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Player evaluation: Malik Beasley: the Rorschach test

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Are the Nuggets developing him, or handcuffing him?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Beasley Player Evaluation

Overview

Malik Beasley has been a professional basketball player for two years, and yet remains as hard to assess as he was after a single truncated college season. In college, the issue was a stress reaction in his leg that required surgery. In the NBA it’s been an issue getting on the court for other reasons, and that’s made it hard to judge both his potential and his progress.

Will Barton suffered through a similar start to his career in Portland, playing behind Wes Matthews and then CJ McCollum while the Trail Blazers were also trying to break in another young guard in Damian Lillard, before finally getting his chance in Denver and taking full advantage. Can Beasley break out similarly once he gets his chance? Denver’s decision on re-signing Will Barton may depend on what they believe that answer to be for Beasley.

Key Stat: 583

That’s the number of minutes Beasley played this year, across 63 games. Malik went from being an all-world towel-waver last year to being a consistent garbage-minute player this year, but I’m not sure that’s a big step up. The Nuggets have to decide whether to bet on Beasley or move him sometime in the next 12 months, and they only have these 583 minutes and some practices to make that decision on.

Best moment - dunking

Malik Beasley may be Denver’s most athletic guard, even more so than Will Barton. Any time he had a chance for a fast break and dunk this year he showed that off, and this was one of my favorites.

Areas of strength

Athleticism. Malik can sprint out on a fast break with the best of them, has springs for legs, and good reach with quick hands as well. He doesn’t have Corey Brewer’s extreme length but otherwise he’s got that same sense of danger in the open court. Most NBA players are good athletes, but Beasley is a notch above in that sense. This should help him with everything from driving the lane to succeeding on the fast break to positional recovery on defense. It doesn’t, yet - but it should.

Good shooting stroke. His results (34.1% from three, 46.9% from 2, 66.7% from the stripe) were on so few shot attempts across so many games that it’s a poor idea to extrapolate simply from those. His form is textbook; he goes up straight on most of his attempts, sometimes even using those springs to jump backwards while remaining vertical. With more game-time, his finishing and his shot-making should both improve - and this is why he’s intriguing either for Denver or for another team that thinks he has a bunch of untapped potential.

Defensive instincts. As described in this article, Beasley got increased minutes this year in part because of his improved defense.

“I think I’m being solid, not just reaching,” Beasley said. “Last year I was horrible on the weak side. I felt like teams were stating to isolated me on the single-side tag. But now I’m good at that. Just knowing personnel and studying the game. I’ve been watching film way more this year, and I think that’s taken me to another level.”

His tag-and-recover was great, and he could play a little further into passing lanes because he trusted his recovery skills more. He’s still better at on-ball defense but his sphere of awareness is growing. The talents are there to be a plus defender with a good shooting stroke, which is what all teams are desperately looking for.

Areas to improve

Awareness. Sometimes it looks like the game has slowed down for Malik and he’s able to process what’s happening on the court and where he needs to be, and sometimes that just isn’t happening. Not having a true bench point guard didn’t help, and neither did the rotation shuffling Denver has endured since Malik joined the team. Despite that, Beasley needs to get better at being in the right place at the right time. He can manage the scramble, whether it’s hustling in transition or fighting over screens on defense. But he still gets caught ball-watching and not realizing what the third rotation responsibilities are. These are young-player problems.

Strength. Beasley came out of college a bit skinny and was unable to work out to put strength on for much of his rookie year as he finished recovering from the lower leg fractures that shortened his freshman season in college. Juancho Hernangomez had a similar strength issue coming over from Europe where their weight-training still doesn’t necessarily match up with the NBA, and Gary Harris bulked up in his offseasons as well to handle the rigors of the long year and of defending bigger shooting guards. Both of those guys got noticeably bigger. Beasley still looks a lot like his college version, though, and will need more strength to be able to hold up against a number of bigger guards and even small forwards he will face. He can’t make himself taller, but stronger is definitely possible.

Half-court offense. There’s very little that Beasley has been great at on offense so far. He’s average as a catch-and-shoot option, poor in transition somehow (despite his athletic advantages) and abominable at most everything else (isolation, pick-and-roll, handoffs, cuts, etc). Most of those things involve the flow of the game, and the game has flowed away from Beasley for most of his NBA career so far. His opportunities to be great at any of these things have been small, but you’d think small sample size would work in his favor at some point and it just hasn’t. If he’s standing still he’s all right - if he’s moving with a known goal the game is a bit fast for him. If he has to create at all it just hasn’t worked so far, which doesn’t bode well for him to be a viable replacement for Barton as a bench creator and slasher.

Expectations for next season

For me this is almost entirely dependent on what the Nuggets decide to do with Will Barton. If Barton leaves in free agency, there will be minutes available off the bench for a slasher/scorer type, and Beasley could get some of those. It should be enough to bump him over the 1000 minute mark and give Denver a really good idea of what they have in him heading into his final rookie-contract season. Remember, Barton himself was terrible in isolation, average in transition and worse as a spot-up shooter three years ago than Beasley is now. Growth can happen with playing time.

If Barton comes back, however, then there really aren’t many minutes available even if Barton winds up playing more at small forward. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris will chew up a lot of minutes together, and Denver still has a backup point guard need to fill - and that player may get more minutes in an emergency/injury situation than Beasley. A returning Barton would squeeze Beasley out of rotation minutes for the third straight year and would leave him as trade bait for a team looking to pull a Barton out of a hat, as Denver did a few years ago. Since I believe the odds are in favor of Barton returning to Denver, I also believe the odds are in favor of trading Beasley - but then the front office rarely works on my expected schedule.

When the Nuggets drafted him, Tim Connelly stated they would give Beasley a long time to grow into the player they believed he could be. That time has run out, and Beasley is now a Rorschach test, trying to extract meaning from some mostly-random input. He has enough gifts to project great things for him going forward, but his limited playing time and spot on the depth chart behind some very good players make it hard to tell whether the limitations on his NBA career to this point are of his own making.

Future rotation player or first-round draft bust: Beasley’s career thus far is a blank canvas for any projection. How he sees himself is a big part of how he moves forward, and Malik himself seemed to sense that his career could go either way around the mid-point of this season.

Some players are just happy to be in the NBA and enjoying that first contract. If Beasley wants that second contract and a real role going forward, this is an incredibly huge offseason for him. Here’s hoping he hangs out with Gary Harris and follows that path of self-improvement. It’s the path he needs for success.

Poll

What do you expect from Beasley next season?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    A breakout year with a real rotation role off the bench
    (147 votes)
  • 27%
    Spot minutes as a defensive guy and bench shooter, but not a true 9-man rotation slot
    (82 votes)
  • 6%
    Garbage minutes and random time due to injury, like this year
    (21 votes)
  • 17%
    For him to be traded to another team
    (52 votes)
302 votes total Vote Now