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Can Bradley Beal Shoot the Washington Wizards into Contender Status?

If Bradley Beal continues to along this track, the NBA's best deadeye shooter crown will be his.
Photo by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA's Eastern Conference is undergoing a sea change in the wake of LeBron James's decision to leave Miami for Cleveland. A series of high-profile player moves have turned conference on its head—there's no real favorite as of yet in the race to make it to the Finals and lose to the Spurs. Welcome to the Inscrutable East, our offseason rundown of the teams that matter.

I spent a good portion of these recent playoffs watching the Wizards, because they were fun and because they were new and because most of the other Eastern Conference playoff teams depressed me. So then I spent a good portion of that time watching the Wizards thinking about Bradley Beal and wondering to myself if this is what watching a very young Ray Allen was like. Comparisons like that are reductive, I know, and it's a tiresome exercise in categorizing to take a unique and interesting player like Beal and fit him into the box of another player's style. I don't mean to do that here, mostly because that's not exactly what I was thinking when I watched Bradley Beal play anyway. It was more that I felt a certain kind of longing, because I was too young and too laser-focused on the Jazz to enjoy Bucks-era Ray Allen as it was happening, and now I wish I had.


There are differences, because there always are when you're talking about two different basketball players—that stylistic singularity of every NBA player is in large part why I love it so much. But the similarities were what struck me: Ray Allen, as we know him now, largely functions as a dead-eyed, mechanical shooting type, who moves to his spots and drills his threes with the same habitual glide that you or I have when we make a sandwich or adjust our car's rearview mirror. I can easily believe that even as he plays an extremely demanding sport with an incomparable efficiency, Ray Allen might not even be thinking about basketball. He rolls off one screen and heads for the corner. It's been too long since my wife and I have gone out. He plants his left foot, catches a pass, and squares to the basket. Maybe she'll want to try that new Thai place we drove by last week. He drains the three and heads upcourt. I think we'll have time next Thursday.

So what was it like then, when Ray Allen was still discovering himself? He always had the flawless shooting form, but when did all of his different talents distill into what we see now, or even what we saw in the Seattle years? He maybe always knew when and where and how to shoot a three, but when did he decide to stop shooting runners completely and what were those runners like when he did shoot them? I can remember the entire evolution of, say, Dwyane Wade, as a player, and that's part of the reason I still enjoy watching him so much. Part of the distance that separates us from athletes is a lack of understanding of them as people, but we close the gap of our understanding of them as a player as we watch them grow and solidify their identity.


Bradley Beal will likely never approach Ray Allen's records in three-pointers made or attempted, but it's clear even this early in his career that he has a similarly clean jump shot with a similarly academic shooting form. The largest difference, besides their athletic ability (most of which has long since abandoned Allen), is that Allen's pathways around the court are well-trod and his decisions dictated by experience and routine. You can watch Beal, on the other hand, make choices that are entirely foreign to him or move in ways that seem creative in the sense that they are coming from his fancy at a given moment more than a confidence that doing this will always lead to that happening. This is how a player becomes what he becomes, ultimately—by the accumulation of thousands of plays and thousands of decisions that gradually congeal into habit and identity. I imagine Ray Allen went through this once, before I could see it, because many players do to varying extents, but also because how could Ray Allen be who he is now without ever having done that?

It's fitting then that the Wizards signed Paul Pierce this offseason, who once had the opportunity to play and win a championship with Ray Allen and who will now play with, roughly speaking, a younger iteration of that teammate. It doesn't seem like a stretch that at some point this season, Pierce might find himself making this very comparison. He'll see flashes of Ray more than a consistent embodiment of him, precisely because Beal is so young, but it's definitely there to behold and Pierce is definitely a cerebral enough player to behold it.

This is all a fiction of the mind, I guess, that I'm imposing onto Bradley Beal, which is simultaneously unfair and inaccurate. But as I think about Paul Pierce seeing those similarities, but this time being the mentor and offensive insurance to and for Beal, and working at roughly the same goal as he was with Ray Allen in Boston, that incites a sort of happy nostalgia in me. That too is a fiction but a comforting one. There are fans who never really saw Jordan and who hope that Kobe was close enough that they could enjoy Jordan by proxy, and there are still other fans who did see Jordan and who only hope to recreate the feelings they felt when they watched him with another, current player.

I will watch Bradley Beal and the Wizards for that very reason, even though none of us really believes we can recreate anything we once felt or substitute something we have now for something we always wanted before. Life doesn't function in that sentimental way, however much we may want it to. But we'll keep trying now anyway, because even if I may not be able to make Bradley Beal into a younger Ray Allen, the only coping mechanism we have for the nostalgia for the departed past is to pretend that we can re-live it. Besides, in twenty years, none of us will resent Bradley Beal for not being someone else. We'll be too busy wishing he was still around.


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