Malik Beasley: King of Footwork and Balance

A month ago on the podcast, Mark, Nate, and I discussed the future for players who were having the best stretch of their career before the season stopped. In order to get more in depth than our five-minute discussion on each player would allow, I am writing a detailed breakdown of their stretch and if I think they can sustain this high level of play. I wrote about Christian Wood in case you missed it. Today, we will focus on Malik Beasley.

Malik Beasley became a fixture in the Nuggets’ rotation in the 2018-2019 season. He filled in for an injured Will Barton at the beginning of that year and started 18 games. The Nuggets went 12-6. Beasley’s star teammate Nikola Jokic was obviously the biggest reason for these wins, but the third-year wing looked destined to start somewhere, if not Denver. The Nuggets had just given contract extensions to Gary Harris and Barton. 

Beasley’s 2019 season was a master class in efficiency, averaging 122.3 points per 100 shot attempts, 94th percentile among wings that season per Cleaning The Glass. The driver of this value was his three-point stroke. He fired from deep early and often and drained 40% of his threes that year. This season in Denver was not as great for Beasley. The Nuggets played him five fewer minutes per game. Barton missed less time this season and played the best basketball of his career. Michael Porter Jr. earned some time at small forward after showcasing some ridiculous scoring potential. In January, Porter Jr. played 20 minutes a game and Beasley played 17.5 minutes per game. 

Porter eclipsing Beasley in minutes did not solely have to do with Porter’s potential. Porter has two years left on his rookie deal and Beasley’s contract expired this summer. Given their lack of power forward depth, it seems likely that Denver plans on extending at least one of Paul Millsap or Jerami Grant — maybe both. If so, paying Beasley would entrench them in luxury tax hell. They deemphasized Beasley in the rotation and traded him and fellow impending free agent Juancho Hernangomez to Minnesota.

Not only did his scoring efficiency remain intact in Minnesota with starter’s minutes, it improved. Beasley shot eight threes per game and made 42.6% as a Wolf. This hot shooting stretch all but wrote out his future eight-figure annual contract from Glen Taylor’s bank account, suggesting that Minnesota is keen to pair him with D’Angelo Russell. This backcourt gives some fans pause. Beasley has a career Defensive Box Plus Minus of -1 and is an inattentive help defender. D’Angelo is a worse defender. 

Beasley has certainly made a compelling case to start in the NBA, but is he the right starter for the Timberwolves? Shouldn’t you find better defenders to incubate D’Lo and Towns? Of the three, Beasley is the least prolific scorer, and thus ostensibly needs to defend to justify a starting spot. We could throw the “sixth-man” adage at him that is used for every scoring guard to signify their defense or passing is a lost cause, but the contract he is about to receive would be a steep price for a sixth man. 

Without improving his defense or passing, his case to be Minnesota’s shooting guard of the future rests heavily on his ability to be an exceptional scorer, which seems like a risky bet to make. What if the especially difficult shots stop dropping? Here’s the thing: The tough shots will likely keep falling. The player he was in 14 games for Minnesota is more or less who he is. 

He won’t shoot 42% for the rest of his career, but he is a career 38.8% shooter and shot 39.6% in his last two seasons. The shot is crisp. The release looks exactly the same every time. Even the swishes look exactly the same — they all seem to enter the net at precisely the same angle. The root of his prowess is much deeper than shooting accuracy, though. His scoring ability stems from a confluence of micro-skills that work together to make a unique player.

Footwork

One of the first things you’ll notice about Beasley is that he is very agile, even for NBA standards. His physical tools earned him the nickname “Mutant,” a name that even suggests he has superhuman regenerative powers, as noted by Mile High Sports’ T.J. McBride.

Simply calling Beasley agile does not quite do his movement ability justice. He slithers to spots with an effortless precision. The secret is in his footwork. Beasley takes long strides in the open court and operates in tight spaces with no wasted motion. In this drive his stride length and footspeed make it seem like he glides to the rim. It is very easy to miss what his feet are doing, so I slowed it down.

This dexterity allows him to quickly get in position to fire when shooting off movement. In the next play, James Johnson throws a lead pass and he effortlessly gets to the spot and squares up before he catches the ball. By doing his work early, he is immune to the Jrue Holiday closeout. 

Unlike the Nuggets, the Timberwolves made Beasley a focal point in the offense and ran plays to get him open. Here’s a split action into a dribble handoff in which he uses quick footwork to curl around Towns and fire from mid-range.

Beasley showcased his knack for getting to rim when given a bigger role. Per Cleaning the Glass, he averaged 3.2 shot attempts at the rim per 36 minutes in his final full season as a Nugget. In Minnesota, he shot 5.1 attempts per 36 inside and converted 65% of these looks. His excellent footwork off the catch lets him get downhill early, sometimes blowing by the defender. 

While his footwork explains how he gets to spots so reliably, it does not explain how he catches and fires with such quickness no matter the situation. This ability stems from his equally impressive balance.

Balance

The best play to highlight Beasley’s ridiculous balance is this drive against the Pelicans. 

While his outlier balance served him well at the rim here, he utilizes it most on shots behind the arc. Notice how quickly he stabilizes and fires up these three-point makes.

He is able to corral bad passes and immediately load into his shot base.

Beasley’s balance widens his avenues to getting his threes up, and he will historically make around 40% of them. He routinely cruised to an efficient 20 points with starter’s minutes.

How can he round out his game?

While Beasley might not need to improve as a defender or playmaker to warrant starting in Minnesota, it would surely help their playoff chances. Their path back to winning relies on internal development throughout the roster given a Beasley extension will put them close to or over the cap. Beasley may have some untapped potential as a point-of-attack defender. He mostly played the 3 in Denver and Gary Harris is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. Harris often got the difficult guard assignments. Beasley may be tasked with some of these point-of-attack challenges in Minnesota, allowing their best defender Josh Okogie to take on scoring wing assignments or create havoc off-ball.

Beasley’s athleticism suggests he has the ability to mirror primary creators’ movements. 

He does a pretty good job on Harden for the first 90% of this play. He then commits the cardinal sin of backing into Harden after the contest. Turning your back to James Harden on the contest is a basketball no-no up there with saving it under your own basket. I found this play to be a good microcosm of Beasley’s areas for improvement on ball. He sometimes omits granular details which mutes his sheer athleticism and good energy. If Beasley can shore up some of these gaffes and spend more time defending the point of attack, it will help push his overall impact closer to neutral considering he has been a non-factor off the ball.

Beasley will cement his status as an offensive stud if he begins to make plays for others. So far he has not displayed passing acumen beyond hitting the popping big when the opposing big drops or making the easy read off a closeout attack. His role was reduced to being a play finisher in Denver. He posted a 0.45 assist to usage ratio in his breakout year, 17th percentile among wings per Cleaning the Glass. This ratio stayed about the same in Minnesota. It’s possible that once he draws more doubles and gets more comfortable in his new role that we will see passing strides.

That being said, even if he does not improve his playmaking, simply being able to hit a popping Towns might be enough to keep Minnesota’s offensive gears turning. After popping and catching, Towns can fire the open three, attack the closeout, or swing the ball to an open shooter. Beasley and Towns played only two games together before KAT’s wrist fractured.

When discussing Beasley on the podcast, I had yet to extensively watch Beasley’s play in Minnesota and had not keyed into just how unique his game is. I claimed that I saw a Terrence Ross type trajectory for Beasley’s career, a bench scorer who comes in and fires threes for 25 minutes a game. Ross is excellent in this role for Orlando, but only fully realized this part of his game in his age-27 season. Beasley is 23 and already flashed prime-Terrence Ross shotmaking on the Wolves, if not more. To cap his ceiling at this seems overly pessimistic given Beasley’s special physical tools. His supposed “hot streak” in Minnesota could just be beginning.

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