WASHINGTON — Bradley Beal seemed like he’d been disqualified from the Most Improved Player discussion after the 2013-14 season.
That season, just his second in the league, Beal put up 17.1 points per game while playing (and starting) 73 games. He also chipped in 3.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.0 steals per game while shooting .402 from 3-point range. It was a marked improvement on his promising rookie season — in which he averaged 13.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 0.9 steals per game — but he finished just 20th in voting for the league’s Most Improved Player.
His next two seasons showed modest improvement, most notably in his shot selection, but he wasn’t able to stay healthy for an extended period of time.
And then this season happened. Beal, along with teammates John Wall and Otto Porter, is putting up career numbers almost across the board, and he has suddenly vaulted himself into the conversation for the award most frequently awarded to role players who make a leap, not players who just signed a max contract. ESPN’s Zach Lowe mentioned the possibility of it Thursday morning, and he makes an interesting case.
Here’s now Beal’s numbers this season compare to his numbers from a season ago:
That’s a substantial improvement by most standards, especially in regards to his shooting.
Consider this: Entering this season, Beal’s career field-goal percentage was a modest .426. Factoring in the .480 he’s shot so far this year on a career-high 1,151 attempts, and his career percentage jumps all the way up to .440.
Speaking of those 1,151 attempts (through Wednesday): His previous career high for a season was 1,149 attempts, which he set in 2013-14. That season, he made 481 of his attempts, good for a paltry .419 field-goal percentage; this season, he’s made 553 attempts. That’s a difference of two more shots attempted and 72 more shots made.
While the quality has been considerably better, it’s important to note that it’s come with a significant boost in quantity, as well. For example, his previous high for 3-pointers per game was last year, when he launched 5.7 triples while hitting on 2.2 per game. This season, those numbers are both much-improved, as he’s hitting 3.1 3-pointers on 7.6 attempts per game. He’s long since passed his career best for total 3-pointers attempted and made in a season, and he’s just 11 makes away from equaling the total number of 3s he made the previous two seasons combined (211).
Beal has also changed his approach to offense, with much more of his scoring coming from the free-throw line. He’s attempted 299 free-throws already this season (4.6 per game), and he’s made 244 of them, both career highs by about 100 apiece. And once again, Beal’s improvements have come in the forms of both quantity and quality; his career free-throw percentage entering this season was .781, but he’s shot an impressive .816 from the line this season.
He’s already surpassed his career high in points by 301, he’s 10 assists away from tying his career mark, he’s four steals away from matching his career high and he’s 57 rebounds away from tying his previous high. With 11 games to go, the rebounding mark is unlikely to reached, but the others are well within reach.
Beal has also put together a slew of games in which he’s absolutely dominated, a trait that had been missing in his first four seasons in the league. Prior to this season, Beal had just one game of 35 or more points, a 37-point outing in Feb. 2014; he has six such games already this season, including four with at least 40 points. In addition, the Wizards guard had just one game before this season in which he had a Game Score (a cumulative score encompassing a wide range of stats recorded in a game) of at least 27, a 27.8 in Dec. 2015; he already has six this season, including four with Game Scores of at least 31.
Let’s compare his growth to those of the previous three winners of the Most Improved Player Award.
Goran Dragic, 2013-14
Jimmy Butler, 2014-15
C.J. McCollum, 2015-16
The biggest leap of that trio was made by McCollum, who stepped into a massive void left with the Portland Trail Blazers after the team saw LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez — the four non-Damian Lillard starters — all depart in the offseason after the 2014-15 season. McCollum slid into the starting lineup alongside Lillard and emerged as a star, and he won the Most Improved Player award in an absolute landslide; McCollum got 101 first place votes, while runner-up Kemba Walker got seven.
But Beal’s leap this year compares favorably to the two winners prior to McCollum.
Butler benefited from a restructuring of the Bulls between seasons — Chicago switched from a slower, pound-the-paint offense featuring traditional big men Carlos Boozer, Nazr Mohammed and Taj Gibson to quicker, small spread offense featuring big men such as Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, who are better passers and outside shooters than their predecessors. Butler’s improvement is more well-rounded than Beal’s, so he gets the edge over Beal’s improvement.
Dragic became the focal point of new coach Jeff Hornacek’s offense, which was built around speed and 3-point shooting — the perfect combination for Dragic, who was surrounded by six players who each attempted at least 100 3-pointers. As a team, the Phoenix Suns shot exactly 600 more 3-pointers in 2013-14 than they did in 2012-13. All the extra long-range weapons gave Dragic plenty of space between spread-out defenders to drive to the basket, and he quickly became one of the most dangerous drive-and-kick guards in the league.
Beal’s considerable improvement has come largely thanks to new coach Scott Brooks empowering his young stars to take the game over. The offense is faster, well-orchestrated and organized, and Beal, who has enjoyed the longest stretch of clean health of his career, looks more confident than ever before.
But the Most Improved Player award does not compare this season’s candidates with previous candidates, it only compares this season’s candidates with each other. So how does that compare to the others who could win the award?
This is where Beal gets tripped up. As impressive as his improvement has been, it’s hard to compete with the jump made by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has made the gigantic leap from star to superstar this season.
Antetokounmpo is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game, all while shooting a career-best .524 from the field and a career-best .781 from the free-throw line. He’s also playing almost the same amount as he did a year ago (35.3 minutes per game last season versus 35.4 this season), but his usage has increased from 22.3 percent to 28.1 percent. Antetokounmpo had a Game Score of at least 27 eight times in his first three seasons; he’s done so 15 more times already this season.
Put another way: The Milwaukee Bucks star is doing more of everything than he ever has before, and he’s doing it better than he ever has before.
It’s hard to see Beal topping that improvement. Perhaps a closing stretch that features a half-dozen 30-point games and a nice winning streak for the Wizards will move the needle a bit more for Beal, but for now, it looks like this race is Antetokounmpo’s to lose.