Bradley Beal couldn't believe it, but the basketball world needed it.
It needed to see some type of evidence this apparent scoring savant was in fact human. It had to have the slightest bit of proof that Beal's picturesque shooting stroke was mortal—not machine.
Nearly six full games into his first taste of playoff basketball, it finally happened. With his Washington Wizards nursing a 92-78 lead over the Indiana Pacers midway through the fourth quarter Monday night, he walked to the charity stripe with a chance to wrap some duct tape around an already sealed coffin.
After misfiring on the first, the sophomore calmed himself for his second free-throw attempt. He slightly bent his knees, raised the ball above his head and released. The form was true, the arc looked good, the ball sailed to the basket and hit nothing but air.
The Bankers Life Fieldhouse faithful rained down boos upon him, but those were drowned out by the collective sigh from hoop heads across the globe.
For one fleeting moment, the 20-year-old had finally acted his age.
Monday night the words "kid" and "Beal" were officially retired from cohabiting the same sentence.
A kid does not become the first NBA player in more than a decade to finish with 25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals in a playoff game. A kid doesn't become the first person in league annals to have three playoff games with at least 25 points before their 21st birthday.
A kid also doesn't pump in 14 huge fourth-quarter points to carry his franchise to its first second-round win in 32 years. A kid doesn't routinely make the league's best defenses look foolish as the second-year scoring guard has this postseason.
Maybe his playoff jitters surfaced in the first postseason game of his career. He managed just 13 points on 3-of-11 shooting, but even in that outing he went a perfect 7-of-7 at the free-throw line and dished out seven assists without committing a turnover in more than 41 minutes.
That performance came against the Chicago Bulls, the NBA's stingiest defense post-All-Star break. Over the final four games of that series, he posted 21.5 points on .469/.500/.842 shooting, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
On Monday he added another 25 points (on 44.4 percent shooting) to his playoff stat sheet. This time he was carving up a Pacers squad that carried historic defensive marks into January.
Add the work together, and you're talking about one of the finest playoff performances by a player under the age of 21 in NBA history. His 19.8 player efficiency rating checks out as the third highest among such players, a group that impresses as much for the names on the list as the numbers they compiled, via Basketball-Reference.
|Beal's Place Among the Under-21 Playoff Performers|
Take age out of the equation, and you still have the 13th-highest PER of the 2014 postseason. Beal sits higher on that list than All-Stars Stephen Curry (18.8), Joe Johnson (18.7), James Harden (18.5), DeMar DeRozan (18.3), Chris Bosh (17.6) and John Wall (17.6).
The game isn't supposed to come so easily to a player this young. Remember, as much as we loved Beal's shooting stroke when he left Florida, we still worried about his 33.9 percent success rate from distance during his lone season with the Gators.
After a solid rookie campaign (13.9 points, 38.6 percent three-point shooting), he upped the ante for his second season (17.1, 40.2). The bright playoff lights were supposed to derail his rise.
Somehow, he's used them to hasten his ascent:
This is Beal like we've never seen him.
He's still wreaking havoc from the outside (48.1 three-point percentage), but he's doing more damage inside the arc than ever before. Just 29.0 percent of his field-goal attempts have been threes (down from his 31.5 regular-season career average), via Basketball-Reference. He's averaging 5.8 free-throw attempts per night—three more than his regular-season career high (2.8).
He's the youngest player in coach Randy Wittman's playoff rotation. His butterflies haven't escaped his stomach as the career 78.7 percent free-throw shooter showed Monday.
Yet, if he's rattled on the inside, he couldn't look any more calm and collected on the outside, as Grantland's Andrew Sharp explained:
Game 1 was a perfect snapshot of the Wizards’ playoffs so far. Nene played well, Marcin Gortat played so hard you forgot about all the missed layups, Trevor Ariza was bombing 3s, and they got a heroic performance from some random dude off the bench (Drew Gooden). John Wall was the most dominant athlete on the court, terrorizing people at both ends. But the most impressive of anyone was Beal.
Beal might not perform like a 20-year-old, but his age is still a vital piece of this story. That's what makes it so hard tell whether he's arrived or simply set the stage for even better things to come.
He's shown "a feel for the game that's quite astute but still in development," wrote CBS Sports' Zach Harper. "That's a terrifying thought for the rest of the league."
The postseason was supposed to be a sink-or-swim barometer for the young man. What makes him so unique is that most players need to be tossed into the water—Beal, though, simply went headfirst off the high dive.
"The way I think about it, I’m 20 years old, playing in the playoffs, something I always dreamed about, so why not embrace it?" he said, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post. "Why not accept that challenge?"
The magnitude of this moment isn't lost on the NBA's next great shooting guard. He might air-ball another free throw before Washington's playoff ride is finished.
For him, though, he's putting far more stock into his makes than his misses. That's a lesson most players his age need to learn.
Steep learning curves aren't supposed to be mastered this quickly. When they are, that's when greatness comes to light.
Beal has plenty of just that in his future, and perhaps enough of it in his present to power the Wizards to a longer playoff run than anyone could have imagined.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.