Rich But Broke

Will John Wall and Bradley Beal ever get past the B.S. and save the Wizards?

By Ric Bucher

November 23, 2016

Bleacher Report

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At the moment, the discord between John Wall and Bradley Beal is not readily apparent. The trash-talking night owl (Wall) and the quiet churchgoer (Beal) stroll out of the showers and into the locker room chatting amiably. Wall might be swaddled in red towels while Beal has wrapped himself in blue ones, just as Wall might prefer wireless cans while Beal listens to his pregame playlist through earbuds, but right now those are the only visible points of contention.

Earlier this same evening, though, their disconnect permeated the air of the Verizon Center in a rare blowout win over the Boston Celtics, a game that neither Wall nor Beal finished for starkly different reasons. Reasons, perhaps, that are at the heart of why their alliance has not brought both them and the Wizards the success their talent should have produced by now.

Strictly looking at their positions, the basketball Gods could do worse than using Wall and Beal as the blueprint for a point guard-shooting guard combination. They are nearly identical in size (6'4" and 6'5") and have the speed, size and strength to be top-shelf two-way players. Both can move without the ball and are sure-handed with it. Both attack the rim and shoot from range.

There is also a healthy divergence in strengths. Beal is the team's best long-range shooter (though he is struggling this season) while Wall is first and foremost a playmaker, capable of getting all the points he needs—thanks to his whippet quickness—in transition alone.

"That's a nasty backcourt," says a rival Eastern Conference assistant coach. "I'm a big Beal fan and Wall has always caused us problems. They should be better than [Rajon] Rondo and [Dwyane] Wade when those two were in their prime. But they haven't lived up to expectations." 

Indeed, they haven't. After a coaching change and an offseason controversy inspired by Wall admitting he and Beal don't always get along on the court, the Wizards find themselves with four wins and at the wrong end of the Eastern Conference dog pile, looking up at less talent-laden teams such as the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets.

Beal and Wall are in their fifth season together, and while their potential once had them in the conversation with the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson or Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, their reality has left the Wizards trying to figure out if their $212 million tandem will ever fully mesh.


NBA history is littered with examples of talented combinations that never realized their potential, or, worse, had to be disbanded. For every Magic and Kareem or Michael and Scottie, there are a dozen Shaq and Pennys or KG and Starburys. Signs of discord, invariably denied or downplayed at the time, later prove to be the stench of an internal dumpster fire.

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Scott Brooks navigated the sometimes complicated relationship between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for seven years with the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the latest example of two seemingly compatible superstars who ultimately parted ways. They did so one season after Billy Donovan replaced Scott Brooks as head coach. How much Brooks' departure had to do with KD jumping ship can be debated, but he devoted a great deal of time to his stars' relationship, hammering them with three principles: a) respect each other, b) appreciate each other's talent and c) enjoy each other's success.

"It was a work in progress every year," Brooks says now. "There was more scrutiny there. There were more people who wanted [Durant and Westbrook] to be separated. I obviously had to say some things in coach talk to protect the situation, but it wasn't even close to what people were saying it was then. I did a great job of controlling the spirit of our team and it changed last year for whatever reason."

Durant and Westbrook, however, never made the admission, as Wall did, that he and Beal have a tendency to "dislike each other on the court."

Since Wall's comments aired in late August, both he and Beal have sat down multiple times with various outlets to insist their squabbles are the kind brothers, not jealous teammates, have. For Beal, who has four biological brothers, Wall most reminds him of the brother closest to him in age and temperament—his twin, Bryon:

"He doesn't care if he's wrong a million times, he's still right," Beal says. "He accepts his criticism, but he's strong in what he believes in. I'm the same way."

Wall, though, assuredly didn't grow up the way the Beal boys did. His father spent John's childhood locked up for armed robbery and a biological half-brother, John Carroll Wall Jr., has, according to an report, spent a good part of his life behind bars as well.

Whether it's the difference in their early life experiences or simply a difference in pain tolerance, team sources say a point of conflict is their respective approaches to playing hurt.

When Beal drove and fell in the third quarter of the win over the Celtics and pushed himself, still sitting, off the court, the collective thought bubble arising in the Verizon Center was familiar: "Not again." He stayed down for several minutes before walking to the locker room, done for the night with what was diagnosed as a strained hamstring.

Beal's early departure was nothing new. Over his first four seasons, he played in 247 out of a possible 328 regular-season games. His injuries have been equal parts lingering and odd, the most pervasive a resurfacing stress reaction in his right shin. But he's also missed time with a strained pelvis.

Bradley Beal missed three games after exiting the Wizards' win over Boston in early November with hamstring tightness. (Photo: AP)

The uniqueness of the injuries has resulted in questions, team sources say, about whether he could have toughed out a few more games. Or if he was afraid that not playing well could impact landing a maximum contract extension. That's an understandable concern, but it runs counter to what Wall did last season. Wall soldiered through 77 games despite knees that both required offseason surgery.

The perceived difference in grit is even reflected in their nicknames—Optimus Dime for Wall and Big Panda for Beal.

"I'm not mad. I can't control the CBA. All I'm saying is let him earn it. I didn't deserve it until I went out and made the All-Star Game. Let him earn it. I had to earn mine."

— John Wall on his expectations for Bradley Beal after he signed a $127 million contract over the summer

Wall didn't finish the game against the Celtics either. He was ejected in the fourth quarter after being called for a flagrant foul when he aggressively trapped Marcus Smart in the backcourt and knocked him down. Wall was still miffed that a foul had not been called minutes earlier as he tried to bring the ball up court and took his own revenge.

That need to respond to any slight is a weakness for Wall, evident in everything from clocking Smart on a random November night to commenting on Beal's five-year, $127 million extension signed last summer. Still stung that three years ago some critics suggested Wall was not worthy of his five-year, $85 million deal, Wall said Beal needed to prove he was worth it. That was interpreted—incorrectly Wall insists—as a sign of jealousy.

"People always assumed why we weren't connecting," Wall says now. "People asked, ‘Well, are you mad?' No, I'm not mad. I can't control the CBA. It's good timing for him. All I'm saying is let him earn it. I didn't deserve it until I went out and made the All-Star Game and then they said, 'All right, he earned it.' Let him earn it. I had to earn mine."

Big Panda agrees that he has to join Wall in testing his physical limits, and he addressed the issue prior to sitting out the Wizards' recent loss to the Cavaliers, the first of three games he missed with the strained hamstring.

"No matter how our bodies might feel, no matter what we did the night before, there are no nights off," Beal says. "We have to be ready to go each and every night, no matter who we're playing. We have to bring it out of ourselves."

While both Wall, 26, and Beal, 23, presumably have yet to enter their primes, the waning patience among Wizards' fans is palpable. Mike Wise, a former Washington Post columnist and D.C.-based columnist for ESPN's The Undefeated, tweeted out during an embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers: "Pitchforks are coming out for [GM] Ernie Grunfeld tonight like I haven't seen in a while…"

The problem facing Grunfeld and Brooks is that neither Wall nor Beal were fully healthy even before the Boston game. Last summer, Wall swung through Las Vegas to check in on the Wizards' summer league team and the weight gained during his convalescence from the surgeries prompted a few double takes. The hours that Wall spends in the gym are second to none, teammates say, and nearly all of the weight was shed by the start of the season, but he still isn't in peak condition. Wall did not play in the second game of the Wizards' first two back-to-back nights, both losses.

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Now in their 14th season under GM Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards have never won more than 46 games and have missed the playoffs in five of the previous seven years. (Photo: Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

"We haven't really had a period where I've seen how good can they be together," Brooks says. "I can count on maybe a total of 12 times where we had really good practices and I didn't have to worry about taking them out of a scrimmage."

Another point of contention is the matter of personal pride. Beal has chafed at how long it has taken to be accepted as Wall's equal. They've known each other since Wall, during his one season at Kentucky, caught one of Beal's AAU games with the St. Louis Eagles.

"It was a little bit of the big brother-little brother thing," Beal says. "He just took me up under. It was just a natural connection."

But after several years together as pros, Beal didn't want to look up anymore.

"Bradley just wanted some respect," says a team source. "As in, 'Hey, I'm good, too.'"

Markieff Morris, who joined the team midway through last season, had the impression before he arrived that Wall might be reluctant to give Beal that kind of respect.

"From the outside, it might've looked like John's way or no way," Morris says. "But now I'm in it, it's clear John wants Brad to step into that superstar role."

The leading scorer role as well.

"Brad is probably the best scorer on the team, so that's who we have to try to get going," Wall says. "My job is to be the second guy, average around 20 points and get my teammates involved. Lead us on defense. That's my role."

But Wall also wants Beal to pay it forward.

"He's been doing a better job of coming off pick-and-rolls and making passes to other guys," Wall says. "That's what is going to expand his game, because when you're getting 20 shots a game and getting five assists, then guys know they can't help and double Brad. I had to go through the same thing. Sometimes when you want to take the shot and be the hero, you have to make the extra pass instead."

Randy Wittman, Brooks' predecessor, led the team to consecutive second-round playoff appearances in 2014 and '15 with his trusted, standard three-out, two-in motion offense. But he switched last season to a more uptempo, perimeter-oriented approach (aka pace-and-space) and the team missed the playoffs.

With three-out, two-in being more reliant on a team's post players, the idea behind the change, presumably, was to tilt the offense more toward Wall and Beal. Team sources insist the coaching staff made the change of its own volition, not because of an attempt by management or owner Ted Leonsis—as a former Wizards player speculated—to fashion the same success from Wall and Beal that the Warriors have with Curry and Thompson.

Whatever inspired the switch, it didn't produce the desired result. Wittman, after 4 1/2 seasons, was let go. Enter Brooks, who believes the same formula that made Durant and Westbrook perennial All-Stars and resulted in four conference finals appearances and one trip to the Finals for the Thunder, can work in Washington.

An expert on dynamic duos, Brooks believes Wall and Beal could be one of the top three in the NBA. That's not partisanship palaver; opposing coaches and executives around the NBA agree. As do Wall and Beal.

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With Scott Brooks on the bench, John Wall is averaging a career-high 24.0 points per game while shooting at career-best marks from the floor and from behind the three-point arc. (Photo: Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

The first step is putting aside all the personal aspirations. That may be easier said than done. Wall still talks of proving wrong those who refuse to recognize him as a top-five point guard. Beal still talks of joining Wall on the Eastern Conference's All-Star team.

"If Kyrie Irving is going for 40 and John's having a bad shooting game, is he going to worry about the game or…? We'll see."

— Wizards coach Scott Brooks

"When you have two young players, you have to create a selfless attitude toward one another," Brooks says. "That's hard to do, because everybody is searching for a bigger piece of the pie. Talking to both of them, I think we can get there. John has the ability to impact the game without scoring, by just defending and passing."

Will he remain happy doing that?

"I can't answer that with 100 percent certainty," Brooks admits. "If Kyrie Irving is going for 40 and he's having a bad shooting game, is he going to worry about the game or…? We'll see. If you're going to be a leader, it's about doing the things to lead your team and moving on to the next game."

Wall's willingness to stake his value upon his defense already has been tested. In the team's first film session after its home-opening loss to the Raptors, Brooks pointed out several times where Wall either didn't sprint back on defense or failed to sit down in a defensive stance. He underscored it all by calling Wall the worst defender on the team "by far."

Wall's response?

"I'm like, ‘Damn, I do look like the worst defender. I can't say nothing back.' It's going to make me a better player and a better person."

The loopiest part about where the Wizards find themselves, searching for answers as to why their talented backcourt has yet to fully click, is that the two of them are taking extra measures to create better chemistry throughout the team. 

For the second summer in a row, they organized a voluntary three-day gathering of players and coaches in Los Angeles' Marina del Rey to play some ball at Loyola Marymount University and just hang out together. Wall's interview in which he made his comments about Beal, conducted back in July, was aired the last day of coaches and players lifting and stretching together, chilling by the pool and grabbing dinner at Hollywood's Katana, among other places.

"I thought I must be like Mr. Magoo here," Brooks recalls when asked his reaction to Wall's remarks. "I've been here three days and I didn't see any of this. We're having the time of our lives. But when you have two young players, they're not always going to see eye to eye. Any team that sees eye to eye all the time doesn't really care about winning games. Because how you get good is challenging each other. And your best players have to push each other. Otherwise it becomes your best two players and everybody else."

After Beal inked his new $127 million deal over the summer, Wall created some waves in the media when he said that his backcourt mate now has to go about earning that contract. (Photo: Ned Dishman/Getty Images)

Or, it becomes about somebody else. A rival Eastern Conference personnel scout wonders how much longer the Wizards can wait to find out if Wall and Beal are truly made for each other.

"If they're the building blocks, by now they should be turning the corner," says the scout. "You look at their team, they should be pretty good. I don't know that they blow it up, but you have to think about tinkering with it."

Wall sees the Wizards being pretty good, if not turning the corner, by the end of November. He won't promise issues with his backcourt mate are all in the past, just that they won't get in the way. Airing them, he believes, could actually save them from the fate of Westbrook and Durant.

"It doesn't matter what the outside says, because they don't know what we go through in the locker room, what our brotherhood is," Wall says. "You can't tell me every duo never bumped heads. You can bump heads and keep it going and play. If you get to the point where you're arguing all the time and you're not throwing the ball to each other because of this and that, then you have a serious problem. I think [Durant and Westbrook] played through it, but you could still kind of see what was going on. That's not us. We're fine."

There's only one problem with that: Fine may not be good enough when greatness is expected. The pitchforks are in hand and the end of November is not that far away.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.