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The Miseducation of Michael Beasley

Two short years ago the Miami Heat was at a crossroads. After the disastrous 15 win season that saw the departure of everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to Pat Riley on the sidelines along with the dissolution of the remnants of the ’06 championship squad, the franchise and their fans were nonetheless optimistic about quickly becoming a playoff team again. With the best chances of landing the first overall pick in the upcoming draft, the Heat was ready to add a talented new young counterpart for a healthy Dwyane Wade to ensure that the Heat wouldn’t be a lottery team again for many years to come. As the New Jersey Nets now know, having the best odds to win the lottery didn’t necessarily mean you’d win it but nevertheless the Heat were still able to secure the second pick in the draft behind the Chicago Bulls. The fans went crazy at the American Airlines Arena during the lottery party when it was announced and a winking Dwyane Wade, who was in New York to represent the Heat, seemed content in getting quality help. Pat Riley? While happy to get the second pick he was already hinting to the media that he might look to shop around the pick. Not one to trust rookies much while coaching, Riley was determined to get his team back in contention and if it meant cashing in on the pick for a proven veteran or to trade down he might be convinced to pull the trigger. Although nothing ever became of this talk, it’s interesting to look back and realize that the value for that pick was at its highest ever at that moment. Fast forward to the present and now the Heat are denying that all the sacrifice, all the losing and all the time spent in developing their prized young player could have been thrown down the toilet for Keyon Dooling’s expired contract. How did it come to this? Did the Heat fail Michael Beasley or did he fail himself, his team and the city of Miami who embraced him as a key piece of the future? While losing out on Derrick Rose, the Heat nonetheless secured the rights to one of the most dominant NCAA players in the modern era in Michael Beasley. As a freshman during the 2007-08 season, Beasley was the third-leading scorer in the country with 26.2 ppg on 53.7% shooting (39.5% on 3-pointers) and led the nation with 12.4 rebounds. His total of 866 points were third and 408 rebounds were second among freshmen in NCAA history. His 28 double-double games were the most ever by a freshman and he collected numerous awards for his dominant season. All of that didn’t really matter once Beasley stepped on the NBA court. Suddenly, the media and the fans (maybe the Heat as well?) became fixated on perceived flaws in his game and not enough on what he did excel in: too small to be a power forward but not quick enough to be a small forward, late on defensive rotations, not athletic enough, bad attitude, slow to understand the Heat’s playbook, etc. Then the reports of his exploits at the rookie symposium with fellow rookies Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur came in along with the disclosure that he and Chalmers had been fined repeatedly by the team throughout their rookie season for various infractions. Through all of that his first season ended with the inclusion of Beasley on the NBA All-Rookie first team with season averages of 14 points and 5 rebounds in only 25 minutes primarily as a reserve. In this day and age of 24-hour sports news coverage, there seems to be no shortage of opinions about Beasley and his game. Unfortunately, most of it comes from people who don’t actually watch Heat games on anywhere near a consistent basis or use a five-game sample of the Boston Celtics series to quickly label him a bust. I guess averaging 15 points and 6 rebounds in 30 minutes as a 21 year old in an offense that’s almost exclusively designed to give Dwyane Wade the ball and score doesn’t cut it anymore for some people. Nor is it apparently good enough to be the second leading scorer for a playoff team twice in as many seasons only a couple of years out of high school. Worse still, the Heat’s young coach Erik Spoelstra still hasn’t figured out how to give the ball to Beasley in a position where he can do damage. And the Heat’s crop of point guards for the last two seasons that Beasley has been a part of has left a lot to be desired. Suffice to say that calling for Beasley to be isolated against his man 20 feet away out in the wing isn’t the most optimal way for him to score. Why Spoelstra continues to insist on having him primarily play out in the perimeter to receive the ball is also odd to say the least. Though he may not yet be a beast right by the basket at this point of his career, it would seem that either the coaching staff or the Heat’s point guards are to blame for not getting the ball to him 10-15 feet away from the basket - not Beasley. Even if he has improved his dribble drive penetration and doesn’t get his shots blocked as much as he did during his rookie season when he’s attacking the basket, this wasn’t his game in college by a long shot. And it would be a nice if he could get some easy baskets thanks to the defense being probed by his point guard. Do you really think a power forward like David West would have been an All-Star if it weren’t for Chris Paul? Thanks to CP3's creativity, West’s scoring average wouldn’t look nearly as impressive. Ah, but what about his attitude and off-court issues? His time in a rehab center last summer isn’t something to just casually dismiss but he kept his nose clean during his second season while his veteran teammates Carlos Arroyo and Dorell Wright had trouble with the law. While the media giggles at Ron Artest’s decidedly more bizarre behavior both on and off the court, the same attitude is not extended towards Beasley. I guess it’s ok as long as your team makes the Finals instead of being eliminated in the first round. While I can’t personally attest to how the organization views Beasley’s maturity issues, what I can tell you is that he was consistently the last to leave the court in every Heat practice I attended as he tirelessly took extra jumpers or going one-on-one with prospect Alade Aminu. What about his defense? Beasley has made great strides since leaving Kansas State, where defense was not exactly a focus in his development in practice or during games. While it may never be a focal part of his game, Beasley has progressed and isn’t the defensive liability most critics would have you believe despite having to learn NBA quality defense on the fly in Spoelstra’s (needlessly?) complicated defensive schemes. If his defense is such a major knock against Beasley, then why should Riley throw max money at Amar’e Stoudemire who hasn’t showed much interest in playing defense during his career in Phoenix and has an injury history to boot? For that matter, I don’t think it was Steve Nash’s defense that won him back-to-back MVP titles. Some NBA players just aren’t going to be as good on one side of the court as the other. Some are scorers and some are renowned for their defense while others can possibly be both. But for whatever reason it’s a really big deal that Beasley isn’t some sort of knockdown defender (although that wouldn’t have stopped any other general manager in the NBA to have drafted him second overall if they had had the same pick). Beasley is also consistently labeled as "inconsistent". What's inconsistent has been his role on this team whether it’s spending (or wasting) time during the last offseason trying him out as a small forward, hedging on whether he’s a starter or a reserve or if Spoelstra trusts him as someone who is in the court in the decisive moments of a game instead of Udonis Haslem. While his peers Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose have been cast as the go-to guys for their teams, Beasley remains almost an afterthought in Wade’s shadow. As if he was almost Ricky Davis-like in desperately trying to get his shots in while on the court. While having a teammate in Haslem may have been beneficial in practice, it’s difficult to not notice that having UD on the bench is a huge temptation for Spoelstra whenever Beasley makes a mistake or commits a foul. Instead of a coach like Alvin Gentry encouraging Goran Dragic to be more aggressive while assuring him he’ll get his minutes regardless, Spoelstra prefers to use negative reinforcement for Beasley while seemingly declining to do so to veterans like Haslem, Wade or Jermaine O’Neal when they "mess up". Spoelstra also doesn’t hesitate to take Beasley out if he gets in early foul trouble but the need for that is debatable if he’s just going to give Haslem heavy second half minutes anyway. Although the 4 shouldn’t be a position of concern for the Heat, there’s little doubt that there will be interest in the league’s power forward free agents next month that includes Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer. What that means for Beasley is only more questions and not enough answers. The same way its been for his whole NBA career.