Raptors must solve Bradley Beal problem to get past Wizards

by William Lou
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports / Action Images

John Wall is the best player on the Washington Wizards, but it's Bradley Beal who will give the Toronto Raptors the most problems.

Beal torched the Raptors for 28.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists to force a 2-2 season split with Toronto in Wall's absence. The first-time All-Star guard shot 50 percent from the field and posted a sizzling 61.1 true-shooting percentage. He's a master of feints on and off the ball, and is quick to capitalize on the narrowest of gaps to release his silky jumper.

Shutting down such a proven playoff performer will be a tall task, but Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is hardly starved for options. Most of the series will come down to which two Raptors - someone on the ball and a help defender at the rim - can reasonably keep Beal in check.

Who's on the ball?

The defender assigned to Beal will need to be disciplined and alert, as Washington has several options in their playbook to get Beal an open shot.

When Beal is off the ball, the ability to negotiate screens is an absolute must. Being late on a cut will be deadly, as Beal has made 43 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this season. Denying him these looks will be the Raptors' biggest challenge.

Beal is also a tricky cover on the ball. He's only a 30-percent pull-up shooter from deep this season, but he's lights-out from mid-range (45.2 percent) and can finish around the rim (68.2 percent within three feet). His man needs to chase over the screen to take away the wide-open three, then harry him down the lane and force a tough shot.

OG Anunoby

Casey will turn to Anunoby to begin the game but will have a quick hook on the promising rookie.

A quick film session on their four meetings will show Beal torched Anunoby, and the Wizards scored an additional 13 points per 100 possessions above their season average when Anunoby was the primary defender.

Anunoby has superior length and explosive athleticism in his favor, but Beal's quickness and experience wins out. Beal is adept at running his man through a maze of screens before popping free, an area in which Anunoby's size works against him, and Beal also changes direction quicker than Anunoby can.

(Anunoby is caught on the screen, giving Beal room to attack.)

More experience will lessen the gap, but Beal is a tough cover for anyone, let alone a rookie. Don't be surprised if Casey keeps Anunoby on the bench to close games, or even instigates a starting lineup change if things get really desperate.

Norman Powell

Powell won't feature much in the Raptors' general rotation, but he did a great job of hounding Beal this season and Casey could turn to him for more of the same playoff heroics that made him a fan favorite.

However, while Powell is a strong on-ball defender, he tends to space out while out of possession, and that's an absolute no-no against Beal. Losing him on a cut triggers help from his teammates, and that's exactly how Washington attacked Toronto when Powell was on the floor this season. Powell's questionable offensive decisions don't help, either.

That's why Powell will be a break-in-case-of-emergency option to smother Beal while he's hot. Unleashing the hyper-athletic wing for five minutes at a time to hound Beal gives Casey a safety blanket if Anunoby gets into trouble early in a game.

Fred VanVleet

Casey could also deploy VanVleet as a change-of-pace option. However, the trouble with VanVleet is he's small; so small that even the 6-foot-4 Beal could rise up and shoot over him without too much worry. This could be a problem especially on drives to the rim.

However, what he lacks in size VanVleet makes up in discipline and technique. He leverages his diminutive stature into an advantage by evading every screen, and hounds tenaciously, often picking up players going full-court. VanVleet also toes the line between being both physical and disciplined, and the results are borne out in the numbers.

Washington scored seven fewer points per 100 possessions with VanVleet as the primary defender on Beal this season. Expect VanVleet to draw the assignment when Casey needs to close out a tight game.

Who's helping?

Equally important in any coverage against Beal is the defender on the ball screen. Beal loves to work a two-man game with Marcin Gortat, hardly a surprise given the Polish pivot is a master of subtle shirt grabs and last-second hip checks to negotiate space for Beal.

The help defender needs to step up on the screen to be in position to challenge Beal's three, to allow the mid-range shot while still getting a hand up, and to shade his drive to the basket while also keeping tabs on Gortat's rolls to the rim. It's a difficult assignment requiring quickness and awareness.

Jonas Valanciunas

Casey will turn to Valanciunas early on, but much like with Anunoby, he will likely use a quick hook with his starting center.

Valanciunas is a huge asset on offense and on the defensive glass, but his foot speed and defensive positioning has always been somewhat suspect. Beal and Gortat have traditionally cooked the Baltic giant dating back to 2015, and Valanciunas will have to piece together all of his defensive improvements this season to win Casey's confidence.

(Valanciunas caught flat-footed as Beal gets an open three.)

The issue with Valanciunas is the positioning. He can't step out to the perimeter without risking a blow-by, but he's also not a particularly careful defender in space against a clever rim-runner like Gortat. Casey can live with Valanciunas giving up mid-range looks, but he will yank him if Beal starts canning wide-open threes or if Gortat is getting easy layups.

Serge Ibaka

Downsizing to Ibaka playing center hasn't been a common move for Casey, but it's one he should consider in this particular match-up.

Given proper rest, Ibaka is light on his feet and a veteran defender who understands how to position himself. He can step out to the perimeter and is a threat to chase down drives and block a shot if Beal chooses to attack the paint. Provided Ibaka isn't conceding lazy fouls, this would be Casey's best option.

(Ibaka steps up, which takes away the three and forces Beal to either find Gortat or drive against a shot-blocker.)

However, it's not exactly a slam dunk for the Raptors to downsize given their limited options at power forward alongside Ibaka. Pascal Siakam provides tremendous defensive coverage, but he's a 22-percent 3-point shooter everyone ignores. C.J. Miles is a much better shooter, but too weak to guard his own position, let alone a size up.

Jakob Poeltl

Poeltl offers most of the same advantages as Ibaka, as he's also a wicked smart big man with both the instinct and lightness to move his feet.

The issue is he's a poor free-throw shooter (career 57.6 percent) which might make it difficult to close games with him. The Raptors haven't encountered any scenarios in which Poeltl was intentionally fouled late in games, but that could be an option for Washington to exploit.

(Photos courtesy of NBA Leaguepass)