When Bradley Beal became the greatest 17-year-old basketball player in the world
(Originally published Feb. 11, 2019, on NBC Sports Washington)
The group of finicky American teenaged basketball players spent a month in Germany. Amid a scene of unfamiliarity, two staples emerged during the summer of 2010, one no nutritionist would approve.
“For breakfast, lunch, and dinner we ate spaghetti,” Bradley Beal said without a hint of culinary regret. “We were kids. We were real picky with food. We literally had spaghetti every day and loaded it up with sugar. Carbo-load!”
The other, far more palatable constant involved a different kind of devouring. Beal and his USA Basketball teammates chewed up the competition during each of their eight games in the inaugural 17-and-under FIBA World Championship.
On the gold-medal winning roster, 11 of the 12 players eventually reached the NBA. Six heard their name called in the first round of the NBA Draft, including Andre Drummond and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Three would win college basketball titles. One became a two-time NBA champion.
Amid this burgeoning talent, one standout emerged from the pack, the one who now leads the way for the Washington Wizards.
Already armed with his textbook jump shot and maturity far exceeding his 17 years on the planet, Beal finished second among all players in scoring and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“At that point, he was probably the best -year-old in the world,” said Golden State Warriors guard Quinn Cook, who played with Beal on that team.
Even at that moment, Beal’s performance was no one-off. This European excursion occurred one year after Beal and several of the same teammates won gold at the FIBA Americas U-16 Championship in Argentina.
“Brad was MVP of U16 and 17,” noted assistant coach Kevin Sutton, who now serves in that capacity for the University of Rhode Island men’s team. “So technically, for two years he was the best player in the world in that age group.”
Beal, a newly minted two-time NBA All-Star, proudly discusses his international hooping exploits.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” said Beal, whose late June birthday occurred a week before the 2010 tournament tipped. “We were there for a whole month. 17-year-olds in Germany that don’t speak German and don’t eat German food.”
And it wasn't exactly a five-star vacation.
“The hotel room we stayed in was super small,” said Chasson Randle, who reunited with Beal in Washington this season. “It was so hot. No AC in the hotel we stayed in. Had to open windows and bring fans in. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Randle, one of the Wizards’ reserve guards, backed up Beal’s cuisine account and added piles of French Fries to the adolescent menu.
“You don’t know to expand your palette. Your mind is not open to new things as much. You just go with what you know,” Randle said.
Outside of the steady stream of starchy foods, Beal believes dealing with the trip’s many unknowns helped accelerate his personal curiosity.
“We had to get out of our comfort zone and learn how to build. Guys weren't from the same city, so it was (about) getting acclimated,” said Beal, who remains close with Randle, Cook, Sutton and others from those Team USA squads.
Playing outside of his native St. Louis also upped the level of competition.
“I loved it. That was probably the first time I played against guys who were very talented. Even better than my AAU team,” Beal said. “It was the first time being in a situation where everybody had to sacrifice.”
For Randle and Kidd-Gilchrist, who won a national championship at Kentucky less than two years later and was the No. 2 overall selection in the 2012 Draft – Beal went third – sacrifice meant coming off the bench.
Admittedly, Beal’s offering catered to his strengths.
“It’s like the sacrifice for me was to shoot the ball,” Beal said through a chuckle that implied modesty yet with a piercing stare expressing conviction.
“Coaches wanted me to do it. Quinn wanted me to do it, the whole team,” he continued. “It’s crazy how it all happened.”
Beal delivered thanks to, as Sutton described, “that beautiful jump shot of his.” He led Team USA with 18.3 points per game, including 19 against Poland in the championship game that pitted two undefeated teams against one another.
“I think he only missed two shots the whole [championship] weekend,” Randle remembered.
Exaggerated tales feel accurate to those that witnessed Beal’s emergence into the best 16 and 17-year old basketball player in the world. Now a decade later, the spaghetti-eating teenager has turned into an NBA All-Star hungry for playoff notoriety with the Wizards, and does not shy away from the best of the best talk.
“I feel [the MVP awards] kind of mentally put me there,” Beal said. “After U-16/17 it just kind of took off.”
(Photo courtesy of USA Basketball)