IT ONLY LASTED 20 MINUTES, but Malik Beasley remembers the car ride in Paul Millsap’s sleek, pearly white Bentley complete with the customized candy red and jet black interior like it was yesterday.
Beasley was still in high school, climbing up the national recruiting rankings at St. Francis in Alpharetta, Georgia, when he scored a backstage pass to an Atlanta Hawks game courtesy of their star power forward. Beasley’s mother, Deena, knew Millsap’s brothers who were able to set the teenager up for the all access night, and afterward, Millsap taxied Beasley back to his home. The high-schooler got a chance to pepper the four-time All-Star with questions about what it takes to find success at basketball’s highest level, life in the NBA and what the heck an electrolyte was.
Once the 20 minutes were up, Beasley began charting his own path to the league.
“I’ll never forget that car ride,” Beasley told BSN Denver. “I was like ‘Damn! This is what an NBA car looks like? He had TV’s in the back of the seats and everything. I was like, ‘I gotta get to this league.’ He also had electrolytes from Whole Foods. I was like ‘Why do you have these? What do they do for you?’ I was young, and I didn’t know anything.”
The two stayed in touch over the years while Millsap went to four-straight All-Star games with the Hawks before signing with Denver as a free agent in 2017. Beasley spent one year at Florida State before the Nuggets selected him 19th overall in 2016. Now, the two sit just a couple of lockers apart from one another on the west wall of Denver’s plush locker room.
Under the watchful eye of Millsap, the sage of the second-youngest roster in the league, Beasley has gone from seldom-used garbage-time reserve to a relied-upon rotation player who’s enjoying a breakout season for the Western Conference-leading Nuggets.
“I’ve known Malik for a while,” Millsap said. “So to watch his growth, watch the work that he’s put in over the summertime to get better. To come in and accept his role and the challenge of just getting better every year. It’s showing right now.
“He had the skills and the talent. A lot of times it’s going to be, ‘Do these young guys have the mind and mentality to get better and withstand the season?’ He’s playing well. He’s accepted that, and he’s very comfortable right now.”
Beasley has cracked the Nuggets’ rotation and then some in his third professional season. He’s averaging 9.4 points per game thanks in a large part to the deadly aim he’s developed from three-point range. After converting on just 34 percent of his long-range attempts last season, Beasley is hovering around 40 percent from three on over four attempts per game.
The improved three-point stroke is a product of a detailed summer regimen, which Beasley put into action with trainer Marc Campbell towards the end of last season. Campbell, a three-year player at the University of North Carolina from 2007-10 who also played professionally overseas, began studying Beasley after the two joined forces by watching every shot he attempted during the 2017-18 season. Campbell immediately noticed a few troubling trends with Beasley’s form.
First off, Beasley jumped too far forward when he shot the ball. He also had a habit of turning his hips slightly to the left when rising up into his shooting motion. Those ticks led to some ugly misses and an all-around inconsistent shooting season.
So the two crafted an offseason schedule that had Beasley take around 20,000 shots, every one of which was tracked, recorded and analyzed. Beasley’s reps were separated into three categories of shots — catch and shoot, dribble handoff and isolation attempts, for when Beasley has a big switched out onto him. All three categories came with multiple levels of footwork too that came into play based on the type of action he was running and how his defender was playing him.
Like most player’s experience when undergoing a recalibration of their jump shot, there were both good and bad days. But Beasley stayed grounded and dedicated to his craft. Then, a breakthrough, or what Campbell likes to call a “matrix moment,” came in early August in the practice gym at Loyola Marymount University where Beasley played in one of his first pickup games of the summer, an open run that featured Taj Gibson, Corey Brewer, Soloman Hill, Tony Snell, Joakim Noah, Timofey Mozgov, Eric Moreland and other NBAers..
By the end of the week, Beasley had gone from playing a role like the one he did throughout much of his time in Denver — as a kick-out shooter and third or fourth option on offense — to the guy with ball in his hands, operating out of the pick-and-roll and as the focal point of his team’s attack.
“If you’re playing against high-quality players, it pays off in the end. It was a great summer for me,” Beasley said. “Just putting in all those reps against those guys, all of it just paid off. I’m glad I stuck with the program. It’s rewarding. Right now my shot just feels second nature. At first, it was awesome to see how good I was shooting the ball, but now I expect it to go in. And if I miss it I know why I missed it.”
Beasley had more of those matrix moments throughout the summer and into his third season in Denver, like when he hit the go-ahead three-pointer late in the fourth quarter of Denver’s 106-103 win in Toronto earlier this year. But none was more significant than the week he spent in L.A. It allowed him to enter the season with a renewed confidence and more importantly, a three-point stroke that’s kept him on the floor when Denver is both at full strength and banged up.
ALL OF BEASLEY’S SHOOTING NUMBERS are up from last year, including his conversion rate on catch-and-shoot threes, which he’s taken a lot of this year while spacing the floor for the likes of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Beasley is shooting 39.4 percent on shots of that variety, up from 34.2 percent last season.
“It’s maybe an oversimplification of things, but we always talk about the NBA being a make or miss league. As a shooting guard in the NBA you have to be able to make shots,” Michael Malone said. “And with the injuries we’ve had, he’s gotten minutes, he’s gotten quite a few looks, and right now he’s shooting the ball with great confidence.”
Those injuries allowed Beasley to log around 25 minutes per game in December. He’s averaging upwards of 28 minutes through five games in January. But it’s impossible not to imagine how his role will change once Gary Harris and Will Barton return to Denver’s rotation later this month. Beasley’s minutes could dip into the teens.
“I’ve thought about it,” Beasley said regarding what his playing time could look like once Denver gets back to full health. “But I realize if I think about things like that I don’t focus on myself. If I’m always thinking about the next guy, or say we have a game when everyone comes back and I go in the game and I’m hesitant because I don’t want to make a mistake and come out. I’ve just got to worry about myself and just play hard.
“It’s never good to have guys out, but that means there’s room for opportunity for other guys. This is my opportunity. Whether I play five minutes or 20 minutes, when everybody comes back, I’m just glad I got the opportunity to show what I can do.”
When that scenario does play out, it won’t be an easy decision for Malone to sit Beasley down. He’s emerged into a reliable two-way player and become a stout 1-on-1 defender. He earned his first start of the season this week in Miami, a homecoming of sorts for Beasley who played one year of college in The Sunshine State.
His teammates, including Juancho Hernangomez, who Denver also selected in the first round in 2016, are thrilled for his success. They know his breakout season is no accident.
“Malik is a great player,” Hernangomez said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s been through tough moments where he doesn’t play. He’s got great players in front of him like Gary Harris, but he’s learning from them. I think this year he’s stepped up. He’s working every single day on his shot.
“He had a tough summer, working so hard. I’m really happy for him. I think we are brothers because we came here same year, same draft. We had a lot of expectations put on us, but we keep going. I hope we’re going to be here together for a long time. We are building something really special.”
Shooting isn’t the only area where Beasley has improved in year three. He’s also beginning to unlock his playmaking ability. Beasley recorded the first two five-assist games of his career over the last two weeks.
“A lot of guys, you can tell their games are maturing. They’re improving. They’re no longer in there just to guard and make shots,” Malone said. “Malik has now added the ability to make plays off the bounce.”
Rival teams are taking notice of Beasley’s play and have inquired about his availability, league sources say. And can you blame them? At just 22, Beasley oozes potential. He’s shooting the ball with consistency this year and has shown flashes of what he can do with the ball in his hands. Defensively, Beasley’s athleticism and strength leads you to believe he can develop into a lockdown wing defender in due time. He can also jump out of the gym and possesses a complete NBA body, one that’s added a substantial amount of muscle over the last year. At least once per game, Beasley makes your jaw drop with a defensive play or slam dunk.
“This year I’ve been trying to dunk the ball more, just because that’s a different mentality,” Beasley said. “You get more foul calls that way and I realize that. You get to the line more. You put guys on more posters. Usually, it’s the center or the guy coming from the weakside”
Beasley says he’d take an invite to this year’s slam dunk contest but would rather enter next year’s competition. He wants to use the upcoming mid-February siesta to get some much-needed rest, ensure his body is right for the Nuggets’ regular-season stretch run and help Denver reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
That mindset is reflective on the walls of his locker at Pepsi Center, where two pictures have hung for the better part of two years. On the left is an 8 ½ x 11 photo of the Larry O’Brien trophy. On the right, a white sheet of paper inscribed with the word “playoffs” written in the familiar NBA script.
THE NUGGETS WILL EVENTUALLY have to make a decision on their 2016 first-round pick. Denver has bundles of long-term money committed to Jokic, Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton, and the Nuggets hold a team option on Millsap’s contract for next season. Beasley and Hernangomez are still under contract on their rookie deals through the end of the 2019-20 season, but Denver may have to deploy some Gabby Douglas-esque salary cap gymnastics to keep both of them in a Nuggets uniform beyond that.
Murray, who was in the same 2016 draft class as both Beasley and Hernangomez, hopes the three can finish what they started.
“He’s my boy,” Murray said. “Especially when he has a good start, I know he’s feeling good for the rest of the game. He gives these fans a boost, with his dunks, with his shooting and his on-ball defense and we’re going to continue to look for him on the court. He continues to step up in every opportunity.
“He’s consistent with the way he works and what he does. He’s always one to go to the limit. I’m there to help him out. We support each other. We’ve been through this journey for three years, and hopefully for longer.”
Off the court, he’s growing up too. Beasley’s spending more time these days reading books than scrolling through his Twitter timeline. Over the summer he read “The Alchemist” and “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” both of which were recommendations from Campbell. Last month, Beasley announced that he’s having a son, Makai, who is due in April. In a presentation to his teammates and coaches earlier this year on a topic of his choosing, something Malone stole from the Philadelphia 76ers over the summer and is having each one of his players do at some point this year, Beasley spoke about buying his mom a house and his dad a car when he first got to the league and how he’s learned to manage his money over the last couple of seasons.
“Like a rookie, I was just spending money,” Beasley said. “And I just learned on my own not to spend too much because you never know what could happen.”
IT’S NO LONGER A SURPRISE when Beasley’s threes find the bottom of the net, something that wasn’t the case throughout his first two seasons in a Nuggets uniform. The bad misses and errant long-range moon balls have largely been eradicated from his game. Beasley recently posted back-to-back 5-9 three-point shooting games, the second of which came earlier this month against the Knicks and resulted in him registering a career-high 23 points.
With Harris sidelined, he’s getting the chance to close games too, a sign of the player-coach trust that Beasley has developed with Malone. He started Denver’s last two games at shooting guard and was on the floor for all but 2 1/2 minutes of Tuesday’s fourth quarter in Miami where the Nuggets eeked out a 103-99 win.
Carving out a fourth-quarter role as of late means Beasley has helped contribute to Denver’s success in the clutch this season — when there are five minutes or less remaining in the game and the margin is within five points. Including the Nuggets’ narrow 113-112 road win over the Trail Blazers on Nov. 30, Denver is the best clutch team in the league, sporting an 11-2 record in clutch games over that span. Jokic (+46) and Murray (+46) lead the league in clutch plus-minus since Nov. 30. Beasley (+34) is fifth in the league in clutch plus-minus over that span.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Malone said. “The more minutes he’s out there and more importantly he’s closing games in big moments. That repetition, that experience, is only going to help him become a better player and give him that mental confidence.”
The Nuggets know what they’re getting from Beasley when he checks in, which is perhaps the best way to sum up the strides he’s made in year three. Denver is confident that if Beasley’s presented with an open look from beyond the arc there’s a high probability that he’ll convert. If he has an advantage matchup and a big switched out onto him, Beasley’s teammates feel confident enough in his decision-making ability to let him create on his own. If the Nuggets find themselves in a close game late in the fourth quarter, Malone doesn’t think twice about putting Beasley on one of the opponent’s better wing players, knowing that his rangy shooting guard can lock in on his defensive assignment when called upon.
When the Nuggets return to full health, Beasley’s minutes will drop, but he’s shown this season that he can contribute to a winning basketball team. More injuries will surface, and Beasley will undoubtedly be called upon for 30-plus minutes a night again. Denver can take some solace in the fact that Beasley’s shown this season what he can do if the Nuggets need him to play a significant role later this year.
Is Beasley’s long-term future in Denver? That’s a tough question to answer. Hernangomez is a more natural fit around Jokic in the Nuggets’ read-and-react offense, which plays to high-IQ wings who are quick decision makers and more natural ball movers than Beasley. If Denver had to make a choice between keeping either Beasley or Hernangomez for the next three or four seasons, it should choose the latter. But that doesn’t mean Beasley can’t fit with the Nuggets long-term. He’s just beginning to grow into his future player archetype, which reads as a 20-plus point per game scorer and above-average perimeter defender, two titles Hernangomez may never hold.
In Beasley, Denver drafted and developed yet another certified NBA rotation player, just as it did with Harris, Jokic, Murray, Hernangomez, Monte Morris, and even Jusuf Nurkic. Credit for Denver’s success in the draft not only goes to Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and general manager Arturas Karnisovas but also to Malone and his staff. Nuggets first-year assistant coach Charles Klask sits courtside with Beasley for a lengthy film session before every game.
You get the feeling he’s only scratching the surface of his lofty ceiling.
“The hard work was worth it,” Beasley said reflecting on his play this season. “I’ve shown that I can be a great player in this league. I knew that myself, but now I showed the world.”