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Bradley Beal can make the extraordinary look effortless.
This season, the Wizards star is scoring a league-leading 32.7 points per game, and was named a starter for the NBA All-Star Game for the first time in his career. Beal scored a career-high and franchise-tying 60 points on Jan. 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers and began the season with a 17-game streak of 25-plus points, the longest streak to start a season since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger.
By now, Beal pouring in 30-plus points a game almost feels routine.
“Sometimes you sit there and … you hear guys say, ‘He’s got a quiet 27.’ I mean, that’s a sort of a cliche that announcers use a lot. But in the case of Bradley Beal, it’s true,” says former Wizards play-by-play announcer Steve Buckhantz. “He can score a lot of points, and you don’t even think he’s done much in the game.”
Since the Wizards drafted Beal No. 3 overall in 2012, the 27-year-old Beal has supplanted some of the most decorated players on the Wizards/Bullets all-time career leaders list. According to Basketball Reference, Beal has the franchise record in three-point field goals and is second in points, sitting only behind Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes.
To put Beal’s record-setting season in context, City Paper spoke with Buckhantz, who called Wizards games for 22 years before NBC Sports Washington announced in 2019 that it would not be exercising the option on his contract. Still, the longtime Wizards fan isn’t far from the action. Much like former face of the franchise, John Wall, Buckhantz makes sure to watch all of the Wizards games.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
WCP: What do you think of Beal’s play this season?
Steve Buckhantz: You could tell right away that Brad’s game was at an all-time level, better than it’s been before. And he’s been good before. But the evolution of his game to this point has been hard to believe. He’s so good that the game just comes naturally to him. I think a lot of people forget that. It sounds simple, but he’s a basketball player. He knows how to play basketball. And again, that sounds like an easy explanation, but when you have the kind of physical talent that he has, and the knowledge of the game, you can see why it looks like it comes so easy to him. And everything he does right now is fairly effortless … If you watch him closely, he’s in constant motion. So he’s always making some sort of move to get himself open, or at least come off of a screen and get himself open. So it’s not like he’s just standing in a corner, shooting threes. He knows how to play the game. He knows how to use screens, he knows how to get open. But again, everything he does just seems so effortless. And it doesn’t matter where he is on the court, whether he’s shooting a three, whether he is driving, getting into the lane. I mean, once he gets into the lane, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he’s going to score or get fouled. It’s really incredible.
WCP: How does he make it look so routine?
SB: I guess it’s kind of maybe cliche to say that he’s figured it out. But you combine his physical ability with his knowledge for the game and the way he plays, and it’s just, obviously, it’s taken a few years, but it’s all come together. That happens for a lot of players. Sometimes, they’re not great their first year or first four or five years. But eventually it just all comes together. And it looks to me like it’s all come together for him. He knows how to play the game. He knows what it takes to be good. In other words, you gotta stay in motion, you gotta move around. You can’t just sit there and stand there and hope somebody passes the ball to you. He works hard, man. If you watch him during the game, you can see how hard he works to get open for shots and to create situations where either he’s open or somebody else is open. His passes are great. So, I just think that he makes it look so easy right now.
WCP: What has impressed you most about him this season and what do you think he’s improved the most?
SB: I think he’s improved his ball handling, which is key. He developed a couple of years ago, a step back jumper, which is huge. He also became, a couple years ago, more aggressive. And so he went into the paint, and that’s become big for him. It is for any player, but when you can go into the paint, and create a situation where either you’re going to make a shot, or you’re giving yourself an opportunity to make a shot, or you’re going to get fouled, or you can find an open teammate, that’s a big, big thing. That’s why teams like to run because once they run, they get into the paint. It’s difficult for defenders to stop. And his aggressiveness has also become big for him, all of those things, the step back jumper, the ball handling, the aggressiveness in the paint. But the biggest thing if I had to pick it in one word would just be confidence. The way he plays now, he’s so confident that he’s going to make every shot he takes, that he’s making almost every shot he takes. I mean, he’s not making every shot he takes obviously, but he just has the confidence to know that he can shoot from anywhere, he can drive from anywhere, he can pass, he makes his free throws. I mean, he was never the greatest free throw shooter, but now he goes to the line, you can see the confidence. So to me, the biggest word for him is just confidence.
WCP: Where does Beal rank in terms of the Wizards/Bullets franchise?
SB: I think when all is said and done and you find him at the top of a lot of lists, he’s gonna be considered one of the greatest players in this team’s franchise. Now, a lot of [the ranking] goes to the same reason why guys are picked for MVP or whatever. Does it make the team win? Now look, he can’t do it all by himself. But you look at the other great players in this franchise, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe, Phil Chenier, Gilbert Arenas, not so much Gilbert Arenas, but they did go to the playoffs four years in a row with Gilbert Arenas on the team. Accomplishments, team accomplishments also factor into it. That doesn’t mean Beal’s not going to be considered one of the great players ever to play on this team. I think he will be if he continues the way he is now. He’s got to be, but you’re never mentioned in the same breath as those other guys until you achieve some sort of impressive accomplishment like an NBA championship, or like going to the playoffs every year, or competing to get to the Eastern Conference Finals for a chance to go to the NBA championship game, or the series. So he should definitely be considered one of the great players ever to wear a Wizards uniform, but until you achieve greatness as a team, collectively, then you’re never looked at in the same light as a Wes Unseld or an Elvin Hayes.
WCP: To his credit, I think he’d be the first one to say that.
SB: He’s got great numbers, and he’s a great player. But all of those guys want to win. They’re in this to win. And that’s what’s also impressive to me. I’m impressed by his loyalty. Now I say that, look, you’re only loyal to someone or something until you decide to leave or not be loyal to them anymore. I mean, we’ve all experienced that. I have. You can talk about loyalty all you want. Sometimes I think it’s bullshit. But the fact that he’s stayed here so far and is here speaks to his character. And I feel for him sometimes because he’s a competitor like everybody else, they want to win. These guys are professionals. They’re in it to win, besides making money, and once they’ve made their money, then they channel everything into winning. So he’s in that position. Now, hopefully he’s here and he can help this team achieve something. And if he leaves at this point, you couldn’t fault him if he went somewhere else. Look at what LeBron James did. Nobody’s faulting him. So he’s giving it his all and while he’s here, he’s letting everybody know that he wants to be here and win here, and if that doesn’t work out, I wouldn’t fault him at all for going somewhere else to have a chance to be a winner … It’s got to be frustrating playing here and losing and being as good as he is and not having anything to show for it as a team. That’s got to be frustrating for him. And that makes it even more impressive that he says he wants to stay here and make this team a winner.
WCP: Do you feel Beal is still underappreciated or underrated?
SB: Well, this year, I don’t think so. I think that’s been proven out by the [All-Star] voting that he’s got the most votes. He should be a starter, and he should have been last year as well. But listen, sometimes those things don’t work out. And I will say this, often teams that have the reputation that the Wizards have around the league are underappreciated. And players are underappreciated, and maybe underrated. It’s inevitable. It’s the respect factor. This team doesn’t have the respect that a constant competitor has. And it’s not just the Wizards, it’s every team in every sport. If you don’t win consistently, you’re not looked at as being good. The Clippers for years were horrible. And then all of a sudden, they started getting good, and by getting good, I mean, being competitive on a yearly basis. Until you are competitive, and you win on a yearly basis, and you’re a threat in the playoffs, the rest of the league doesn’t take you seriously. And the rest of the league does not take the Wizards seriously. When they start to win … and they start to beat some of these teams that are considered good teams, then people will sit up and take notice. But you have to do it on a consistent basis … This team does not have that respect yet, and that translates into players. Now, Bradley Beal is showing everyone that he’s a great player. And you have to sit up and take notice. But in years past, it’s a combination of that respect factor where people don’t take you seriously. And just the fact that it can be a numbers game. Every year, there’s three or four guys that could be or should be on the All-Star team that are left off just because it’s a numbers game. And that happens every year. Now, it shouldn’t have happened to Bradley last year. But the combination of that and the respect factor, people around the league didn’t take it seriously. Well, when a guy leads a league in scoring, you gotta take it seriously.
Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.