Bradley Beal
Bradley Beal photo courtesy NBA photos

Shooting Star Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards’ fourth-year shooting guard, leaned against the wall at the Verizon Center after an energetic mid-October practice and smiled like a man whose time has come – and for good reason.

The St. Louis native with the silky jump shot and soft-spoken demeanor is entering the final year of his contract feeling healthier than he has in several seasons, and Coach Randy Wittman is looking to him to help lead the team deep into the NBA playoffs. Beal said he is completely healthy after suffering debilitating wrist, leg and toe injuries last season.

“I feel really good,” the six-foot-three-inch guard told On Tap. “I can say that of all my years in the league, I feel the healthiest at this point in terms of my body, energy-wise and everything. I’m just trying to keep it that way.”

The emerging team leader, who helped guide the Wizards to a season opening win against the Orlando Magic, has another reason to smile: He’s no longer the youngest player on the squad. Wizards rookie guard/forward Kelly Oubre Jr. – only 19-years-old – now holds that distinction

“It’s pretty cool not to be the young guy on the team anymore,” said Beal, 23, with a grin. “And it’s also pretty cool to be able to accept a leadership role. I’m doing everything I can to try to lead this team.”

Of course, Beal won’t have to do that alone. His backcourt partner John Wall – the Wizards All-Star point guard – is also healthy and eager to help push the Wizards beyond their post-season sticking point, which for the last two seasons has been the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Washington posted a 46-36 record last season, accruing the franchise’s most victories since its 1978-79 campaign. The Wizards swept the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs last season only to be bounced by the Atlanta Hawks in six games in the semi-finals.

The team will miss future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce (now with the L.A. Clippers) at the small forward position, but third-year player Otto Porter – a Georgetown University alum and hometown favorite – has gained experience and savvy at that spot as his minutes have increased over the past two seasons. The off-season acquisition of Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson will also solidify Washington at the forward position, while the return of veteran big men Nene and Marcin Gortat give the team a strong, athletic inside game.

Despite the disappointing outcome against the Hawks in last season’s playoff loss, Beal offered a glimpse of what he’s capable of. He scored a playoff career-high 28 points with a sprained ankle during the first game of the series. Then, in Game 4, Beal scored 34 points – yet another playoff personal best. Everyone knows Beal can score; now he wants to prove himself on defense. And how is he preparing himself to do that?

“I’m just constantly working on guarding guys who are smaller and quicker than me,” Beal explained. “I’m guarding John (Wall) in practice, guarding guys who are really good who are going to push me to defend. Honestly, it’s a mental thing, you have to be able to want to play defense and want to get involved and defend somebody. As much as I can, that’s what I’m trying to do – trying to guard the best players on each team and trying to shut them down.”

Wall, who dazzled an exhibition crowd in the pre-season practice by swishing a half-court shot followed by a bank shot while seated on the bench, also seemed in high spirits after the Wizards practice. The sixth-year veteran said he’s optimistic about the team’s chances and he, too, is focused on defense.

“The offense is going to have ups and downs,” Wall told On Tap. “You’re gonna make shots, you’re gonna be playing well and move the ball, but when we’re not, then we have to keep our defense at a high intensity and a high level. Coaches want us to get back to giving the ball more pressure than we usually do and do a better job of getting deflections and causing turnovers.”

Wall also said the acquisition of skilled players helps give starters like himself and Beal a chance to recharge and avoid injury.

“Our bench is deeper now, so that helps us out a lot,” Wall added. “When those guys are playing well we can sit out and let them keep rolling.”

Wall wants to help Beal and other Wizards succeed so they, too, can earn the big bucks that will make them want to remain in Washington. Beal is in the final year of a contract that will pay him more than $4 million this season, and the Wizards are expected to sign him to a longer deal by next summer. But they have not offered him enough money to compel him to sign on the dotted line just yet. Wall said he wants to help his teammates all the way to the bank, and the way to do that is by winning games.

“I’m going to help them get paid like we did in the past,” said Wall, who signed a five-year $80 million deal in 2013. “They (Beal and others seeking more money) can look and see how we did it and they will be perfectly fine. Come in and play your role and take open shots and you can find yourself getting into the contract without worrying.”

Beal told On Tap he’s leaving the contract negotiations to his agent and Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunwald. But he made it clear he’d like to keep hanging his jersey in the nation’s capital.

“I love it here,” said Beal, who lives in the Maryland suburbs. “I never get bored here; there is always something to do. I’m kind of a low-key guy but whenever I can, I come to the city and hang out and walk down F Street or U Street and have some fun.”

The Wizards star also threw some love to the city’s fans.

“The fans are awesome,” Beal said. “They have gotten better each and every year and we constantly feed off their energy and support. I think we have some of the best fans in the world, and as long as they continue to support us we’re going to continue to be a good team.”

Catch the Wizards’ home  opener Saturday, Oct. 31 against the New York Knicks. Tipoff is 7 p.m.

Verizon Center: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202-628-3200; search Wizards