Giant leap forward

Bradley Beal shows why jumping out is much more important than jumping up.

FYI friends: doing regular Tuesday live chats on the Locker Room app every Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET. We’ll post the audio on the Limited Upside podcast feed for those who missed it. Here’s the first one if you can handle the shaky audio. Sorry about that, we’ll do better next time. Feel free to submit questions in advance in the comments section here or by emailing me at mikeprada1 AT gmail DOT com.

Bradley Beal has been compared to Ray Allen so many times that it’s past the point of cliche. He was compared to Ray Allen in high school. He was compared to Ray Allen in college. He was compared to Ray Allen during the 2012 NBA Draft cycle. He was compared to Ray Allen during his initial rise as John Wall’s sidekick in the mid-2010s. (Do we say “mid-10s” or something else?). He was compared to Ray Allen before this season by someone who would know such things.

“I've always said that Bradley Beal in Washington was of my likeness,” Ray Allen said in September while on a podcast hosted by former Celtics teammate James Posey. “It's like he's been around so long, but he's still so young. I think he's only like 27 years old. He hasn't even reached his prime yet.”

These are flattering statements. Allen is a Hall of Famer who was a gifted, diverse, and explosive scorer in his prime. If he was just a great shooter, he wouldn’t have been a 10-time All-Star, two-time champion, and 24th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. 

But comparisons stick because they make instinctive sense, not because they hold up to detailed cross-examination. The reason Beal is so often mentioned with Allen is because both appear to be classic off guards with picturesque jump shots. You don’t get the nickname “Baby Ray” as a high-schooler because you’re also secretly a better slasher than most people realize.

It may surprise you to learn, then, that Bradley Beal’s four most recent seasons — the ones in which he progressed from John Wall’s Robin to the NBA’s leading scorer — happen to be his four worst three-point shooting seasons. Beal hit just under 38 percent of his threes in 2017-18, dropped to 35 percent in each of his next two years, and is down to 34 percent this season. Ray Allen, on the other hand, never made less than 36 percent of his threes during his illustrious career.

Three-point percentage is not a perfect proxy for long-range marksmanship. Beal’s threes are more difficult without a healthy Wall delivering him fistfuls of wide-open looks. The thought of Beal getting any semi-open shot at all from downtown still scares the bejesus (Shuttlesworth) out of opponents. Nobody would call Beal an average-at-best three-point shooter, even if his percentages over a multi-year sample point to him being an average-at-best three-point shooter. 

Still, one thing is clear: Beal is no longer showcasing the attribute that inspired that ubiquitous Ray Allen comparison. Maybe he never really did, but he certainly isn’t now. 

And yet, Bradley Beal’s stardom hasn’t dwindled at all. Instead, it’s never been brighter. He’s a deserving All-Star starter, the NBA’s leading scorer (did I mention that already?), and the one bright spot in a Wizards season that has vacillated between dismal and shaky. He is shooting a lot, but he’s still scoring efficiently despite absorbing tons of defensive attention and missing more threes. 

For years, we assumed Beal’s journey to stardom could only resemble Allen’s. That wet jumper would be the foundational skill from which the rest of his game flowed. Instead, Beal has emerged at the same time his supposed cornerstone skill is deteriorating. He’s indeed become a star, but he’s not following Allen’s path.

So if long-range shooting isn’t Beal’s best skill, what is? The answer is that he’s one of the league’s best leapers. That thing you do when you try to defy gravity for a split second before it crushes your dreams? Bradley Beal is better at defying it than almost anyone else in the sport. Cultivating that athletic skill has turned him into the player he is today.

Except, Beal isn’t one of the league’s best at jumping high in the air. He’s one of the league’s best at jumping far. Which, as it turns out, is way more important in an actual basketball game.

Look at the distance Beal covers on these leaps.

Close your eyes and you can envision Beal landing in sand like a long jumper. He’d do pretty damn well in that competition without needing to hold a ball and actually lay it softly off the glass.

Plus, these leaps would be longer if those pesky rim protectors weren’t in the way. They instead end up as collateral damage, staggering backward even when absorbing a glancing body blow.

Beal may not be able to dunk from the foul line like the three guys you’ll see in Sunday’s halftime dunk contest. (At least I’ve never seen him do it). He in fact only has 12 dunks this season, putting him in a tie for 104th among NBA players. They make up less than two percent of his shot attempts.

But he can glide nearly as far forward as those guys without requiring as much of a running start. It matters little if he’s running pick-and-roll, curling around an off-ball screen, or surging through a driving lane he created on his own. Once he decides his best move is to get all the way to the hoop, he doesn’t need much time to explode. It’s like he has infinite Mario Kart mushrooms on call whenever needed. 

I use the phrase “explode” deliberately. Typically, the league and its fans measure explosiveness by how high one jumps. The NBA’s annual pre-draft combine, for example, puts prospects through six different athletic exercises. Two of those measure jumping ability: the no-step vertical (how high you jump from a standstill position) and the maximum vertical (how high you jump after a running start). Though they appear similar, the former showcases one’s ability to leap off two feet, while the second is for one-foot launches. 

Yet they are alike in one critical way: the “vertical” part. They operate under a single assumption: functional basketball athleticism and jumping high are one and the same.

Except … they’re not, especially nowadays with spread floors and strict enforcement of freedom of movement rules. The point of the sport isn’t to dunk every time. It’s to use your body and feet to make it easier to deposit a ball into a spherical cylinder while eluding various obstacles in your path. The most explosive players don’t jump over defenders. They jump around, through, before, and after them at various take-off points, all while maintaining enough upper-body balance to shoot and score accurately.

Put another way, great basketball leapers are more like long jumpers than high jumpers. As long as you still get the same number of points for layups, floaters, mid-range jumpers, and the like as you do for dunks, does it really matter how high you can jump? Wouldn’t it be better for these athletic tests to measure your “horizontal” rather than your “vertical?” Why not at least test for both?

Bradley Beal is proof that we should if we want to better understand his scoring success. Not only does he have one hell of a “horizontal,” but he also possesses the upper-body strength and balance to finish through contact despite stretching his body out to the limit. It’s one thing to take off from just inside the free-throw line and get a layup. It’s another to do so and also twirl the ball in your arms in mid-air to elude defenders.

And it’s also another to maintain a soft enough touch to spin the ball properly off the glass as you begin to come down.

It takes strength to maintain that level of balance, and Beal is a strong-ass dude. His legs and quads are as thick as tree trunks now, a far cry from when he entered the league. Look at the amount of weight he’s lifting in these videos. (Shoutout Brendan Irvine-Broque for showing me that on Twitter). If Beal can push through that amount of resistance while angling his body at all those different angles, body contact from even the best rim protectors must feel like a pleasant breeze. 

Given his height and thick quads, it behooves Beal to hover near the ground when jumping rather than stretching his body to get higher. Jumping low and far provides two advantages for Beal. One is that he makes taller defenders appear smaller by burrowing underneath them and/or wedging his way through their waists from the side. What good is having a height advantage if you aren’t given any space to actually use it?

This explains why Beal is shooting better than 67 percent in the restricted area despite standing just 6’4 on a good day and rarely dunking. Jumping horizontally makes it harder for opponents to contest his layups, and it’s a lot easier to make layups when you don’t need to loft them over outstretched arms. 

Leaping out also enables Beal to create small openings for himself that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Defenders, whether on-ball or helping at the rim, succeed when they’re able to divert the offensive player’s driving angle. They do that in two stages: beating the offensive player to their launch point, then holding their position without bringing their arms down. If they do both, body contact is OK and may even be an offensive foul. If not, they surrender a drive and/or commit a foul themselves.

Beal’s “horizontal” jumping ability makes the former difficult and the latter nearly impossible. It’s hard to beat him to the spot when he’s able to leap 13 feet forward while squeezing through a tight window.

More to the point, he’s able to leap any distance between one inch and 13 feet with either foot in any direction – sometimes multiple directions! – while still sliding through the tightest of windows. (Maybe the better track-and-field comparison is the triple jump, not the long jump). There’s no getting back in front of him if he gets his shoulders by you.

Once that happens, Beal can create the sort of body contact that opens up even the strongest defenders’ hips.

Best-case scenario, they foul him, either by jutting their body unnaturally into his space or chopping down with their arms. Worst-case scenario, they open their stance so much that he burrows through them like an experienced New York City subway rider.

Worstest-case scenario, both of those things happen and you hear a loud AAAAAANNNNDDDDD-1 coming from the public-address announcer. Beal’s drawn 76 of those in the past season-and-a-half, fifth-most in the league behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and Montrezl Harrell. Not bad for the next Ray Allen.

These athletic skills are of course transferable to other areas of the court. Horizontal leaping requires balance, acceleration, deceleration, and varying launch points, all of which are necessary to shoot the ball well from the perimeter, step back to create space, or surge forward with lightning-quick first steps. Beal’s got all of that and more in his offensive bag.

But since it turns out finishing power is Beal’s signature skill, his game flows in the exact opposite way Allen’s did. Whereas Allen leveraged the threat of his jumper to make driving easier, Beal leverages the threat of his drive to open up his mid- and long-range game. He wants to get to the basket first and pull up second. Allen wanted to do the opposite.

Both approaches were and are effective for each specific player. Allen’s in the Hall of Fame, and Beal will be one of the best Bullets/Wizards players ever (if not the best). They’re just wildly different. 

So let’s do Bradley Beal a favor and come up with a new go-to player comparison for him. Preferably, someone who also had a sick “horizontal.”