Reviewing Bradley Beal’s season

Each of Bradley Beal’s first four seasons have been marred by injuries. A concussion here, a sprained pelvis there. The most concerning injury though was a recurring stress reaction in his right leg that’s forced him to miss time annually. This summer, after signing the largest contract in franchise history, Beal claimed to have conquered the leg issues. The Washington Times’s Todd Dybas reported:

This summer, he began working with a new physical therapist in addition to his behemoth brother, Brandon, who is his strength and conditioning coach.

“I started all over,” Bradley said.

Functional movement has been a focus. Beal, who has averaged 16 points per game, has spent time relearning which muscle should respond during the first part of a movement. Plus, how to walk, run, squat and land properly. He’s trying to revamp the mechanics of his body along with improving its strength. [Wizards owner Ted Leonsis] even suggested Beal grew an inch during the summer.

“I think we got it figured out,” Beal said of the leg problems. “I think we have a great plan in place. We’ve done the research. Like [Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld] said, we have evidence and research we didn’t have a couple of years ago in terms of this injury and how to deal with it. It’s definitely behind us and I’m looking forward to this season and moving past it.”

The 2016–7 season began on a grim note. Beal began the season playing poorly, averaging 15.4 points in 31.4 minutes per game on on 47.5 true shooting in his first eight games, including 29.4% from three, before succumbing to a hamstring strain that sidelined him for three games. There were indications that his poor shooting wouldn’t last — according to NBA.com’s player tracking stats, he was shooting 26.7% on wide-open threes, for example — but Beal’s and the Wizards’ desultory start had Wizards fans reeling and even Leonsis seemed resigned to look to the future. Team sources questioned Beal’s toughness.

Then Beal returned. He had three 30-point games and a career high 42-point outing in the second half of November, and a 41-point explosion against the Clippers in December gave the Wizards their first three-game winning streak of the season. From his return from injury until the All-Star break, Beal averaged 23.3 points on 61.5 true shooting (including 41.3% from 3 on 7.1 attempts per game) in 34.9 minutes per game while only sitting out one contest, resting against the hapless Brooklyn Nets. He punctuated his ascendancy by orchestrating — and delivering — on a “funeral” for the Boston Celtics and with another 40-point game against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

Since the break, Beal’s taken things to another level, averaging 28.6 ppg on 65.6 true shooting (44% from 3) in 36.6 minutes per game since play resumed. On the season as a whole, Beal’s posting career bests in shooting efficiency, usage rate, turnover rate, assist rate. A much-improved handle has allowed him to cut down on much-maligned midrange “Wittman 2s” and instead shoot threes off the dribble and get to the rim and the free throw line at career-best rates. His gravity is fueling teammate Otto Porter’s run as the league leader in three-point percentage.

Beal is also averaging a career high in minutes per game.

It’s long been speculated that Beal’s leg issues stem in part from overuse. To that end, the Wizards began the season with Beal under a team-mandated rule to limit him to 180 minutes over a nine-day stretch. Multisensor performance tracking devices measure the Wizards’ exertion in practices (the NBA doesn’t allow wearing trackers during games), which themselves are streamlined by coach Scott Brooks, inspired by his observation of the San Antonio Spurs during his year away from coaching — a far cry from previous coach Randy Wittman’s Thibodeauxian three-hour affairs. The Wizards began specifically limiting their practices a month in advance of the four-games-in-five-nights swing they just completed — and swept.

Beal’s become a more active participant in his own maintenance. “The guinea pig has learned to be smart in terms of taking care of my body,” he told the Washington Post’s Candace Buckner. Beal “[eschews] any processed food for a healthier fare of carbs,” and

[h]e has improved his sleeping regimen. He eats several times a day: “My mom always said fuel the body,” Beal recounted. That means no junk food or candy, save for the occasional bag of Skittles on cheat day. Also, it helps that the Wizards have a full-time chef, who prepares post-practice meals and explains to players which foods promotes energy and benefits the mind.

That’s all good and well, but nothing proves health quite like actually demonstrating durability. During the 2013–14 season, Beal played 210 minutes in the nine days leading up to a stress reaction in his left. In 2014–15, it was 197 minutes. In 2015–16, 235. For most of this season, Beal’s stayed well-shy of those marks. The Wizards’ played a light schedule in the first half of the season (a game every 2.05 days before All-Star break — every 2.33 days until late January — and every 1.78 days after after the break).

Beal exceed 197 minutes over nine days for the first time in January 24’s funeral game against the Boston Celtics, when his 34.5 minutes put him at 207 minutes over 9. He reached 214 after March 8’s win in Denver. In the latter game and the night before’s matchup in Phoenix, Brooks tried to limit Beal’s minutes by pulling him from the game earlier in the first quarter after seven minutes (Beal averages 9.4 minutes per first quarter this season overall). He repeated the maneuver in Portland, playing Beal just 27 minutes in regulation (Beal played all of the overtime period), but Beal’s 9-day total still climbed to 218. After the game, he told the Post’s Buckner, “Honestly, this is the best I’ve been feeling since I’ve been in the league.”.

While a month (and 19 games) remain in the season, Beal and the Wizards not only surviving but thriving during the highest duress this year’s schedule offers is a significant milestone and as good of a sign as any that the player the franchise thought they were getting with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft has not only finally arrived, but is here to stay.

Note: Minutes for Beal from March 13 on are projected based on his post-All Star Break average