick-and-roll defense and college pick-and-roll defense: the schemes or the athleticism of the guys you’re facing?
Both. Scheme-wise — big guys in the league, their hands are just way, way better than guys in college. Guys in college just don’t use their hands as much as guys here do. And there are definitely new schemes here. Most teams play it the same way, and they’re so aggressive with it. It’s something you get used to over time, but there are certain players that just defend differently from anyone you’ve seen before.
When you run a pick-and-roll, do you care more about the guard defending you, or the big guy defending the screener and helping on you? Which one do you worry about more?
You’re more worried about the big, especially if he’s hedging out on you and he has long arms. Someone like Joakim Noah or Chris Bosh — they are the two greatest at just getting their hands on the ball. They’re just so long and athletic, they just reach out and tip it sometimes, and that gives the guard time to get back over and onto me. You’re not so worried about the guard, because our bigs usually screen them off.
I talked to John a couple of weeks ago, and he was joking about teaching you some ballhandling in exchange for you teaching him how to shoot better — that you guys were planning to work out in the summer and exchange some skills. Is that the plan?
Yeah. That’s how we get better. We compete against each other. We play one-on-one. We do whatever it takes to teach each other skills — him how to shoot, and me how to dribble. And just to read certain situations. It’s going to help us get better as a team.
He said he could take more of those short corner 3’s if you could run point once in a while.
Most definitely. And the way he’s shooting right now, I’d definitely throw it to him over there. His confidence is at all-time high. He’s just knocking down shots. And I’m definitely starting to create more off the dribble. Coach is starting to put more faith in me to handle the ball and create for other people.
Is the left corner becoming a sweet spot?
I mean, it’s just a spot on the floor. But I guess so, because that’s where a lot of my shots come from. That’s just how a lot of our plays are drawn up. No matter where it is, I’m just going to shoot it with confidence.
You also run a lot of screens a lot for those catch-and-shoots on the move. How much easier is it to catch-and-shoot from a standstill, versus those Ray Allen/Rip Hamilton type of plays?
It’s way, way easier, for sure. But I’m OK with doing both. If I can come off screens and get set, that can get me all in one rhythm.
When you are running off screens, do you have a side of the floor you prefer — left or right?
Not really. Actually, I kind of like coming off the left side more than the right side. I guess I’m kinda backwards.
What’s the hardest thing about NBA defense so far?
Oh, it’s the isolations.
Really? I would’ve guessed some complex team-defense scheme.
I mean, defending isolations is easy, but it’s hard at the same time. I think I’m a pretty good defender, but when you go against guys that can make tough shots, it makes you feel so bad, like, “Oh, man, these guys just made a tough shot on me.” So it’s definitely isolations. But also guarding the pick-and-roll sometimes.
What’s harder about pick-and-roll defense: when you’re the guy guarding the ball handler, or when you’re off the ball, and you have to run into the lane, bump the big guy rolling to the hoop, and then run back out?
Off-ball is definitely harder than on-ball. Definitely. You have to chuck the big [Note: “Chuck” is NBA slang for bumping the roller in the paint] and then run back to your man. And you have to know whether or not your man can shoot, or if he’s gonna drive. And he’s at a standstill and your momentum is going forward, so he can drive by you. It’s really hard.
What’s the hardest part of that — hitting that big, or recovering out to that shooter?
The recovery. I hardly ever jump whenever I see my guy catching the ball. Because they always go with the pump fake first. I have to determine whether or not he’s actually going to shoot. I really just try to put myself into a position to chuck early. The earlier the chuck, the better.
That’s what coaches say — the higher up you hit that big guy, the sooner you can get back to your guy.
Are there some bigs you just dread slamming into? Dwight Howard? Tyson Chandler?
No, not really.
Seriously: It doesn’t suck to know, “Well, here I go to slam into a giant person moving very fast right at me”?
Nah. I’m a pretty physical guy.
That’s funny, because my first NBA memory of you is from a preseason game when you guys were in Brooklyn, and Joe Johnson was trying to bully you on the block. And you were just going right back at him — bumping him, tossing elbows, trying to front him, and all in a preseason game that didn’t matter. I made a mental note: “Brad Beal is a feisty dude.” Do you sort of enjoy post defense against those bigger guards?
Yeah. I have a pretty strong build. I’m kind of undersized for a two-guard, but I have a strong body. Not a lot of guys know that until I start moving them a bit, and they realize they actually can’t post me up that easily.
Is John Wall ever too fast on the break? Like, do you say, “Hey, man, you were already in the lane before I could even cross half-court and get to my spot on the wing. Can you slow down next time?”
No. You have to adjust to him. I think I do a great job of doing that, because I know whenever he runs, he’s going to do a great job of finding me. We have good eye contact. He knows where I am, and I know where he’s going to be. That connection is always there.
You got mentioned in the Rudy Gay trade talks at one point. I’m always curious: Did you learn that through the media like the rest of us? Or did the team come to you first and say, “Hey, you’re doing to hear this, but don’t worry about it, it’s just a rumor”?
I just heard it in the media. And then Ernie [Grunfeld, the Wizards’ GM] came to me and said it’s not true — that they were just trying to increase his trade value, that’s all it was.
Is that weird to have that happen already as a rookie?
It is what it is. It’s a business. But I knew the [team] wasn’t going to trade me.
You got in some hot water with Washington fans when you tweeted about the Cardinals — your hometown team — winning that divisional series over the Nationals, right?
Yeah, a little bit. A little bit. [Laughs].
Would you do the same thing again? I mean, it’s your team, right?
Yeah. It’s my home team! I mean, I’m always going to support the Nats and Bryce Harper. He’s a terrific player. But it’s always going to be about Cards Nation.
Are you a Rams fan then, too? Because the Redskins are sort of popular here.
Definitely. But Baltimore is actually my favorite team.
Oh, come on. The Ravens over the Rams, but the Cards over the Nats? How is this possible?
I don’t know. I’ve always just been a fan of them. I love ’em. I have always been a Ram fan first. So maybe Baltimore is my second-favorite team.
I can accept that. OK, last question: What’s one thing we should look for over these last few games — a skill you want to try out, a little thing you’re focused on, something like that?
Just getting back in rhythm. I just want to make sure my ankle is feeling fine throughout all these games — just getting it stronger, and playing the way I’ve been playing up to this point.