Can Deni Avdija put it all together for the Wizards in Year 4?

In the immediate aftermath of Rui Hachimura’s departure from the Washington Wizards to the Los Angeles this past winter, Deni Avdija rattled off eight double-digit scoring games in nine appearances, including outbursts of 25 and 23 points. The former represents his career-high and the latter is the third-most points he’s ever scored.

After 2.5 seasons of inconsistency, it seemed as though Hachimura’s move westward might pave the way for Avdija to break out and establish himself in Washington. Instead, that nine-game stretch drifted to the background as a blip on the radar. During that period, in 29.8 minutes per night, he averaged 15.3 points (62.3 percent true shooting), 7.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.4 steals. Over the next and final 23 outings of the year, in 26.9 minutes per game, he averaged 9.0 points (51.2 percent true shooting), 6.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 0.8 steals.

Approaching his fourth season — his last before entering restricted free agency a summer from now (assuming no extension is reached before the year begins) — Avdija is still trying to discern his identity and leave his mark. As Washington finally pivots to a rebuild, having hit the eject button on their floundering ship of mediocrity, can the 22-year-old prove integral to a new era of Wizards basketball?

At this juncture, the primary selling point for Avdija is his point-of-attack defense and making the leap from very good to elite could help paper over some of his glaring offensive shortcomings. He capably handles a gamut of assignments, stays attached to prevent breakdowns and holds his own without help flocking his direction. While just one game, the defense he played against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on Nov. 16 was some of the best I saw anyone play on the All-NBA First Team guard last season. Gilgeous-Alexander dropped 42 points that night, but most of them occurred when targeting mismatches while Avdija was screened out of the action.

The traits fueling him that evening are the bedrock of his prowess: a 6’9 frame, range, discipline and strength. He stays down on most fakes, absorbs contact without allowing separation and can comfortably mirror changes of direction. So many wily, accomplished creators love hip and shoulder bumps to dislodge defenders for an ounce of room and Avdija usually refuses to grant that. It’s a huge boon and keeps him involved when the majority of wing stoppers might be neutralized.

Although almost every defender never believes they’ve committed a foul, Avdija’s apoplectic responses to whistles routinely seem justified. He gets hosed a ton for marginal contact, which inflates his foul rate (3.7 for his career per 36 minutes) and distorts his disciplined nature. But he is very, very good at the point-of-attack and excels thwarting dribble-drive desires. According to Sports Info Solutions, as the ball-handler defender, Avdija ranked in the 69th percentile in advantages prevented (3.6) per 100 possessions last year.

His screen navigation can be sticky, which is expected at 6’9. He’s susceptible to issues reacting to short-area bursts, another ramification of someone his size trying to hang on the perimeter so frequently. The disciplined ethos can bleed into a passive style that has him on his heels and failing to dictate the action, though I wonder if a kinder whistle might encourage more on-ball aggression and curtail these happenings.

Avdija’s off-ball positioning is fickle, but I’m intrigued by his potential roaming at the nail to reroute offensive intentions because he does seem well-suited in these spots. His lack of length (6’9 wingspan) and vertical pop hamstring his full-time viability as a secondary rim protector at the 4. However, he is adept executing helpside rotations around the hoop and has held opponents to 3.4 percent (2022-23), 5.8 percent (2021-22) and 6.0 percent (2020-21) below their average when he’s the primary defender on shots within 6 feet of the basket.

The defense is more than good enough to earn him big minutes and solidify his NBA future. Yet he’s substantially held back by his offense, particularly the scoring. Through three seasons, his career true shooting percentage is 53.1 (4.2 points below league average over that span) and he’s netted just 31 percent of his 659 triples. His 53.9 percent clip inside the arc is better, but stands just 1 percent higher than league average as well.

The root of his interior flaws stem from an unreliable intermediate game. Washington entrusts him to initiate some offense, but his creaky handle and porous midrange scoring quell his aptitude. He’s both unwilling to entertain many looks from there and unable to convert if he does, shooting 38.5 percent between 4 and 14 feet, and 35.4 percent between 14 feet and inside the three-point line for his career. He’s a one-level scorer who’s merely good, not great, at the rim (65.1 percent in his career), limited by his poor vertical explosion, length and flexibility. Maybe, the long ball comes around, but he’s never exhibited optimistic shooting indicators dating back to his pre-draft numbers.

The majority of his optimal half-court scoring flashes arrive on dives inside and punishing closeouts. He’s a shrewd cutter and recognizes how to slyly occupy vacant space that create lanes downhill off the catch, always readying himself before passes arrive. Playing alongside a floor-spacing, big man hub like Kristaps Porzingis opened up plenty of instances for him, with Porzingis’ shooting luring rim protectors out of the paint and the Latvian’s passing vision complementing him on numerous occasions.

It’s no coincidence that Avdija’s rim frequency ticked up to a career-high 41 percent last season, and I’m curious to see how he adapts with a rim runner like Daniel Gafford assuming most of the center minutes this year. I worry about his finishing volume and efficacy if tasked with navigating tighter quarters, given the aforementioned physical hurdles. Nonetheless, his off-ball movement and instincts are clear pluses that alleviate a smidge of his broad shooting concerns.

He’s not solely an individual scorer here either and exhibits value as a connective facilitator. Opponents routinely collapse when he ventures near or into the paint off the ball, where he succinctly and properly reacts to shifting defensive shells. There’s legitimate utility for Avdija here. He can function as the conduit between advantage creator and play-finisher.

Last season, Washington ranked 21st in transition rate (14.3 percent), which catered to the methodical tempos of Porzingis and Bradley Beal. Both of them are donning different colors now. Jordan Poole loves to play uptempo. Corey Kispert is a tremendous transition scorer. Kyle Kuzma is quite good, too. Gafford’s a springy end-to-end 5-man. Since his youth days, Avdija’s long been a sagacious open floor distributor. Playing much quicker next season could behoove him and other key members of the Wizards.

Yet Avdija’s transition preference has also long pointed toward and tried to mask his implicit half-court struggles. I understand the concept of him as a jumbo ancillary ball-handler who slashes and chisels his way to the cup, but his handle, lackluster explosiveness and jumper narrow the realities considerably.

Given those issues, regularly fashioning driving and finishing windows is arduous. He really needs the spot-up and/or midrange shooting to steady him. Without one or both, the passing impact is more niche than a possession-by-possession pillar, while his point-of-attack defense is something to accommodate rather than feature in lineups.

Still just 22 until January and likely equipped with the freedom a rebuild affords developing players, he may have the requisite playground to refine all this. But the Wizards are also rostering other young wings like Kispert, Johnny Davis and Bilal Coulibaly. There should be rope for Avdija, but it may not be all that long and forgiving. The time is now to actualize critical offensive strides.

This post was originally published on this site