Bradley Beal's learning curve continues
By basketball accounts, Bradley Beal is not scrawny. He's 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, leaner this season at Florida than in his high school career -- but in a more sculpted, less skinny way.
In the Beal's St. Louis home, Bradley is a pip-squeak. He is the basketball player sandwiched between two pairs of football players.
Sandwich being the operative word.
When older brother Bruce wanted to help Bradley get tougher, he'd tell him to score against the two immovable forces he'd set up.
Their names were Bryon and Byron, Bradley's younger twin brothers.
"Those are my linemen,'' mother Besta Beal said. "Bruce would tell Bradley to run into them and try to score. He'd just bounce off of them.''
Being the family pinball clearly has its benefits. Brad graduated Chaminade College Prep School as the Gatorade national player of the year, a scoring phenom who averaged 32.5 points per game.
Rated fifth by ESPNU's recruiting rankings, Beal now is earning hosannas from his college coach. Billy Donovan has said that Beal is the most mature player he's coached in his career, a guy with an off-the-charts basketball IQ and the proper deference toward team dynamics.
Perhaps that's because he comes from a rather impressive team himself. Brad is the third of five boys in a house where grocery bills unfurl longer than Santa's list and a gallon of milk has a less than 24-hour shelf life.
The NCAA says that less than 2 percent of all high school athletes earn a full or partial athletic scholarship.
The Beals are curve killers.
Brandon, a tight end, played football at Northern Illinois, graduating in 2009. Bruce, an offensive lineman, graduated from Alabama State last year. Brad is beginning his basketball career at Florida, and Bryon and Byron, the 320-pound babies, are high school sophomores already earning appreciative stares from college coaches.
"It's really amazing,'' Brad said. "My older brother, he set the tone for all of us. Not too many families are able to send one child to college. We're hoping to send five.''
And the runt just might be the best of all.
There are really just two choices if you're a Beal boy: You can be a football player like dad or a basketball player like mom.
Besta and Bobby Beal both forged their own athletic paths at Kentucky State and then followed their boys' roads through the athletic fields and gyms of St. Louis. Most weekdays they'd taxi the boys to and from practice, and on the weekends park themselves in one set of bleachers or another.
Brandon, the pleaser and eldest child, starred at both of his parents' sports. Good enough to score 1,000 points on the basketball court, he also caught a team-best 34 passes from his tight end position in high school.
Bruce, built for football, hunkered down on the line, where he was good enough to earn an invite to the HBCU Bowl all-star game a year ago.
And then along came Brad. A spitfire that no one could catch on the football field, he also followed Brandon to basketball practice. He'd sit in the back, the quietest of the Beal boys, and observe.
On game days, he'd park on the first row of bleachers, as close to the action as he could be, and occasionally surprise his parents, piping up with suggestions and insight as to how Brandon could improve.
I'm my own biggest critic, but now I try to go back to my room and contemplate my mistakes. I watch film and try to learn from them. I'm trying to understand I need to embrace the adversity.” -- Florida's Bradley Beal
"He pretty much played both until the ninth grade and then Kansas gave him that first look,'' Besta said. "I told him he needed to make a decision, which sport would be his. He didn't think it would matter, but I told him it did matter. Once we saw KU, I told him, 'That's it. That's your meal ticket.'''
Once he picked basketball, he poured himself into it. Blessed with his family's genetics, he also was imbued with their work ethic. Besta remembers on more than one occasion when she'd come home from work only to be nagged by her son to take her to the gym. She'd hold him off by asking for an hour's nap.
"And don't think he didn't wake me up,'' she said. "One hour later exactly.''
Bobby and Besta learned from their own mistakes with their older boys, wiser to the recruiting world by the time Brad came along. They shepherded him through the heady experience by keeping him humble, reminding him that being a good teammate was as important as being a good player.
And if their message didn't get through, they had reinforcements. Brandon, older by three years and Bruce by two, not only guided Brad in the gym with workouts during their own offseason, they filled his ear with the realities of college athletics.
"They explained about balancing schoolwork with playing a sport,'' Brad said. "And they also explained to me that once you get to college, you have to listen to your coach. You have to do what he says. In high school you can sort of listen when you want to. That doesn't work in college.''
In fact, Brad has learned lots of things that worked in high school don't fly in college.
By most anyone's standards, he's had a terrific freshman season, averaging 14.3 points and six rebounds per game.
But numbers are confusing when you're accustomed to averaging plus-30 in high school. Brad admits he's had his share of doubts this year, broadsided a bit by on-court adversity he'd never previously experienced. In two of the Gators' more disappointing losses, Brad struggled mightily. Against Rutgers, he hit just 1 of 6 from beyond the arc and coughed up seven turnovers. Against Tennessee, he had five turnovers and was 4-of-12 from the floor.
His mother was in the stands for the game in Knoxville, and afterward, the woman who spent more than her fair share of time playing H-O-R-S-E with her son offered him some unsolicited advice.
"His shot was off,'' she said. "I threatened him, told him I was coming to Florida and we were going to get some shots up, so I made it my business to get to Tennessee. I think he was rushing it, almost throwing it. I told him just because the game is faster, that doesn't mean your shot needs to be faster.''
It's the same sort of advice Donovan has been offering. He loves that Brad is a cerebral kid, blessed with a humility that sadly is rare among today's high-end, diva talent pool. Brad's goal upon arriving at Gainesville was not to shine, but to fit in.
But Brad also is like plenty of great players Donovan has coached, struggling to get through what often is their first run in with lousy games.
"Some guys have what I call surface confidence,'' Donovan said. "Everything is great when things are going well. Others have deep-rooted confidence. The really great ones are self-reflective. They understand that it's when things aren't going well they learn the most.''
Brad's self-doubt was evident in his body language. At Rutgers in late December, one mistake begat another and soon became almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, where a despondent Brad tried almost too hard to do things too well.
His mom's advice, as well as Donovan's, have helped, but Brad also knows that really it's up to him. He has to find that perfect middle ground of being self-reflective without beating himself up too much.
"It's hard because I can get down on myself,'' he said. "I'm my own biggest critic, but now I try to go back to my room and contemplate my mistakes. I watch film and try to learn from them. I'm trying to understand I need to embrace the adversity.''
It is not a comfortable journey, but Donovan has watched Brad take the critical, albeit tentative, first steps.
On a lonely Saturday afternoon, Jan. 7 to be exact, the coach learned everything he needed to know about his star freshman.
Hours earlier, Florida had lost to Tennessee, jetting back home after the 11 a.m. tip. That afternoon, Brad was in the gym.
Back when, Brad wasn't necessarily a fan of being the family battering ram. If Bryon and Byron weren't stopping him on the court, they'd double-team him in the house, plotting and planning ways to pancake their smaller brother from their bedrooms for fun.
"I mean, I was a punching bag a lot of the time,'' Brad said.
Well now he's ready to offer a thank you.
The SEC may not be the Big Ten, but it isn't entirely a finesse league, either. Not with guys like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeronne Maymon, Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie between a guy and the basket.
On the nights that Brad Beal finds himself in the forest of the paint, trying to shimmy and shake for a bucket or snag a rebound, he simply puts his head down.
There is big. That he knows.
Then there are the immovable forces he calls brothers.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.