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Stephen’s Study: Assessing the return of Bradley Beal

The return of Bradley Beal has displayed plenty of fun entities to track, lets dive into the film on how he can impact things, as well as how he has shown to in his three-game return.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley Beal returned to the lineup for the Phoenix Suns last Friday and served as an “order restored” style of dynamic in many ways. Having now played in their last four games, Beal has played ten games this season, all in consecutive stints of three — with weeks separating.

His presence is important for reasons on the floor and intangibly. Additionally, the way his on-court presence uplifts and invigorates speaks to the magnitude of his role with this team.

It’s been hard to glean *too* much at the surface level given he’s only been available in 27% of their 33 games played this season. What has been able to glean on that level is that, by my eye, this team has a different verve and swagger to them when he’s in the lineup.

His personality is engaging, his charisma is unique, and his leadership is desired in manners that align with his characteristics.

Speaking to his uniqueness, his style of play is a positive contrast to both Booker and Durant in dynamics and serves as the shot in the arm to the Suns offense.

Littered with top-end talents that any team would desire in their team’s context, there are still non-negotiables and needs that have to be checked off with regularity and in a flow for their pieces to fit together in one connected (and abundant) puzzle.

Beal in mind, the pieces in dynamic that he brings, of the highest value, are pace of play, movement, the threat of him shooting — in viability — and drives.

In many ways, in premium packaging, he’s the guard this team has been desiring across a few renditions now.

I think where can most effectively speak to the jolt he brings is looking at how the Dallas Mavericks elected to shrink the floor against the Suns on Christmas, a game in which Beal’s presence and dynamic were missed.

Booker early pull-up make for Suns, vs Mavericks help

A lot can be gleaned from this still frame.

The play seen in action here, notice how shrunken the floor likely feels on Booker, with all the help collapsing the paint around him — this felt eerily reminiscent of the series vs Denver as it’s his gaudy and gifted ability to score that trumps all, but process-wise there’s a need for a slight uptick.

Booker vs Mavericks help for Suns on Christmas

Now, under Jason Kidd, the Mavericks have customarily been a “blocks and elbows” team defensively, but notice how Hardaway Jr. is peeled way in as the lowman as Booker clears leverage with Eubanks.

Seeing the full play develop now, notice there’s no layered rotation, it’s just Hardaway Jr. in an isolated closeout.

Of course Booker has to make a better pass, but process-wise, the gambit of Dallas being fine with conceding space to collapse on Booker, even off Allen (who was at 45% from deep going into Christmas..) says a lot.

They know he’s not Okogie (no offense to Josh at all) but also would still rather gap off him to aid in pick-and-roll defense, than concede to Booker creating directly in primary action.

Teams will treat Beal differently from how they treat Allen or Gordon, from how they’ll treat Metu, or Okogie.

There are levels and each lends itself to the Suns with being more dictative with their spacing, and teams reacting to them, or teams being alright with the err on the side of caution that comes with Allen or Gordon, or generally conceding to, for Metu or Okogie.

Notice the difference here.

‘Wide action’ is heavily locked so Durant ultimately respaces, now with his man has his defensive role toggled to as the lowman.

Notice also how that then lends itself to Doncic peeling in as a sort of “high tag” defender, off Okogie, rather than a low tag as we saw in all reps prior.

That relation Durant has needs to be accompanied by a “plus-1” on the floor in stretches, and is where Beal’s presence can also dictate to a defense in making them not just internalize that there’s a shooter they’re guarding (ie Allen or Gordon) but that they need to be accounted for differently — a shift in process.

Notice on this one how it’s an empty Angle pick-and-roll, in the empty corner with Durant and Azubuike.

Customarily, Durant draws two to the ball, and notice how Metu is gapped off.

Durant vs Mavericks help, for Suns on Christmas

That’s a speed bump in the Suns process.

Viability within spacing, and what levels of respect defense have for certain players all combine for the shot quality generated, vs what’s desired.

The balance in spacing Beal provides in these contexts, aids what we saw from Durant earlier, but also would better insulate someone like Metu or Okogie offensively as the Suns get into their rotations, as well as making the likes of Allen and Gordon better — restoring order, as mentioned in the opening.

This is another case of the distinction between spacing, and shooting within spacing.

This is great spacing from the Suns, with Goodwin in the deep corner and Metu in the weakside slot — both stretching the x-out rotations to come as much as possible — but there’s no viability factor here when looking at the Mavericks defenders.

Both Exum and Hardaway Jr. close out short and with moderate to low urgency, keeping their shell intact.

Among a handful of other boxes, Beal checks off, spacing, shooting, and viability in it all — keeping defenders on high alert — providing elite value.

It is among a few reasons why I am so intrigued by their next match-up with Dallas, as it will be interesting to see how bold and brazen the Mavericks are with this help when Beal is on the floor — how things shift will be fun to track.

Pace of Play, Movement, and Drives

A play that comes to mind first in terms of looking at Bradley Beal’s dynamics being optimized, came in BOQ (beginning of quarter) set to open their game against Portland.

The traditional play off the elbow and spacing, to re-spacing, around it, and manipulation of space (with Booker a pass away and keeping Thybulle behind schedule in help) in their process is elite here.

Additionally, the pace of play from Beal here allows him to discard his initial match-up, then engage the big as he gets downhill, ultimately opening Nurkic for a look and free throws — tone set.

His style of play helps to better optimize Jusuf Nurkic in the context we’ve seen above in complementing and supplementing his handoff play, but also his pick-and-roll handling, as well as his elite ability as a cutter.

Speaking of pick-and-roll, tying in with his drives and abilities to play off them — his downhill prowess serves as a positive contrast to that which Booker and Durant impose upon a defense.

His threat downhill gets a different type of reaction from a defense.

The push on the break, it’s a bit of what Saben Lee brings as a contrast to the Suns rotation — taking advantage of the unset defense.

Notice his pacing in pick-and-roll, and how it’s different from Booker and Durant’s.

Operating in the same area of the floor as they like, but it feels different.

This plays circled Sund Twitter quite a bit, but I want to highlight the Suns adding another player — in Beal — who can not just play off advantages created by others, but be the fire starter himself.

His initial drive and paint touch in pick-and-roll initiates all that comes, which is a drive and paint touch from three of their top talents, completely flattening out the defense & ultimately enabling Allen to play in his optimized role — off a closing defense with the defense unbalanced.

Notice again, here, his pace of play and patience in pick-and-roll. Then, his ability to bend on his drive, and finish through the contest.

Getting to these contexts in scoring is ultra-invaluable to this team.

This is aided obviously and also by him driving the two-side in pick-and-roll, towards both Durant and Booker though, so the defense doesn’t even react.

This dynamic is one I continue to harp on, as, because it’s him who’s screening, a switch is netted and Durant’s present with an advantage to him, rather than having to work to get that — with the shot clock still very much in his favor even more.

These pistol screens as well as Beal enabled as a screener off-ball and ghosting actions, is where I feel this team will be optimized as they diversify their attack.

Particularly with him, these feel to be used more. They help to bridge the gap between the Suns having transition play defended, and a traditional half-court set — enabling them secondary break actions like this, quick handoffs, etc.

Here is a prime example of the activity as a rotation defender, and especially as the lowman, that the Suns have lacked (which I zoomed in on earlier this week).

Notice he’s on alert and into his rotation with a sharp timing to flatten out the roll, then his rotation is quicker than the ball movement stemming from the roller.

Not just the closeout though, as that’s only half of the battle. It’s also the recovery, then remaining in help responsibly to then provide rim protection.

Those multiple efforts on display are a bit of what’s been lacking in a sustained manner, and a way he can help be a plus for this team. He has the prerequisites in athleticism to do so.

Here, after a timeout, the Suns flow into a new setup before an empty corner pick-and-roll between Beal and Durant with Booker a pass away.

That nets a switch, and look at how well Beal is able to steal pace with the hesitation, then bend the angle on his drive to eliminate the contest angle for Banchero.

In this window since returning, he’s at 78.6% inside 10 feet of the rim on 4.7 attempts — speaking to his prolific downhill mindset and abilities to finish with an array of soft touch and dexterity in traffic.

The drives from him generally, but abilities to attack closeouts, beat switches, and puncture a defense without the need for a screen always, provide abundance.

Here, in a small ball unit, they go ‘Horns Out’ through their traditional Elbow set, then play the high splits and flow into “Chicago” with a screen for Beal to then receive the handoff.

Take note of the point of the screen, and the drastic cascading angles for Beal en route to the ball. That plus his pace in movement (!) all enable him, guess what? Another switch.

As they respace and he resets, notice how he’s able to get skinny and squeeze through the nail help — this is an elite drive, then the craft to switch to the inside angle on the layup, eliminating a rear contest from Carter Jr.

His drives take this offense to a unique realm, especially when blended well into their process.

Look at the side-to-side movement here from the sideline out of bounds. Booker’s in screen the screener action, weakside, and immediately goes into Angle pick-and-roll in the empty corner — which nets him two to the ball.

He’s able to get off it quickly to Beal, now on the fourth side of this possession, and look at his movement patterns to attack the closeout and leave Wagner a step behind.

The drives, pace, and tempo (!) of play, viability in both spacing and shooting, all give the Suns a piece that defenses have to be even more in account for, helping to both add another piece as such, but also bridge the gap between the top tier pieces and the pieces in alignment from there.

After his second game back, a win over the Orlando Magic, coach Frank Vogel had glowing things to say about Beal:

“It’s part of what we are really excited about, what Bradley Beal is going to look like in a Suns uniform with this group that we have.” Said coach Frank Vogek following Beal’s showing against Orlando.

“Only his second game back, doesn’t really have his legs under him fully, but he goes 10-13, 25 points… he’s a dynamic player on both sides of the ball and he was terrific tonight.”

He’s starting to get comfortable, and that’s certainly playing into his feel on the floor.

“I am starting to feel more at home more and more as I am here. Starting to get used to everything, starting to get used to my daily routines… as far as on the court, it’s hard, but it’s also easy,” mentioned Beal.

“We have such good character guys, don’t have a lot of egos, we don’t have guys who think they are higher than the next man. It makes playing the game and adapting to each other very easy, and manageable… It’s good to be able to have a good feel, and general feel of how we play, how we are going to play, and guys’ strengths and weaknesses too.”

As he garners that feel more, it’s safe to say the Suns will be in full control to remain in a position of dictating to opponents, with a threesome of top-end talents that pressure and compromise a defense in a litany of ways.


Film Session

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Bradley Beal has provided a true spark in returning, averaging 17.3 PPG on 63.3% from two (through three games). While his three-point feel hasn’t yet surfaced (just 28.6% on 2.3 attempts), his impact in offensive contexts he excels has been loud and effective in the process — restoring order in these efforts

Look for more of these unique dynamics to play out as he (re)integrates himself.

**Stats accurate entering play on 1.3.2024**

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