Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Bradley Beal's two-way skills helping Washington Wizards find footing

Week 12: Guard proves he's more than just a scorer as he joins Kia MVP mix

Bradley Beal refuses to preoccupy himself with things beyond his control. So you’ll have to forgive him for not wasting his time worrying about what you or anyone else thinks. He knows who he is, where he stands in the league and his worth to the Washington Wizards.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have lofty goals this season, He wants on the Eastern Conference All-Star team and he’s doing his part to make sure the Wizards live up to their own hype as an Eastern Conference contender. And he’s never going to back off of his belief that he and John Wall comprise the best backcourt in the league — no matter what the numbers say.

But he’s not going to change his approach, not now, with things falling into place nicely for the sixth-year guard who has been the Wizards’ best and most consistent player this season with Wall missing 11 games due to injury.

“I think there is space, an opening for all of that,” said Beal, who ranks No. 10 in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. “That’s always a goal of mine, being an All-Star, but I never go out there playing strictly for that. First and foremost, I go out there for my team and to get wins and do whatever it takes to get that job done.

“I don’t consume myself with trying to be an All-Star and trying to prove to people that I’m capable of being one. If I am one, I am one, and that’s great. But people who are more than deserving get snubbed every year. So there’s really nothing you can do about it. And I don’t allow it to affect my game or affect me mentally. I just go out and control what I can control.”

Beal is doing a fine job of controlling his game this season. He leads the Wizards in scoring and is averaging career highs in points per game (23.4), rebounds (4.4), assists (3.6) and steals (1.2).

He’s been a steady force for a team that’s shown a penchant for playing up (11-6 against teams currently at .500 or above) and down (11-10) to its competition this season.

They’re moving in the right direction, though, recently. They’ve won three straight games and seven of their last 10 to get themselves back into the home court mix in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Beal has at his best during this 10-game stretch, averaging 22.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.3 steals while doing his usual (underrated) job on the defensive end.

He’s averaged 29 points on a 60 percent shooting (52 percent from 3-point range), with 16 assists and just three turnovers during the three-game win streak.

And as good as he’s been on most nights, his timing has been impeccable during the season’s rough patches. A night after a 47-point loss at Utah Dec. 4, when he scored just 11 points, Beal bounced back with a career-high 51-points at Portland.

He and Wall called out the entire locker room for playing “selfish” against inferior teams after a deflating Dec. 27 loss in Atlanta and Beal rebounded in the three games since with 21 points in a win over Houston, a near triple-double (39 points, nine rebounds and nine assists) in Sunday’s win over Chicago and 27 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals in Wednesday’s blowout win over the Knicks.

But the numbers, Wizards coach Scott Brooks insists, don’t do Beal’s season the justice it deserves.

Beal’s groundhog day approach — Brooks lauded his star shooting guard’s low-key grind, tireless work ethic and Groundhog Day consistency — has allowed him to elevate his game this season.

“He’s developed so much just in the year and a half I’ve been here,” Brooks said. “When I first got here, he barely said a word, not even to me. He’s opened up a lot. He’s more vocal and more of a leader. He’s more demanding, especially of himself, and he’s a two-way player. We all know he can score the ball. He’s sneaky athletic, and I still think he has another level or two he can go to, which is a good thing.

“It’s the same thing for all good players, going from good to great is a challenge. But you can see it happening from last year on, he’s becoming one of the great ones in our league because he does it at both ends of the floor.”

He’s always been a scorer for us but him making plays off the dribble has been a lot better this year and we’re better because of it.”

John Wall, on Bradley Beal

Wall understands better than most what it means for Beal to continue to take the strides needed for the Wizards to finally break through in the postseason.

Atlanta, Toronto and Boston have all been to the conference finals against Cleveland in the years since Wall and Beal proclaimed themselves and the Wizards as team next.

Last season’s Game 7 loss to the Celtics in the conference semifinals still stings, because the Wizards truly felt like it was ‘their time.”

“The opportunity is still right there for us,” Wall said. “Nothing’s changed.”

Well, save for that chip Beal would never admit to carrying around on his shoulder after not being named an All-Star last season. Wall believes that “snub” gave Beal the extra motivation needed to go back to the lab in the offseason and continue honing his craft.

“I told him, when you rebound the ball and become more of a playmaker, that boosts your game up to another level and people realize they can’t double team either one of us as much because they know we can both make plays,” Wall said. “So he added everything to his game. And I’m out there trying to knock down shots for him whenever he’s driving and they are double-teaming him. It’s expanding both of our games. He’s always been a scorer for us but him making plays off the dribble has been a lot better this year and we’re better because of it.”

The Wizards are going to need both of their backcourt stars, and then some, to fulfill the promise this season.

The Celtics and Raptors own the top two spots in the Eastern Conference standings in the opening days of 2018 with LeBron James and the Cavaliers sitting in the third spot ahead of the Wizards.

The Celtics and Cavaliers have both had double-digit win streaks this season and the Raptors had a stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas that saw them win 12 of 13, meanwhile the Wizards have just had to concentrate on catching up and trying to keep up the pace.

Beal knows what the Wizards are dealing with, how steep the climb will be. It’s all in front of him now, in plain view.

“The game is slowing down for me more and more this year,” he said. “The floor is opening up and I’m making better reads, I’m being smarter, knowing how teams are going to play me. And I’m staying more poised, more than anything, more confident.

“And I’m most definitely a two-way guy. I take pride in my defense, in keeping my matchup from getting their average every night. It’s my motto really, knowing I’m going to have a tough matchup every single night. And it’s a mental challenge more than anything, knowing that I have to bring it every night at the highest level.”

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The top five in the Week 12 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

No. 1 Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: Tied for No. 2

Season stats: 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists

Durant sat out of Thursday’s game against Houston — a showdown of the top two teams in the Western Conference — with a right calf strain. It was a cautionary move from the Warriors, who have no reason to take any unnecessary risks with their stars given the way the others pick up the slack when one or more of them are not in uniform. Durant’s most recent work (26.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.6 blocks in the 10 games prior) had him trending towards the No. 1 spot anyway on a Warriors team that has won nine straight road games. Durant is just 25 points shy of 20,000 for his career. If he just reaches his average against the Clippers Saturday in Los Angeles (3:30 ET, NBA League Pass), he’ll become the 44th player in league history (and the eighth active player, joining Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade, Pau Gasol and Joe Johnson) to reach that milestone.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 32.3 points, 9.1 assists, 5.0 rebounds

Harden was also a casualty in that Thursday night TNT showdown against the Warriors and could miss as many six weeks, per the Houston Chronicle, with that Grade 2 left hamstring strain. That would be absolutely devastating news for the Rockets if they didn’t have Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and Gerald Green, among others, around to keep the Rockets in that chase for the No. 1 spot in the West. Whatever time Harden misses might end up being exactly what his body needs, given the load he had to tote through his first 35 games of this season. The Rockets needed him healthy and dialed in down the stretch of the season and into the postseason more than they need to hustle to get him back on the floor anytime soon. Paul will handle things just fine until Harden is ready to return.

3. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 24.4 points, 4.9 assists, 3.3 rebounds

Irving couldn’t buy a bucket with his former Cavaliers teammates in town for Wednesday’s battle between the Eastern Conference heavyweights. He shot just 5-for-14, missing all five of his 3-point attempts en route to a season-low 11-point night. And yet, he was in the middle of everything as his Celtics teammates picked him up at every turn to help him get his first win against his old crew. Kyrie did grab a season-high nine rebounds to go with his six assists. But it should be clear by now that these Celtics are thrive on more than just his offensive wizardry. The Celtics are a scrappy bunch with toughness that has been on display since Gordon Hayward went down five minutes into the season opener. They’ll need to lean on that grit with an upcoming back-to-back set tonight against Minnesota (7 ET, ESPN) and in Brooklyn Saturday night (6 ET, NBA League Pass). Then and only then will Kyrie and the Celtics get a real breather, not having to suit up again until their Jan. 11 game against Philadelphia in London.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: Tied for No. 2

Season stats: 27.5 points, 9.1 assists, 8.1 rebounds

James is still trying to dig out from under the coal shower he got for Christmas and his 33rd birthday five days later. The Cavaliers have won just once, Tuesday’s 127-110 thumping of Portland, since a Dec. 21 win over Chicago. Two of their four losses during that five-game stretch have come to their two biggest rivals — Christmas Day vs. the Golden State Warriors and Wednesday’s loss in Boston to Kyrie Irving and the Celtics. The energy that was evident the night before, when Isaiah Thomas scored 17 points in 19 minutes during his Cavaliers debut, was sorely lacking in Boston. That sets the stage for a big Saturday night in Orlando (7 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass), where Thomas is slated to make his first start and James can get to work on the chemistry they need to develop for the remainder of his season. LeBron is always at his best when challenged, and with the Cavaliers sitting third in the Eastern Conference standings behind Boston and Toronto, there is work to do.

5.Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 8

Season stats: 27.0 points, 6.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds

Curry has been an absolute menace to NBA society since coming back from that 10-game absence because of the sprained ankle. Sure, it’s just three games, but 33.0 points on an absolutely wild 60.7 percent shooting from the floor (and 55.6 percent from 3-point range) to go along with his six rebounds and 5.3 assists per game is downright preposterous, even for the two-time Kia MVP. Whatever rehabilitation routine he followed needs to be packaged and sold. Because somehow Curry has returned to action playing at a higher level than he was operating at when he went down late in a Dec. 4 win in New Orleans after back-to-back 30-point games. It’s a great sign for the Warriors, who enter the month before before the February trade deadline looking like a team that’s finding its stride with the roster getting back healthy. As well as they played without him (8-2 with Kevin Durant dominating), the Warriors clearly got to another level with Curry.

The next five:

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

9. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

10. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

And five more …: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola jokic, Denver Nuggets; Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

Next up?

An inside look at Klay Thompson from a Western Conference scout:

“On a team with as much quality talent as the Warriors have, with two of the best guys on the planet as your biggest stars, it’s easy to forget how prefect a fit Klay is on that team. He’s got an absolutely beautiful stroke, and you always start there with his game. But he’s so much more than just a great shooter. The work he does without the ball, on both ends of the floor, is literally textbook. If you’re watching film and trying to teach guys, not just young guys but veterans in this league, how to stay alive on every possession, I’d get some cut ups of what he does and run them over and over again. He makes weak side plays all the time, just moving and being in the right place at the right time. Figuring out the right position to be in on a given play is a skill that most guys go through their entire career without really understanding, let alone mastering such a subtle part of the game. But I guarantee you his coaches love it. We see it all the time watching these guys.

“You’re talking about a guy who can get 30 any night without dominating the ball at all, and on that same night he gets 30 he’s guarding two or three positions on the other end of the floor at an elite level. I’m not here to soap box about him being underappreciated or overlooked, because I think anyone with a brain who knows basketball understands exactly how valuable a player like this can be on any team. It’s just easy to miss how good, no great an all around basketball player he is if you only focus on his shooting, which he does as well as anyone. He’s mastered his role on this team and he’s such a critical piece to their puzzle. If he’s got an ego, you cannot tell watching them, because he’s adjusted in whatever ways Steve [Kerr] has needed him to with the development of Draymond Green, the addition of Kevin Durant and everything else that’s changed over the years. Again, no one has to tell the Warriors to appreciate the guy because they know exactly what they’ve got in Klay.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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