Free Agent Scouting Report: Malik Beasley

He only got 14 games before the COVID-19 pandemic prematurely ended Minnesota’s 2019-20 season, but in that short time, Malik Beasley delivered on everything he was supposed to have been all these years riding the bench in Denver. For more than three years, Beasley was stuck behind Gary Harris, Will Barton, and others in the Nuggets’ system and was relegated to a bench role. When Denver came to him with a three-year, $30 million extension last summer, Beasley bet on himself, rejecting the guaranteed money in order to hit free agency in 2020.

Early in the season, that bet looked to be a bad one, with uneven play relegating Beasley to a DNP-CD on multiple occasions. When injuries hit the Nuggets, it wasn’t Beasley who was elevated to the starting lineup, but Torrey Craig. Beasley was an important part of Denver’s rotation during this time, but the prospect of having to pay him in restricted free agency certainly played into their decision to trade him to Minnesota in a four-team mega-deal, which was a part of the Timberwolves overhauling more than half their roster. Beasley got his chance to prove himself a starting-caliber shooting guard over the “second half” of the season with Minnesota, a chance that got cut short but still provided plenty of promise for the future.

Beasley’s numbers in 14 games for the Timberwolves pop off the page. 21 points per game on 52 percent from 2 and 43 percent from 3 certainly makes him look like a starting-caliber wing who could command north of $15 million per year this offseason and perhaps double up the $30 million in total guaranteed money the Nuggets were offering last offseason. That sort of efficiency wasn’t an anomaly for Beasley, either; he shot 56 percent from 2 and 40 percent from 3 in 81 games off the bench for Denver last year, albeit on lower per-possession volume. Given that offensive production often outstrips everything else when it comes to getting players paid, that $15 million annual figure may well be in Beasley’s future.

Minnesota being left out of the 22-team restart makes things harder for them in evaluating Beasley’s true talent and his place within their team going forward, but the same challenges are present for any team attempting to figure out whether Beasley’s run with the Wolves was real, fool’s gold, or something in between.

The place to start with Beasley is his outside shooting. Even in a “down” period during his 41 games with Denver this year, he shot 36 percent from deep on more than 10 threes per 100 possessions. His move to Minnesota brought with it a significant uptick in efficiency on even larger per-possession volume, even as he stepped into a starting role and presumably went up against better defensive personnel. 14 games in a Wolves uniform is not a sample on which anybody should draw conclusions about Beasley’s shooting, but with two nearly-full seasons of above average-to-elite shooting on high volume, I’m comfortable labeling him a near-elite shooter.

New Orleans is playing a zone in the above possession, with Brandon Ingram momentarily charged with tracking Beasley on the right wing. As Jordan McLaughlin sets up the pick-and-roll with James Johnson, Ingram turns his head to watch the ball and Beasley takes a step to his left, giving himself the only bit of space he needs to bury the jumper. He has a quick release on these catch-and-shoot jumpers and is by no means shy with his jumper, which lends him a ton of gravity to open the floor for the rest of his teammates.

Shots like this go a long way toward establishing Beasley as an elite shooter whom defenses have to respect at all times. Pascal Siakam is just one step away from Beasley, but it’s one step too many; Beasley has his hands up and is into his shooting motion before Siakam can really get a hand up.

Check out the Pelicans bench after he hits this shot – an assistant coach throws a piece of paper in disgust after his team lets Beasley loose for an easy triple. His reputation precedes him in these situations and while his numbers speak for themselves, the fact that defenses and opposing coaching staffs think of him as a high-level shooter is more important than his actual shooting percentages. With the sort of gravity that comes with his reputation, he affects every play for which he’s on the floor and creates space for his teammates without ever touching the ball.

His shooting prowess extends to his work in transition, where he’s consistently been an additive for his teams throughout his career. While his opponents scramble to match up, Beasley will find little spaces between defenders to open up his quick-release shot.

Beasley is a threat in transition regardless of whether he’s trailing the play or sprinting out ahead of the ball. He’s a good finisher and runs the floor hard, often beating his mark down the court for easy dunks and layups to go with his shooting threat in these situations. Transition can be an overlooked part of the game as compared to half-court offense, but Beasley’s a real positive when the Wolves get out and run, which compounds on the value D’Angelo Russell brings as a good passer in the open floor.

The next evolution for Beasley as a shooter is working on the move. He’s not particularly comfortable transferring from a full sprint into his shot, which limits his usefulness off screens. An elite shooter has these shots in his arsenal and it will be up to him to work on those shots over the next year or two in order to realize his full potential as a shooter.

However, simply being a shooter isn’t enough to earn Beasley a salary in the high teens, unless he makes a leap to where someone like Buddy Hield is, who hits 40 percent on nearly 15 attempts per 100 possessions and can hit shots off movement at an elite level. Shooting alone doesn’t push Beasley into that stratosphere as a no-doubt high-level starter; he’ll need to add variety to his offensive game to reach that level. He rarely worked with the ball in his hands in Denver, but Minnesota gave him more leeway to explore that part of his game, with some positive results.

To no surprise, he’s a lethal pull-up shooter when the defense gives him space:

As things stand, that’s just about where Beasley’s high-end skills end in pick-and-roll. He doesn’t have a good handle in traffic, possesses poor vision and passing ability, and generally doesn’t threaten the defense if they run him off the three-point line. There are some moments of positivity from him that indicate he might have a future as a secondary ball handler to add to his shooting prowess, but they’re too few and far between to be considered a consistent part of his game right now.

Developing in this area will give him a secondary aspect to his game in case the shot isn’t working, which can happen to shooters, particularly in the playoffs. While outside shooting wasn’t Beasley’s problem in the playoffs last year with Denver, his overall game struggled with the rise in competition the playoffs present, so raising his floor as an offensive player by adding some pick-and-roll ball handling to his game would give him another pillar come playoff time.

Pushing his offensive game forward is the best path for Beasley, who likely tops out as a mediocre defender at best. Standing 6’4 and weighing in under 200 pounds, he’s not big enough to be a stopper against bigger forwards, nor is he a factor rotating to protect the rim or help out on the defensive glass. He’s also not quick enough to consistently hang with lead guards in pick-and-roll, which makes him something of a difficult fit at the highest levels, where teams have multiple ball handlers in the backcourt.

Minnesota’s de facto defensive coordinator, David Vanterpool, is used to working with players like Beasley. During Vanterpool’s time in Portland, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both became useful defenders in the Trail Blazers’ deep drop scheme under his leadership. Both have a similar build and had a similarly poor defensive reputation early in their careers, and while neither has garnered or will garner All-Defensive team consideration at any point, they can both defend well at the point of attack in pick-and-roll. Only a few weeks passed before Minnesota’s season ended, so Vanterpool hasn’t had enough time to mold Beasley into that sort of defender, but he has his work cut out for him when the two are able to work together once again in a team setting.

As of now, Beasley is a poor point of attack defender for two key reasons: he’s not exceptionally quick laterally and doesn’t play with the requisite physicality. His lack of quickness leaves him susceptible to quick crossovers and jab steps when defending in isolation or in pick-and-roll, while the lack of physicality shows up before screens arrive and in the paths he takes to chase over screens.

The upside for Beasley is that he plays with effort and will fight his way back into the play, which is immensely important in Vanterpool’s scheme. With the big man dropping deep, the point of attack defender needs to pressure the ball handler from behind so he can’t just walk into free pull-up jumpers.

Beasley’s effort and plus-3 wingspan show up on plays like this. Even though Vincent Poirier hit him with a solid screen and he ended up multiple steps behind Jaylen Brown, Naz Reid did enough to push Brown away from the rim and Beasley was able to recover for a block from behind. Enough plays like this one and Beasley will start to develop a positive reputation as a point of attack defender and ball handlers will start looking over their shoulder for him as they turn the corner in pick-and-roll.

Perhaps a good indication of where Beasley is right now as a point of attack defender came later in the same game against the Celtics. Over multiple possessions to close the first half, Boston went after Beasley consistently, despite the fact that Russell was also on the floor for the Wolves. When a smart offense is intentionally going away from attacking Russell to pick on Beasley, you know they don’t exactly hold his defense in high regard.

Beasley’s an inattentive off-ball defender at times as well. He’s prone to ball-watching and getting caught out of his defensive stance if the ball unexpectedly swings to his man:

Far too often, Beasley will put his hands on his knees defensively and get caught out of position when the ball comes his way. As Jrue Holiday brings the ball up the floor, Beasley is bent over with his hands on his knees. Rather than enter the ball to Zion Williamson or run a pick-and-roll, Holiday sees Beasley out of position and quickly swings the ball to E’Twaun Moore. After a panicked closeout, Moore goes through Beasley all the way to the rim, shouldering him out of the way for an easy layup.

After a switch, Beasley is matched up against Marcus Smart and Russell is guarding Gordon Hayward. Once Hayward goes into his move against Russell, Beasley has to know that matchup is bad for his point guard and that Smart isn’t a good enough shooter to prevent him from digging in and trying to make Hayward give the ball up. Beasley instead offers no help and Hayward muscles through Russell for a short jumper.

There are positive indicators with his defense, particularly at the point of attack, but Beasley’s a clear negative at this point in his career. Perhaps the Wolves can bring something out of him that he wasn’t able to show in his short time with them before their season ended, but there is a lot of work to be done on his game on that end of the floor before he can be considered a positive contributor.

The nature of his play in Minnesota and this year’s free agent market combine to make Beasley one of the more interesting players looking for a new contract this offseason. The Wolves have been adamant that they want to bring back both Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, whom the team also acquired in the four-team trade in February, though they can’t publicly say that they’re going to match any offer for both players without being in violation of the CBA. A fair number for Beasley is likely north of the $10 million in annual money he was offered last year by the Nuggets, but he doesn’t deserve to get into true starter money, which usually starts in the $16-17 million range in the current cap environment. The pandemic’s financial fallout may change that on the market this summer, which will hurt Beasley’s earning potential on his next contract.

With more growth to his game, perhaps his third contract will net him starter money, but as things stand, the value isn’t there for him to get that sort of money. If Minnesota can’t come to an agreement with Beasley and agent Rich Paul, they can always go out on the market and try to find a deal, but that may prove somewhat difficult with Beasley’s particular skillset and position. There are only six teams projected to have cap space, a number that could dwindle to four if the pandemic significantly impacts the 2020-21 salary cap. Teams without room can always work a sign-and-trade for Beasley, but that brings with it Base Year Compensation issues since his previous salary was so low compared to what he’ll earn next year.

Should Minnesota bring Beasley back on a reasonable deal, his place in the guard hierarchy isn’t as set in stone as it seemed when he walked right into the starting lineup upon arriving in February. If the Wolves are serious about making a real run at the playoffs, which it certainly seems they are with the acquisition of Russell to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns, Beasley may ultimately be a sixth man. The backcourt combination of he and Russell may be untenable defensively, particularly with Towns not exactly being Rudy Gobert on the back line. Both guards have some potential to improve in a new scheme and consistent coaching in Minnesota, but they’re also both working from a very low starting level.

The other team-building decisions Gersson Rosas and the Wolves make will impact whether Beasley is their starting shooting guard or a super sub off the bench; his game might fit a contender better off the bench, but with Minnesota just trying to break into the playoff picture, it’s not an absolute necessity to bring in a defense-first guard to start ahead of Beasley. They’ll be just fine going all in on offense with Russell, Beasley, and Towns at their core – at the very least, they’ll be a ton of fun to watch and will draw fans to the arena, assuming fans are allowed in the arena at some point in the 2020-21 season.