Bradley Beal's Improved Shot Selection Is Driving His Career Season
Bradley Beal is finally a valuable NBA player.
Yes, this may seem like a strange statement to make about a player who had averaged 16.0 points per game in his first four professional seasons, but the leap he's taken this year puts these previous campaigns to shame.
The former Florida Gator has shed his volume-scorer profile and blossomed into an efficient offensive player for the Washington Wizards. From his rookie year through the 2015-16 season, Beal posted a 52.1% true shooting percentage (TS%) and an Offensive Rating of 103 with a 23.6% usage rate.
This season, Beal has upped his TS% and Offensive Rating to 60.4% and 117, respectively, and while also increasing his usage rate to 26.3%. This combination of usage and efficiency has translated to 22.9 points per game, helping him provide real value for Washington.
In three of his previous four seasons, Beal was rated as a below-average player by Basketball Reference’s Box Plus/Minus, and was also below-average in two of the first three seasons ESPN's Real Plus-Minus was available. Per both metrics, he was not nearly efficient enough on offense to offset subpar defensive ratings.
He still rates as a below average defender by both BPM and RPM this season, but has been so good on offense that he's been a resounding net positive. By RPM, he ranks third among shooting guards while also ranking 28th in the league in RPM-based Wins Above Replacement. In terms of BPM-based Value over Replacement Player, he is tied for 31st in the league and is second among shooting guards.
Better Shot Selection
Since entering the league, Beal has been an above-average finisher at the rim (63.3% shooting percentage within three feet) and a good three-point shooter (39.7% three-point percentage). Much of his improvement this year stems from making these shots a bigger part of his repertoire at the expense of inefficient two-point jump shots.
During his first three seasons, over 51% of Beal’s field goal attempts were two-pointers three or more feet from the basket -- 43.5% of them were twos from 10 feet away or longer and 32.4% were two-pointers that were 16-plus feet from the basket, per Basketball Reference.
Heading into last season, Beal made it a mission to cut down on these shots, the least efficient kind of attempt in the game. “The biggest thing, man, like I’ve been preaching all summer, is just not shooting those long twos,” he told The Washington Post in October 2015.
He did make progress on this front, bringing his two-point jumper attempt rate to 43.2%. This trend has continued during the 2016-17 campaign, as he's lowered the number to 33.0% -- below the NBA average of 39.7%.
While 15.3% of his attempts are still coming on two-pointers 16-plus feet from the basket(above the NBA average of 14.4%), he is at least shooting 50.4% on these shots. That's well above the league average of 40.1% on these attempts, as well as the 50.1% average on all two-point attempts.
The massive increase in efficiency seems to be the product of fewer forced long twos. Beal has taken 232 two-point shots from more than 10 feet from the basket; on 141 of them (60.8%), the nearest defender was four feet or further from him, according to tracking data at NBA.com.
By taking fewer contested long twos, Beal is shooting 54.2% on them this season, a 6.1% increase from his previous career best and a 10.2% increase from his career average coming into the year.
He is also taking 42.7% of his attempts from beyond the three-point arc and making 39.8% of these shots, which has lifted his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) to 56.6%. Aside from the improved shot selection, Beal is also one of 13 players with a usage rate of 25% or greater and a turnover rate lower than 10%.
Impact on the Defensive End
Beal doesn't stuff the stat sheet on defense (his steal rate of 1.5% ranks outside the Top 100), but the Wizards have had better results at that end when he is on the court this season. When he is in the game, Washington has allowed 103.6 points per 100 possessions, compared to 108.5 when he is on the bench, per NBA.com.
While Washington forces two more steals per 100 possessions with Beal on the floor, at least some of the disparity seems to be the product of random variation.
Opponents are actually shooting slightly better on two-pointers when Beal is on the floor, while their three-point percentage rises to 38.4% from 34.2% when he is off the court. This could theoretically be Beal’s doing, but three-point percentages are volatile in small samples, so randomness seems a more likely culprit (also, opponents actually showed the opposite trend last year, shooting 3.2% better on threes when Beal was on the court).
Whatever deficiencies Beal may still have on defense, the huge strides he has made on offense this season more than make up for them.