PHILADELPHIA — Through the bleak, uncertain winter of the Washington Wizards’ 2020-21 campaign — the first six weeks of the season or so — Bradley Beal was the team’s defining image. Not a picture of the all-star guard leaping for a layup or hitting a jumper as he rattled off another 30-point performance, but a picture of Beal, arms splayed, sitting dejectedly on the bench. A video of Beal on the sideline, head in his hands, also made the rounds.
At the time, Beal’s apparent frustration was understandable. The Wizards were abysmal despite that he led the NBA in scoring; they were just coming out of a 10-day layoff after a coronavirus outbreak among the roster; and Beal was shouldering the load essentially by himself, with Russell Westbrook struggling to play through a quadriceps injury.
Rumors swirled as to whether the all-star guard would ask the organization that made him its centerpiece for a trade. He never did, according to people with knowledge of Beal’s situation, and the Wizards never made him available.
But more than four months and one incredible team turnaround later, his intentions as he enters the final year of his contract in Washington — he will be a free agent in 2022 — remain one of the two biggest questions for the franchise as it heads into the offseason after a Game 5 loss in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
The 27-year-old said after the game he hadn’t thought about his future.
“I haven’t — we’re not even going to think about that or even talk about it right now,” Beal said. “The biggest thing for me is we battled the whole year. We didn’t start off the year the way we wanted to. It was frustrating all around for everybody. I was frustrated at times. But I’m very optimistic and persevered through a lot of adversity, and I think we did that as a team.
“For me, I think we just best put ourselves in a position to win. We made do with what we had at times ... We gave ourselves a chance at the end of the year. We obviously still need to get better. We have a lot of room for improvement all across the board.”
But while Beal made no firm commitment Wednesday — no surprise there, immediately after a grueling postseason run — he did paint a strikingly different image of the morose Beal of late January.
This Beal was proud, laudatory of his backcourt mate Westbrook and thankful to coach Scott Brooks, whose future with the franchise as his five-year contract expires is the second biggest question facing the Wizards this offseason.
Beal even had a pitch for any impending free agents on the market or players looking for a new home.
“Hopefully, teams watch us and see what we’re capable of doing and see how we compete,” Beal said. “We’re going to go and compete and play hard, and get out and play fast. That’s who we are and what we do. D.C. is an unbelievable market, true sports town. So I don’t see why nobody wouldn’t want to be interested in coming to D.C. Obviously, recruiting is tough. It’s ongoing, so I’m definitely looking forward to this summer. My recruiting will definitely start tonight or tomorrow.”
Beal isn’t the only one who will be working the market now that Washington’s season is over. Continuing to build around Beal, and to a lesser degree, Westbrook, will require general manager Tommy Sheppard and majority owner Ted Leonsis to take some swings this offseason.
The Wizards must improve their defense. They need capable wings beyond the still developing Deni Avdija, and they need more shooting, as the first-round Eastern Conference series against Philadelphia showed in four out of five games — all of which Beal mentioned Wednesday.
When Beal speaks, Sheppard takes his opinion seriously.
The guard has enjoyed having a voice as the franchise cornerstone. His station this year has come with more outside scrutiny than ever as he finished the regular season with 31.3 points per game, second best in the league, and a start in the All-Star Game. The viral images that circulated at the beginning of the year were proof of that.
In January, Beal was asked about his poor body language and admitted he had to be better about presenting a brave face for the sake of his teammates. But there was nothing superficial about his positivity Wednesday. Asked how he has handled the extra responsibility that comes with being the focal point of an organization, Beal sounded content.
“Going from [John Wall] transitioning to me, it’s been wild but I embrace every single step and every single moment of it,” Beal said. “Not everybody has that opportunity to be a franchise cornerstone or that piece that they look to build around. I don’t take it for granted. That just motivates me and pushes me to get better and be better. I still have a lot I can be better in and improve on in terms of my leadership and what I do on the floor. But for the most part, man, I was pretty satisfied.”