The thought, back in 2012, was that they’d get Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Picking third in that Draft, the Washington Wizards knew that Anthony Davis would go off the board first to New Orleans. But Charlotte was picking second, and with the then-Bobcats coming off a 7-59 lockout season -- the worst by percentage in league history -- many around the league the Bobcats (now the Hornets) would go for offense to try and draw back fans. The team’s leading scorer in 2011-12 was Gerald Henderson (15.1 points per game).
But the Bobcats went for defense, taking Davis’ Kentucky teammate, forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, second overall. Maybe it was because Charlotte had just hired a new, defensive-minded coach, Mike Dunlap. Or maybe Michael Jordan saw some Scottie Pippen in Kidd-Gilchrist. Whatever the reason, the Wizards, picking third, got the player they wanted -- Florida freshman guard Bradley Beal. (This isn’t after-the-fact second-guessing; this is what they’d said, privately, before the Draft.) For a few years, as both Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal struggled with injuries, the jury was out on who did better than night.
But today, the evidence points to a Wizards win. Still just 24, Beal has become one of the league’s best scorers at his position, and has teamed with John Wall to comprise one of the league’s top handful of backcourts. Beal has started every one of Washington’s 49 games this season, after starting 77 last season, and is averaging career highs in points (23.9), rebounds (4.4) and assists (3.8), and was named to his first All-Star team last week. It was a big moment for Beal, who’d already established himself as an elite shooter (and gotten $128 million from the Wizards in 2016), but who’d been in the lab with trainer Drew Hanlen for several years working on his ballhandling and footwork. This after he spent his childhood getting beaten on by his four football-playing brothers in St. Louis.
Yet despite his individual achievements, including a 51-point masterpiece in Portland while Wall was out, this year’s Wizards have been a disappointment. They’re in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, but they had dreams of a top two finish this year, after taking the Boston Celtics to seven games in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals. That’s where Washington’s season has ended in each of its three playoff appearances since 2014. But the Wizards have floundered against bad teams all season, and they’re just five games above .500, closer to being out of the playoffs than they are to the top seed.
The poor start led to a disastrous team meeting a few weeks ago that did nothing to quell the angst among players. It’s forcing Beal to find his voice as a leader, to come out of his shell and try to lead this team to something meaningful -- while not talking any more about extraneous piffle, like how the Cavaliers really didn’t want to play them in the playoffs last year.
Me: So, of Byron, Bryon, Brandon and Bruce, which Beal brother got the All-Star news first?
Bradley Beal: I heard from my girl first. She called me and told me. I think my oldest brother had told me after that. He FaceTimed me and told me; he was, like, screaming through the phone. It’s crazy. I feel like everybody else was a little more excited than I was. I’m more chill, you know, cool, calm, collected. And it still hasn’t hit me yet, honestly. It probably won’t hit me until it’s time to walk out there. But I’m definitely happy, man. It’s a blessing for sure to be able to share that floor with 23 other guys who are considered the best players in the world.
Me: You were on the beach last year during All-Star weekend, right?
BB: Yeah, I was in the DR. I enjoyed my little five days that we got off.
I wish they had televised it, because at the end of the day, you’re still an All-Star. They’re making it seem like we’re kids, and our feelings would get hurt. It is what it is."
Me: I always wonder, ‘cause guys always say they can’t wait to get away during All-Star. But do they really, or are you just a little ticked off you weren’t in New Orleans last year?
BB: I’m never mad about All-Star. It’s guys who get snubbed every year who’ve proven they could be All-Stars. This league, there’s 450 guys, and you’re trying to pick 24 out of the group who are having a good year. It’s a tough assignment, because you’ve got the fan vote, and it’s tough on the coaches because there’s so many guys out here who really are All-Stars. Not everybody gets a spot. I didn’t take it the wrong way. I accepted it for what it was. Like I said before, there’s guys who don’t make it every year who probably deserve to be there. For me, it was a break for my body.
Me: Would you step to LeBron at some point in L.A. and go, ‘okay -- when did you pick me?’
BB: You know what, I don’t really care if I was last. I’ll definitely ask him. But I don’t really care. I wish they had televised it, because at the end of the day, you’re still an All-Star. They’re making it seem like we’re kids, and our feelings would get hurt. It is what it is. But I’ll probably ask him to see what he says.
Me: What does it mean to share the moment with John?
BB: I feel like it’s great. It’s a long time coming for us. I think the city wanted it. Our organization, that’s what they see, trusting us to be (elite) players. Our owner, Ted Leonsis, always tells us, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ They expect us to be elite; they expect us to be All-Stars; they expect us to win games. That’s just another step up the ladder, another accomplishment that we made. The great act of faith that they had in us to go out there and compete at a high level, and then we get rewarded for it. So I think it’s good for both of us. We’d both would love to be there. We’d both have been hot if the other one wasn’t there, for sure. We felt like the last year, year and a half, we both should have been there. So it finally happened now. We feel like it’s great for the team, great for the city, great for our families.
Me: So I know if you knew what the problem was with your squad, you would have fixed it by now. So how disappointing is it that you have this problem, and have continued to have it all season?
BB: It’s very disappointing, but it can’t get to the point where it frustrates us mentally. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to go out there. We can’t worry about the game that we just lost, as much as it kind of sucks to say, because we hate losing and can’t accept losing. But the reality is reality. The crazy thing about it is we’re only a game or two out of third. So that just shows, that’s where the disappointment comes in, because if we could take advantage of those games, we could be sitting comfortably, be in the position where we could have home-court and have an advantage going into the playoffs. From that standpoint it’s disappointing, but on the positive, we still have time. We have this opportunity, with these next nine games before All-Star to make it happen.
‘Cause sometimes I can be nonchalant. ... It’s just my persona and my personality. As a leader, when guys look up to you, you can’t be that way, and I think that’s something I’ve learned over the course of the year."
Me: One seven-game win streak, and you’re good.
BB: We’re good. It’s crazy; each and every night, we may lose. Cleveland may lose. Toronto will lose. Boston, they’ve been pretty solid, but they have their ups and downs, too. So it’s open. It is wide open. We’ve got to keep our eyes forward and focused on the big picture, get back to being that team we were last year, that grit and grimy, physical team.
Me: Leadership is often an evolving thing on any team. So what is your challenge now, with this team this season?
BB: Making sure that everybody’s in the game mentally. I feel like physically, we’re all men, and you should be able to get yourself physically ready for a game. But I think mentally, make sure that everybody’s locked into the game, not worried about if you’re getting the ball, if you’re getting shots, not worried about if you’re making or missing shots. Just control what you can control. That’s something I’m trying to be better at, fix my body language. ‘Cause sometimes I can be nonchalant. I can be straight locked into myself and not say anything to anybody. That’s not, like, a knock to my teammates. It’s just my persona and my personality. As a leader, when guys look up to you, you can’t be that way, and I think that’s something I’ve learned over the course of the year, making sure you have that positive body language, making sure that you’re energetic, pat them on the butt, tell ‘em it’s all right, encourage your teammates as much as possible, regardless of what type of game you’re having. And don’t be afraid to say anything. Don’t be afraid to be a leader.
Me: What got you to All-Star level this year in your game?
BB: I feel like it was just my confidence. I feel like I love where my game was last year, what I put into it. And over the summer, I didn’t really add to much to anything; I just tried to perfect it. I think my off the dribble game is a lot better; my creating game is a lot better. The crazy part about it is I’m not even shooting the ball the way that I want to (37.6 percent on 3-pointers, the lowest of his career). I think that speaks volumes. But at the same time, there’s a lot of stuff that I implemented into my game, in terms of off the dribble, my pick and roll game, my ability to pass. And just trying to rebound a lot more, too, as much as I can (Beal is averaging a career best 4.4 rebounds per game). Just trying to contribute in every aspect of the game.
I’m done with meetings, man. I think we’re good on the meetings."
Me: When you and Drew work out in the offseason, do you have ideas for your game that you run past him, or does he have ideas he runs past you?
BB: It’s a two-way street. It’s always been that way. He’ll show me something, show me a move or something that he picked up from another player, and I’ll try it out. And if I like it, I’ll keep it, but if I don’t, I’ll scratch it right away. We have that type of relationship. It’s a lot different with a lot of guys that he works out. He has a blueprint for everybody. But with us, it’s like, try this. If you like it, you do it, and if you don’t, you scratch it. We try to keep it pretty basic.
Me: What’s the next step for you as a player?
BB: Man. Shooting off the dribble, the three a lot more. I think I actually did it more last year than I’m doing this year. Being able to do that. Scoring more from the outside in that situation. And maybe a post-up game, ‘cause there are times when I have smaller guards on me.
Me: But no more team meetings, I take it?
BB: When they first brought it up, I forgot about it. I didn’t forget about it, but it was so long ago that we just kind of swept it up under the rug. I don’t think we need a team meeting. I feel like team meetings should happen one time a year, and that should be it. You don’t need to continue to meet and talk about what’s going on. We know what’s going on. It’s just a matter of us going out there and doing it. We’ve got to look at ourselves individually and say ‘what can I do better’? One through 15, what can I do better? You could be playing well, but still, you could be getting better at something out there. ‘Cause nobody’s playing great, nobody’s playing perfect. I’m done with meetings, man. I think we’re good on the meetings.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
Our bad. https://t.co/6unnr17EP5— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) January 26, 2018
-- The Blazers’ official Twitter feed (@trailblazers), Friday, 12:58 a.m., after Durant’s postgame interview on TNT Thursday with Ros Gold-Onwude, in which KD exulted that “finally, somebody picked me number one,” referring to being taken first in the All-Star player draft by LeBron James. Durant, of course, has famously chafed at going second overall in the 2007 NBA Draft behind Greg Oden, who Portland took first overall, and at frequently being named the second-best player in the league behind James.
THEY SAID IT
"If I was a San Antonio fan tonight, I would ask for my money back.”
-- Gregg Popovich, to local reporters, after his Spurs were smacked around at AT&T Center Friday by the 76ers, just San Antonio’s fourth home loss in 24 games this season.
"Unbelievable. I think it's just outrageous, in my opinion. I don't know who else made the team but got four people from one team, you've got guys complaining about getting snubbed until they get in, you've got guys just talking about it all the time. But the guys that deserve it -- should be in -- are not. I just don't understand. Doesn't make any sense."
-- Russell Westbrook, to local reporters, after teammate Paul George did not make the Western Conference reserves for the All-Star Game. Westbrook obviously referenced the Warriors, whose Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were selected as reserves by coaches after Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were voted in as starters, and seemed to be referencing Portland’s Damian Lillard, who had indeed complained about not making the team the last couple of years before being selected as a reserve this year. At least Lillard took it that way.
And, on Saturday, George was selected as an All-Star – the NBA tabbed him as the injury replacement for DeMarcus Cousins on Team LeBron.
“I wasn't getting picked on last night. I was being a diva last night. I've got to just own up to it. I watched it when I got home. I was wondering why he was coming at me so hard but then I watched the plays I was like, `Yeah, I looked like a jerk out there.' It was bad.”
-- Kevin Durant, apologizing to referee James Williams after being ejected by Williams during last Tuesday’s game with the Knicks.