Heading into Wizards’ game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night, second-year forward Deni Avdija knew he would be relied on more than usual due to the absence of All-Star Bradley Beal. Avdija wanted to be as prepared as possible in his expanded role, and so before the game, he knocked on Wizards assistant coach Pat Delaney’s door to ask if he could watch extra film.
“You won’t understand the amount of film I’m watching, either before the game or at home or the day before,” Avdija told reporters after the Wizards beat the Pelicans, 105-100, after rallying from a 19-point deficit. “I’m always getting ready for the next opponent as much as I can, seeing the players I need to guard.”
Asked how many hours he watches film, Avdija laughed and replied, “more than I watch Netflix.”
The 20-year-old is familiar with the rigors of being a professional athlete; although he is starting his second NBA season, he has played professionally since he was 16. Playing high level basketball with Maccabi Tel Aviv, which competes in the Euro League, taught him how to prepare on a nightly basis. Avdija was a highly touted prospect heading into the 2020 NBA Draft, and the Monumental Basketball brass, holding the ninth pick that year, were ecstatic when he fell to them.
Before coming to the U.S., scouts viewed Avdija as a ball-dominant wing with playmaking ability on the offensive end. Most prognosticators did not predict the possibility of Avdija morphing into a “defensive stopper,” but through trial and error, Avdija has been able to carve a role in the Wizards’ rotation while earning the respect of his coaching staff and teammates.
“It’s validation for him and the work he puts in,” Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said after the Pelicans game. “He’s shown time and time again he’s a reliable on-ball defender.”
While Avdija’s 5.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game are not eye-popping, he can impact the outcome of games with his defense. Avdija leads the Wizards with an individual defensive rating of 93.6, good for sixth best in the league.
In the process of figuring out how to stay on the court, Avdija has stumbled into finding his specialty as an NBA player, which is on-ball defense. Avdija’s ability to use his 6-foot-9 frame and display discipline in moving his feet and contesting his opponent’s field goal attempts has contributed to the Wizards’ five-game winning streak.
The Wizards found themselves down big in the second half against New Orleans and Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram looked prepared to have his way against a lackadaisical Wizards defense in the first half. He easily scored on 5 for 10 shooting before intermission, and while he finished the game with 31 points, he only shot 9 for 23 for the game. Avdija was a big reason why the Wizards were able to slow Ingram down in the second half. Not only was Avdija able to contest Ingram’s jump shot, but he secured possessions for the Wizards as he also tallied 10 rebounds to go along with his 11 points, recording his first double-double of the season.
“It makes me feel like I get trusted,” Avdija said when asked what it’s like to get assigned to defend players like Ingram and Giannis Antetokounmpo. “And for a basketball player to get trusted, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
While much of the Wizards on-court success this season has to do with the increased talent of their core players, it is also because of the role players that surround that core. Avdija appears to be more comparable to a defensive stalwart such as the Warriors’ Draymond Green as opposed to the classic European trope of an offense-first player.
With a record of 10-3, the Wizards sit atop of first place in a vastly improving Eastern Conference. It’s the best start the franchise has had since the 1974-75 season. And as Avdija continues to learn how to make an impact on the game without having the basketball in his hands, he will play a key role in the kind of success that the Wizards have not seen in more than four decades.
Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.