Michael Beasley has put himself in a position where he can swing a playoff series for the Miami Heat—which is a pretty extraordinary volte-face for a player who just a season ago was best known for swinging games in the direction of his opponents.
Beasley’s trajectory has been an unusual one. Coming out of Kansas State, he was the consensus No. 2 prospect—and ended up going No. 2 overall to Miami, behind Derrick Rose—but stat geeks were understandably enamored of him.
His production was through the roof—like, don’t put Michael Beasley’s college production inside unless you’re prepared to buy a new roof.
As a freshman in 2007-08, his lone season of college hoops, Beasley averaged 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals. He shot 53.2 percent overall and 37.9 percent from three-point range. He produced 10.7 win shares on the season, which is the fourth-highest figure ever recorded, according to Sports-Reference.
“Beasley may be the most NBA-ready and talented player in the draft,” ESPN’s Chad Ford (subscription required) wrote in June 2008. “He is such an explosive, versatile scorer, and an excellent rebounder. And I think he’s going to play with a chip on his shoulder to prove everyone wrong.”
But chinks in Beasley’s armor appeared the moment he first arrived in Miami. DraftExpress noted in the winter of his rookie season that the heralded prospect was already struggling to find his niche with Erik Spoelstra and the Heat:
From his one year stint at Kansas State, the Miami Heat expected Beasley to provide a consistent inside scoring threat to accompany Dwayne Wade’s stellar perimeter skills. Yet, through the first month of his rookie campaign, Beasley has attempted everything but attacking the interior of opposing defenses.
While Beasley played largely off the bench and finished the year strong enough to keep the high hopes for him flickering—he closed his rookie season averaging a respectable 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds with a true shooting percentage of 52.8—it was downhill from there. The forward began a long slide that continued through last season.
In each of his first five NBA campaigns, Beasley regressed. (And his starting point wasn’t particularly high to begin with.)
The former Wildcat’s player efficiency rating sank from 17.2, to 16.1, to 15.5, to 13.0 before collapsing to 10.8 in 2012-13. His offensive win shares, per Basketball-Reference, dropped from 1.2, to 0.8, to 0.7, to minus-0.3, down to minus-2.5 last season. Between year one and year five, his field-goal percentage likewise declined in each and every season.
This is remarkable. If a player did the opposite of Beasley—got better, ever so slightly, with each passing season—it’d be viewed as a credit to his character—a reflection of hard work, steely determination and, um, moral fiber. So what does this say about the Kansas State product?
Well, to the teams that employed him, the message was clear: Run away. Miami gave up on the Beas after two seasons. The Minnesota Timberwolves also bailed after a two-year tryout before sending him packing. Then the Phoenix Suns took a flier on him for a season before paying him a lot of money to never return to the state of Arizona.
ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh (subscription required), writing this December, fingered the crux of The Beasley Problem. For a guy who couldn’t hit shots, the forward sure liked taking them:
Even putting aside the off-court stuff, it’s easy to see why those teams bailed. Over those three seasons outside of South Florida, Beasley fired up shots like a superstar, using a whopping 27.5 percent of his team’s possessions while on the floor. But he didn’t make them like a superstar. Of the 16 players who posted at least a 27 percent usage rate over that time, Beasley’s true shooting percentage ranked dead last at 49.4 percent. And his spotty defense was equally as poisonous.
But the Heat, as Haberstroh noted, watched Beasley—their old project—flail and figured they could do better. The problem, they surmised, was that he was being played out of position at small forward and saddled with responsibilities he couldn’t fulfill. When Miami moved him back to power forward this offseason, their former No. 2 overall pick flourished—well, sort of.
While Beasley’s contributions have been modest in 2013-14—he’s posting 8.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 16 minutes a night—he’s so far averaging career highs in block percentage, total rebound percentage, defensive rebound percentage, true shooting percentage and win shares per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.
A big part of his improvement has come from his shot selection. Per Basketball-Reference, Beasley is attempting 30 percent of his shots from within three feet of the basket, a career high, and is taking just 20.5 percent of his attempts from between 16 feet and the three-point line, a career low—more good shots, fewer bad ones: pretty simple—and effective—calculus.
There’s no reason to think Beasley won’t be able to contribute in the postseason either. While the forward’s performance on the season hasn’t blown anyone away, the reclamation project still has the talent to, if you squint just a little, look like the best player on the floor on any given night.
Take his performance on Feb. 12 against the Golden State Warriors. In a 111-110 win on the road, Beasley poured in 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 24 minutes of very good work.
On March 4 at the Houston Rockets, with LeBron James off his game, Beasley dropped a season-high 24 points and hit a three-pointer—one of four he would hit on the evening—with 21.2 seconds left to cut the Houston lead to a possession in the eventual loss.
These were two big-time performances on the road and against big-time teams—as fine a proxy as exists for the playoffs. If these performances and his marked improvement this regular season are any indication, Beasley is as fine a bet as any of the Heat’s peripheral players to make an impact down the stretch.
And Beasley, for what it’s worth, has been keeping a close eye on a teammate who knows a thing or two about impact performances in the playoffs.
“I’m just trying to imitate everything [LeBron James] does,” Beasley told Haberstroh in December. “From the way he shoots his jump shot, to the way he’s in here lifting weights, to the way he wears socks. He has a blueprint, and I’m just following him.”
This summer, we’ll find out how capable a mimic Beasley really is.
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