The days of an NBA team dominating the entire league behind the effort of just one or two players have been replaced by fluid, dynamic offenses involving the bulk of the roster. But watching the Washington Wizards during the 2020-21 season required second-guessing reality and questioning whether you were somehow trapped in the past. The offense was often disassociated from the potential it had, to the point where it hurt the team’s development. And no player on the team suffered more from it than rookie Deni Avdija.
As of July 8, the Wizards are still in the process of finding a new coach. On July 5, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Dallas’ Jamahl Mosley, Milwaukee’s Darvin Ham and Charles Lee, and Denver’s Wes Unseld Jr. have all moved on to the next stage in the interview process. While fans and pundits continue to speculate which coach would fit the team’s personality and elevate its redundant “make the playoffs” goal, the team should keep Avdija at the forefront of the team’s conversations with prospective head coaches.
Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard, known for his fondness for international players, was ecstatic when Avidja, who was projected to end up in Chicago with the fifth overall pick in 2020, fell to No. 9. The Wizards needed to expedite the evolution of their offense, and to do that, they had to get more versatile, and add playmakers. Avdija, a 6-foot-9 forward, was compared to creative forwards like Hedo Türkoğlu and Gordon Hayward, capable of initiating offense against smaller defenders and adding a wrinkle to Washington’s offense that most teams are trying to match.
Of course, there were downsides to his game. There’s a reason why he fell to No. 9 and if you had to choose one reason, it would be his jump shot. An NBA.com scouting report claimed that “right now the jump shot is a bit of a concern,” citing his 29 percent three point shooting with Maccabi Tel Aviv the season before he made the jump to the NBA.
Common sense says that the more playmaking chances Avdija gets, the better he will be, and the more shots he takes closer to the basket, the more success he will have. Yet for some reason, Wizards coach Scott Brooks slotted Avdija as a spot-up shooter.
Fifty-four percent of Avdija’s shot attempts came from beyond the three point arc in his rookie season, and Brooks and the Wizards’ coaching staff appeared content with letting Avdija play off the ball, which exposed the biggest weakness in his game. That, though, was not because Brooks had some odd vendetta against the 20-year-old. Instead, Avdija’s struggles were merely a symptom of a broken offensive philosophy that plagued the Wizards all season long.
Fitting a ball-dominant, inefficient shooting point guard like Russell Westbrook into a cohesive offense is a difficult task, and it’s one Brooks never quite mastered in D.C. There was Westbrook and Bradley Beal, and the occasional appearance from Rui Hachimura, but that was mostly it. The Wizards were 27th in passes made per game, as the team relied heavily on the star guards to create opportunities virtually every time they went up the floor. Avdija—the kid sent from the future, known for his creative passing and impressive court-vision for a player his size—was forgotten.
Avdija’s “usage rate,” which was defined as the “estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor,” was at just 12.1 in his first season. That was lower than the Wizards’ seldom-used players Anthony Gill (14.2) and Cassius Winston (17.2), Jerome Robinson (16.7), and Jordan Bell (14.3). For comparison, Saddiq Bey, who the Detroit Pistons drafted 19th overall for, coincidentally, his outside shooting ability, had a usage rate of 18.7, which is closer to the average usage rate of 20.
The stats don’t say much that regular observers didn’t already see, especially those closely watching the team and Avdija’s progression. It makes the Wizards’ head coaching hire that much more important, given that the team is attempting to build its roster up through the draft. Avdija, a highly regarded prospect, fits into the team’s long-term plans, but as the Wizards have seen with other young players they drafted, plans can quickly change if a player does not improve within the expected timeline.
The new coach, whoever it ends up being, will likely “come from the modern mold,” Eran Soroka, an NBA analyst at Sport5 in Israel, tells City Paper via email. “They grew as part of the analytics era, they’re aware that the communication aspect is at least as important as the X and Os, they’re adaptable and not stuck in old conventions (which, by contrast, was a thing Scott Brooks didn’t excel at),” Soroka says.
As for the new coach’s plans for Avdija, Soroka believes unlocking his passing is the most important key to his involvement in the team’s offense.
“This kid had flashes of playmaking last year that left everybody thirsty for more,” Soroka says. “Defensively, seeing some of the lineups that were used in the playoffs, he really can have a case for being a switchy small-ball 5 on five-out lineups. He has a nose for rebounds and showed impressive box-out abilities even near dominant monsters like [Joel] Embiid.”
Of the possible head coaches named, Soroka had a particular interest in Unseld Jr., who helped develop Nikola Jokic into an MVP in Denver, noting that “a coach like Unseld Jr, combining a defensive orientation, developmental skills and empathy, can be good for Avdija.”
As the days pass and the Wizards remain one of only two teams without a head coach, Avdija, who’s on pace to recover from a hairline fracture to his leg and possibly participate in NBA Summer League, should pay particular attention to the team’s decision. It could alter the course of Avdija’s career in D.C.