CHICAGO -- Expectations in the NBA draft can be a double-edged sword.
Florida guard Bradley Beal knows all about them.
Ranked as the fifth-best prospect in the high school class of 2011 by ESPN.com, Beal came to Florida with the rep as the best perimeter scorer in his class. He also came with a comp that would be difficult for anyone to live up -- Boston Celtics sharp shooter Ray Allen.
As a freshman at Florida, forced to play off the ball thanks to an entrenched veteran backcourt of Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, Beal struggled to live up to the hype.
He rebounded like a demon and played terrific defense. But that's who Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was supposed to be. Not Beal.
Beal often appeared to be thinking too much and would easily fall out of rhythm. His body language sagged. His graceful jumper felt rushed and failed to find the bottom of the net. By February his 3-point percentage was hovering at 30 percent.
"This is the next Ray Allen?" a number of NBA GMs asked me at the time.
Beal had his own doubts.
"I don't know what happened," Beal told me after a private workout in Chicago on Tuesday. "I think I was just second-guessing myself. My whole life, I just went out and played aggressive basketball. I was thinking about everything. I was trying to fit in and defer to players who had been there longer. Coach [Billy] Donovan and I had a lot of long talks. He told me I had to be aggressive and to play my game. Finally, everything just started to click."
Donovan didn't have the same doubts. He told ESPN.com in January that Beal was the most mature player he's coached in his career. He praised his basketball IQ and his humility. He knew Beal was putting team dynamics ahead of individual stats. Beal said Donovan pushed him to just play his game -- to quit thinking and let his natural talents take over.
By March, Beal began looking the part of the next Ray Allen. In his last five games, during the SEC and NCAA tournaments, Beal averaged 16.6 ppg, shot 58 percent from the field, 46 percent from 3, averaged just two turnovers a game and led his team to the Elite Eight.
His two biggest games of the year came during that stretch -- a 20-point, 8-rebound, 5-assist performance against Kentucky in the SEC tournament and a 21-point, 6-rebound, 4-assist game where he shot 80 percent from the field against Marquette.
Suddenly Beal's naysayers started to get back on the bandwagon in a big way.
The expectations game was now cutting the other way.
Very few prospects can struggle the way Beal did during much of his freshman season and, with a handful of great games, bounce right back to where he initially was projected to be. When people expect you to be great, they'll also look for any signs that point in that direction.
While Beal has never slipped below No. 5 on our Big Board, suddenly he was in everyone's top five.
Are the expectations getting out of control again? I doubt it after watching Beal in a workout in Chicago on Tuesday.
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