What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 1

The Washington Wizards’ 1-5 start to the season has clearly been a rocky one – an early journey with several close heartbreakers and blown leads along the way. While frustrations have been mounting in D.C., Deni Avdija is seeing this stretch as a growing opportunity, one that paid off after the team’s first win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, Jan. 1.

“I learned that everybody needs to be patient,” Avdija said. “Fans need to be patient, players need to be patient, everybody needs to be patient. We’re great players, if you sit in our locker room and look around, we have great talent. But sometimes it takes time to figure things out, we got a new superstar in and I’m new to the team, I’m new to the system, it takes time for everybody.”

Avdija is one of the youngest players in the NBA, turning 20 tomorrow, Jan. 3, and yet all of his teammates, including superstars Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, can’t stop talking about his maturity and poise.

“He’s constantly learning,” Beal said. “It’s so funny because before he got here they told us he’s a man of a million questions, like Deni asks a lot of questions. And that’s a great thing because he just wants to learn, he wants to get better, he wants to be on the floor. And it’s amazing to see how poised he is on the floor, he doesn’t really get fed up, he doesn’t get bothered by anything.”

Despite being a young rookie, Avdija started in all six games that Washington has played thus far. Against Minnesota, Avdija recorded his first double-digit game, scoring 11 points to go along with nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block, shooting 60 percent from deep.

This versatility is what caused Washington to select Avdija with the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, he’s a guy that every contender wishes they had.

“I like the fact that he knows how to play and he looks for his teammates,” head coach Scott Brooks said after the win over Minnesota. “He’s not trying to fill the last category on the stat sheet, he’s looking to make plays, he wants to rebound, he wants to pass, sets good screens. I thought he made a nice drive with his left hand, that’s something we’ve been working on, where he made the pass to Thomas Bryant for the alley-oop.”

Avdija joined Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth team at just 12 years old and joined the professional club when he was only 16. His experiences overseas have left strong impressions on his veteran teammates, which allows him to flash such great and infectious confidence to his team.

“He just does what Deni does,” Beal said. “He doesn’t do anything extra, he just plays basketball the right way, he uses his body well. It’s amazing for a rookie, he has great professional attributes, he’s been playing since he was 12 probably.”

Too often in the NBA, fans and teams alike see young players consumed by the limelight, and those players tend to chase stats instead wins and tend to peter out over time. Avdija is the antithesis of this – often making plays like a pro and going for winning moves over statistics.

“In order to maximize our potential, everybody’s going to have to participate,” Brooks said. “We don’t want all the ball handling, all the playmaking and all the shooting in Russell and Brad’s hands, it’s a work in progress, trust me. It’s something we’re gonna continue to talk about and build . . . I think Deni has the capability, I mean, he’s 19 years old, I love him, I love how he competes, I love how he wants to get better, I love the questions that he’s asking me, it’s always about the right things.”

So far this season, Avdija is averaging 7.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals compared to just .7 turnovers in 26.2 minutes per game. When Avdija is on the floor, the Wizards boast a 129 offensive rating compared to a 111 defensive rating.

In the first week of the NBA, so much noise is being generated about the passing prowess of rookies like LaMelo Ball and Killian Hayes, but Avdija is dishing as well as one could ask. Avdija excels at making competent passes to his teammates that might not be the flashiest but still set up his teammates in the best ways possible.

“I love playmaking, I love making plays for my teammates,” Avdija said after the win over Minnesota. “I love getting my teammates involved, I’m looking for them at every opportunity. It makes me feel good, it makes the whole team feel good, I’ll find them every time. So for me, I took a big step today, I had some playmaking plays . . . it’s gonna come through time.”

In one of the best plays of the Wizards’ season, Avdija set up the equally-impressive youngster Thomas Bryant on an alley-oop. Avdija excels in the art of a bounce pass that allows his teammates to slip past defenders to the basket.

Avdija has also excelled as a shooter, something that was a question mark about his game heading into the draft and the season. His form could use some work but there’s no denying the raw skill and the result that he’s showing so far. Currently, Avdija is shooting 47.6 percent from deep on just under four attempts per game, one of the leaders on the team in that regard.

“There are times where [Avdija] asks questions because the game is going a little fast for him,” Beal said. “But for the most part, I think he’s going above and beyond what we expected him to be. He’s showing glimpses of his versatility, he’s an excellent three-point shooter, he probably has the highest percentage on our team right now.”

Despite losing five straight to begin the year, Washington is offering reasons for excitement, having led the Philadelphia 76ers for much of the first game of the season and scoring 130 points in back-to-back games.

“You can’t expect magic to happen right away,” Avdija said. “‘Okay, we’re booming, we’re 7-0.’ No, it’s gonna happen, we’re gonna lose games. But eventually, how we turn it into a team, that’s the most important thing for me and that’s why I smiled to the team and everybody was positive about it. Of course, we were frustrated and angry but at the end of the day we know ourselves, we know we’re good.”

Avdija, Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Troy Brown Jr. make up the Wizards’ young corps and this season is about the perfect blend of learning and being competitive, the latter of which Avdija believes will come with time.

Through six games, Avdija has already established himself as a young leader and poster child for a winning mentality in the locker room. By talking to Brooks and Beal, and seeing just how high on Avdija the entire franchise is, it’s evident why the Wizards selected him ninth overall.

“I’m super positive about this team,” Avdija said. “Mark my words, we’re gonna be good. We just need to figure things out, play hard, play defense. When we play simple and we play defense, we’re playing very good. I’m all about positive for this team.”

Published at Sun, 03 Jan 2021 14:30:07 +0000

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