Bradley Beal knew this was coming. That does not mean he has to like it.
Once Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, and once James Harden was traded from the Houston Rockets, the Washington Wizards guard was well aware his name would be next to enter a seemingly endless cycle of speculation about his trade availability and satisfaction with the organization.
Only, Beal does not want next. He wants to carve his own path, not the one dictated by widespread player movement and the media that spotlights it, and that still means constructing a contender in Washington.
“He doesn’t want to quit on something,” Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports & Entertainment, told Yahoo Sports. “He’s an incredibly loyal guy, and he wants to always feel like he’s done everything he can to help something or someone be successful. It’s the way he was raised and what his values are based upon. It’s ingrained in him. It’s what makes him, in my mind, so unique. He’s all about the right things.”
On one hand, the scrutiny is a testament to Beal’s development into an elite talent. In the past three years alone, the rumor mill has churned through LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Antetokounmpo and Harden as the central focus of paradigm-shifting trade and free agency possibilities. To be included in that group is somewhat of a badge of honor, and Beal has earned those same stripes.
He is scoring a career- and league-high 33.3 points per game on 47/34/89 shooting splits. Nobody is within three points of that average. Long established as one of the game’s most potent shooting threats, Beal has built himself into a finely tuned driving machine as well and continually improves as a playmaker each year.
On the other hand, the rest of this is largely beyond his control. Almost every major star but Beal has either changed teams or signed a long-term contract extension in the past two seasons. He has one more year left on his deal after this season, and that leaves him in the sweet spot for NBA rumormongering, like it or not.
Unlike Davis, Leonard and Harden, Beal has not fanned flames with a trade demand. There has not even been the same vague language that only welcomed speculation about James, Durant and Antetokounmpo.
“Brad’s never been someone to run from adversity,” Pure Sweat Basketball’s Drew Hanlen, Beal’s longtime trainer, told Yahoo Sports. “While a lot of other stars have chosen to blame others and run to another team where things are easier, Brad wants to stick things out and help turn the Wizards into a winning franchise.”
“It’s the team that drafted him, the team that’s invested in him, and he desperately wants to make them a championship contender,” Bartelstein, who has represented Beal since the 2012 draft, told Yahoo Sports. “He wants to make it happen. That’s the way he is. He’s not looking for the easy way out. He challenges himself. The evolution of his game speaks volumes about how committed he is and how hard he works.”
Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard have been able to avoid the trappings of trade speculation, in part because of similar public sentiments, but mostly because of team success. The formula that determines the next star to become available — some combination of contract and contention — does not compute.
But Washington’s struggles have not helped calm the storm around Beal. They are 6-15, owners of the NBA’s third-worst record, albeit still far from out of the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. No roster was hit harder by COVID-19. Russell Westbrook and Davis Bertans have not performed to past standards. Thomas Bryant, the team’s starting center, tore his ACL 10 games into the season. Nothing has come easy.
It is not unlike the past two years, when John Wall’s Achilles injury cost the Wizards a shot at a playoff spot. Washington is four years removed from narrowly missing the conference finals with a veteran-laced team that since been torn asunder. Where some might see a star being squandered, Beal envisions an opportunity.
“Of course, Brad wants to win and doesn’t want his prime to be wasted on a losing team,” Hanlen told Yahoo Sports in a text message, “but [second-year Wizards general manager] Tommy [Sheppard] has always been good to Brad, and he wants to give him a chance to build a winning team around him in D.C.”
So, when Beal dropped 60 points in a five-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this season, his initial thought was not to walk into Sheppard’s office in search of a trade. Instead, his first text to Hanlen after the game read, “Damn, I gotta be better down the stretch and close that game out.” It is a reflection of not just his will to win, but his desire to improve, Hanlen said, lauding Beal’s loyalty to “a small circle around him.”
The Wizards can count themselves in that circle. That has not stopped people from projecting a more dire version of Washington’s future onto Beal and drawing their own conclusions about why he should want a trade. It is through that lens that Beal’s visible frustration on the court and the bench is viewed. Only, this is not some veiled public plea for freedom from Washington. It stems from wanting to win with the Wizards.
As he told reporters after another recent loss, “I’m mad about losing. If I was sitting over there laughing and smiling, what is the media gonna say then? ‘Oh, he doesn’t take it serious.’ I just hate losing. I hate losing.”
None of this may deter further speculation about his availability. Beal is not just next in the line of difference makers who fit the player movement era’s profile for who might want out. He might be the only one who does for some time. Less appealing names like Zach LaVine and Victor Oladipo will be bandied about in the coming months, but most superstars are consolidated on contenders. Even Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Devin Booker — recent subjects of trade speculation — have seen their situations improve considerably.
Beal wants to see the same turnaround come his way in Washington. So, barring a shift in direction for the Wizards, who are said to have “zero” to “no interest” in dealing Beal, any speculation is more time wasted.
“Nothing is absolute. Things change all the time,” Bartelstein told Yahoo Sports, “but when he’s in, he’s all in. That’s where his focus is. He’s focused on raising their level and getting to that point. A lot of what is going on in the media right now is unfair. Every facial expression, every movement, every time his eyes are looking somewhere, people are reading so much into every little thing. There’s nothing there to read into.
“He’s someone who cares tremendously about winning and wants to experience success for him and his teammates. When that’s not happening, he’s frustrated, and to not express that would almost be inhuman.”
Yup, Bradley Beal knew this was coming. That does not mean he has to like it.
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