DALLAS — Washington Wizards rookie Bradley Beal is 19 years old, a solid month still from 19 1/2. An anonymous college sophomore in another life. In this life, he’s an over-analyzed, scrutinized and criticized No. 3 draft pick starting on the NBA’s worst team. Worse yet, the team’s star point guard and its proven veteran center are injured and no one knows when they’ll be back.
Beal’s introduction to the man’s game long before he can legally down a postgame cold one has force-fed him both to the spotlight and to the wolves, when in reality, his beaming smile can’t hide that he’s as bright-eyed about balling in the same arenas as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as are the kids who scream for his autograph during pre-game warmups.
Pressure? Heck, yes. And believe it, the 6-foot-3 shooting guard feels it and his teammates hear it.
“I hear it all the time, you see it on Twitter and stuff like that,” Beal said Wednesday night before the Wizards fell to 0-7 after nearly eradicating a 22-point deficit against Dallas in a 107-101 loss. “People expect you to score 50 every night and it’s almost impossible. I’m really not focused on what people on the outside are saying. I’m really focusing on what my team needs to do, and I’m really focusing on what my coach wants me to do as well. As long as I’m doing that I think I’ll be fine.”
With no John Wall to break down defenses and no Nene to anchor their own, the Wizards rank as one of the worst scoring offenses in the league and near the bottom in field-goal percentage defense. They’re also the league’s most irrelevant big-market franchise. With early hope for this season’s revamped roster dimmed by injury, fans have little else in which to deposit their faith than to bank on the youngster Beal, the team’s leading scorer — despite four single-digit games and shooting just 32 percent — and, appallingly, its most recognizable healthy face.
“I’m handling it fine,” Beal said. “Honestly, I mean, from the outside looking in, people pressure me. They think I’m supposed to be the savior of the team, so to speak, but I don’t view myself as being the savior. There’s me and 14 other guys on this team. We’re a team, so not everything is just placed on me; the scoring’s not just placed on me, or it’s not placed on any individual player, it’s a team effort. That’s the way I view it and that’s the way I’m going to keep playing.”
As important as his athletic superiority and scoring prowess were to climbing the draft boards to No. 3 after one season at Florida, Beal is equipped with a big-picture maturity and honesty that will serve him well during his crash course of inevitable hard knocks.
He’s writing a rookie column for SLAM Magazine and in this week’s edition he writes how he misses going to class because he’s always liked school, “especially math and science.” He calls himself a geeky guy and then proves it again by writing he hasn’t done much with his first paycheck: “I haven’t made any big purchases, honestly, besides the apartment I live.”
Teammate Martell Webster weighed in: “You see his potential. The kid is good. He’s been dealing with the criticism and the pressure very well. He hears how he’s not being aggressive; I think he’s been extremely aggressive.”
When Wall returns, and there remains no target date, it will ease the burden on Beal, who is averaging a team-best 11.6 points. Until then, defenses will hound him, as the Mavericks did on Wednesday night, limiting him to eight points on 3-of-14 shooting. The night before at Charlotte, he missed 10 of his 11 shots.
“It’s tough because, one, it’s not easy to win in this league,” Beal said. “Coach (Randy) Wittman always tells us that. You can ask any player, like LeBron says that, says it’s hard to win every game. Every game that we’ve lost besides (Tuesday at Charlotte), I think you can literally say that we gave it our all and we should have won the game.”
Four of the Wizards’ seven losses are by six points or less. He had a season-high 22 points on 50 percent shooting and eight trips to the free-throw line against Milwaukee; 16 points in an overtime loss at Boston; and 17 points on a perfect 3-for-3 from beyond the arc in another heartbreak loss of the season at Indiana.
“He’s going to be somebody that makes shots for us, runs the floor,” said Wall, well-versed in the pressure of flipping a franchise. “Every game is not going to be his best, and I think we understand that and he understands that, but he’s just got to keep taking shots, keep being aggressive for our team.”
His next opportunity is Saturday night at home against the Utah Jazz, a notoriously poor road team that’s now 1-6 this season away from home. It will be only the Wizards’ third home game in the opening weeks, a road-weary start that has had Beal waking up not knowing which city he’s in or forgetting what day it is.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old rookie goes to sleep still attempting to absorb both his breathtaking quantum leap to the big stage and the bleakness of the franchise with which he landed.
“This is my rookie year so I’m really just enjoying it all. To actually play in these situations and these environments, I mean, I’m taking it all in, honestly,” Beal said. “We’re more than capable of winning games. We just have to deal with what we have and when John and Nene get back we’re going to be that much better.”