Beal honored, motivated by All-Star starting nod

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On Thursday night, the NBA announced that Bradley Beal has been named a starter for the Eastern Conference in the 2021 NBA All-Star Game, set for March 7 in Atlanta. Beal, who leads the league with 32.8 points per game, will be playing in his third All-Star Game, but his first as a starter.

Starters were determined by a combination of fan votes (50%), player votes (25%) and media votes (25%), while the reserves will be determined by coaches around the league and announced next week. Beal finished first among Eastern Conference guards in the fan, player and media votes.

“To go from being snubbed to starting this year is a huge honor,” Beal said. “I thank the fans, my peers, the media – everybody who had a say so in voting for me. It’s a huge honor. I don’t take it for granted. It’s definitely a motivation for me to continue to be a mentor, to be a better player. It’s so many guys who are more than deserving to be where I am, so please believe I don’t take it for granted.”

The overwhelming support for Beal’s case as a starter is well-earned. Beal not only leads the league in scoring, but also does so by nearly three points per game. Despite missing two games individually and the Wizards having several games postponed, Beal still ranks third in total points (786) and is tied for the league lead in 25-point games (22) and 40-point games (3).

Beal will start alongside Kyrie Irving (Nets), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Kevin Durant (Nets) and Joel Embiid (Sixers) in the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference starters will be Stephen Curry (Warriors), Luka Doncic (Mavericks), LeBron James (Lakers), Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) and Nikola Jokic (Nuggets).

“(Growing up), I didn’t dream this,” Beal said. “I didn’t dream of being an NBA All-Star or a starter in the All-Star Game. I didn’t dream any of that. I dreamed of making it here and that was pretty much it. After that, it was, ‘What are your goals?’ each and every year. I never thought I would get to where I am not, so I would definitely say I’m blessed.”

“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said earlier this week. “Not (just) one of the best guards, he’s one of the best all-around players in the league.”

While last season may be remembered as his superstar-level breakout campaign, the 2020-21 season has been Beal’s declaration that he is here to stay. He’s currently on pace to become the 17th player in league history with multiple seasons averaging 30.0 points per game and just the third player to do so in the last decade (Harden, Durant).

After a 2019-20 season in which he averaged 30.5 points per game and a career-best 6.1 points per game, Beal’s surroundings changed. Opposing defenses are more locked in on what he brings every night and he gained a new running mate in Russell Westbrook to share some of the playmaking burden. Beal seamlessly tweaked his game to adjust to more aggressive defenses and fit his new situation. This season, he’s recording fewer assists, but is averaging more points, more rebounds, more free throws, more steals and more blocks. He’s also shooting a higher percentage from the field and from the free throw line – and playing fewer minutes per game.

“Great players in this league continue to re-invent themselves and find different ways to attack,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said earlier this season. “Bradley Beal has earned the opponent staffs and teams to game-plan and throw everything and the kitchen sink at him to try and slow him down. I don’t think anybody has really figured that out this year.”

Beal’s season thus far is highlighted by some of the most captivating one-night scoring performances the league has seen, including a 60-point outburst against the Sixers to set a new career high and tie the franchise single-game scoring record. But what truly makes Beal’s season special is his relentless consistency. He opened the season with a 17-game streak of 25-point games, the longest such streak in the NBA since 1966-67 and the fifth-longest ever. He has scored 25-plus points in 22 of his 24 games this season and at least 30 points in 13 of his last 17 games.

Beal’s scoring arsenal diversifies each year. He came into the NBA with a reputation as a sharpshooting two guard and quickly shattered the franchise record for career 3-pointers. He’s developed as a passer, handling primary playmaking and scoring responsibilities for the team in 2019-20. Now, he’s rounded out his offensive game fully, becoming a player that can score from anywhere on the court and that opposing defenses can’t keep out of the paint.

“He draws so much contact,” Hornets head coach James Borrego said earlier this month before facing the Wizards. “He does most of his damage at the rim. Obviously, he has the threat of shooting the ball, but his ability to get to the rim and finish, draw contact, get to the free throw line – those are easy points for him. You can put those in the box score every single night…He’s a very efficient player. He’s become a better playmaker. I love his game. I think he’s fearless. He’s tenacious. He’s special.”

That tenacity in getting to the rim is reflected in the box score. This season, Beal ranks fourth among guards in points in the paint (11.4 per game) and is shooting 57.9% at the rim. In the event that he or a teammate misses while Beal is in the paint area, the Wizards may very well come away with points anyway. Beal leads all guards this season in second-chance points with 3.3 per game.

Nine years into his career, Beal’s star power is irrefutable. Being named an All-Star starter is a coronation of sorts for a player whose due credit is arriving late. But those who know Beal best and have witnessed his dedication and drive on a day-to-day basis saw this day coming years ahead of time.

“Besides the talent level that people witness and watch night-in and night-out, in terms of what he’s doing, I think his character, his competitiveness, just his internal makeup,” said Billy Donovan, Bulls head coach and Beal’s college coach at the University of Florida. “I think that’s what has enabled him to constantly, every year in the league, just get better and better and better. I think it’s a tribute to his work ethic…I’m not surprised with what he’s done as a player in this league. I would have expected this out of him because of his character and his work ethic.”