Florida guard Brad Beal shoots during the team's Elite Eight game against Louisville on Saturday in Phoenix, Ariz. (Matt Stamey/Staff photographer)

Bradley Beal will turn 19 years old on the day of the NBA Draft. Whether he decides to give himself a seven-figure gift on that day is still to be decided.

One thing is for sure. Beal matured way above his years this past season at Florida.

His shortcomings at the end of the Elite Eight loss against Louisville undermine the fact that when Florida couldn’t pray for a pulse offensively, UF looked to its budding freshman to provide a sign of life. After all, Beal had not only taken over offensively but defensively as well in the previous game. In the Sweet 16 win over Marquette, Beal exploded for 21 points and beyond that, it wasn’t clear if the sure-fire lottery pick was selecting his “Play 4” numbers with the rest of the stat sheet or if he was trying to guess what spot he’d be chosen in the draft after going for 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks.

And Beal had been giving the Gators more and more reason to believe he could put the team on his shoulders with his late-season efforts. He led the team in scoring with an average of 18 points in Florida’s two SEC Tournament games and with an average of 15.8 a game over four games in the NCAA Tournament.

“He doesn’t want to step on toes. He’s very aware of his place on the team,” coach Billy Donovan said after Beal’s performance against Marquette. “You can’t do anything but love him because of the way he handles himself.”

At the season-long urging of Donovan, Beal finally succumbed to his coach’s wishes and discovered his assertiveness towards the end of the year. Not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Donovan awarded him the most minutes during the tourney with 33 a game. Moreover, the Gators had lost four of five heading into the NCAA Tournament, so who knows how long Florida may have lasted in the Big Dance if Beal didn’t take center stage? Yet, he dazzled defenders off the dribble to get to the rim. He gained separation and found open spots to shoot his mid-range jumper. He played the passing lanes. He even made his presence felt in the paint, pulling down a team-best 8.3 rebounds a game.

So with the Cardinals’ game-ending 23-8 run materializing and the Gators’ second-straight Elite Eight collapse unfolding, it was understandable that upperclassman guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton mostly deferred to the freshman. But then came the blown layup with four and a half minutes left. The two drives to the basket denied by Gorgui Dieng. The traveling call after a key defensive stop. The open 3-pointer that fell short, and then another miss from deep off a second chance.

None of those failures has, or will, prevent more salivation from running down the chin of NBA scouts. As the draft approaches on June 28, Beal is considered the No. 3 prospect by ESPN.com, up from No. 6 at the start of the tournament. He’s ranked at No. 6 by NBA.com and is a top 10 pick in most everyone’s mock draft.

Maybe that’s because Beal, hardly a poor decision maker and a great anticipator, showed so much growth mentally for an 18-year-old. Or maybe that’s because Beal showed so much growth, well, physically as he went from being listed at 6-3 to 6-5 this past season. Either way, Beal proved himself to be a prototypical shooting guard who doesn’t mind passing the rock and executing a gameplan. What a luxury for today’s NBA coaches.

Nonetheless, Florida fans have a glimmer of hope as they await Beal’s decision to go pro or return for his sophomore year. If Beal does enter the draft, he would be the first one-and-done player at Florida since the NBA’s rule went into effect in 2005. He said he is comfortable whether he stays or leaves.

“Either way it goes, if I leave, I still played a great year of college,” Beal said before the NCAA Tournament. “I enjoyed it. If I stay, it’s only going to make me get better. Either way it goes, I’m gaining something positive out of it.”

Florida guards Brad Beal and Kenny Boynton say their loss in the Elite Eight won't impact their decisions to return to Florida or go pro. (Matt Stamey/Staff photographer)

Beal’s statement was easy to believe then, and he most likely feels the same way now when considering his two options. Beal can decide to play for NBA riches, at least $5,847,700 if he were the 10th pick, according to the 2012 NBA Rookie Wage scale. (That doesn’t include the team option for a fourth year). Or Beal can decide to improve some more under one of the best coaches in the nation.

One thing is for sure. Beal wasn’t thinking about the NBA as he stared into space beside Kenny Boynton in the locker room following Saturday’s loss.

“I’m not really focusing on next year right now,” said the product of Chaminade, the same high school attended by Gator alum and NBA All Star David Lee. “I’m still just affected by this loss right now. I want to bond with the team. We had a tough loss.”

Although Beal says that loss won’t fuel his decision, it will fuel him. And it’ll stay with him until he chooses to return to the stage he was just on or the stage that awaits him on his birthday.

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