The NBA All-Star game typically marks the unofficial halfway point of the regular season. Unofficial because usually it is already past the 50 percent mark, but the 2020-21 season has been far from typical. It had already been discussed before but it cannot be understated the obstacles that the 2020 rookie class has faced in a season without rookie mini-camp in June, Summer League in July, and pre-training camp bonding with teammates in September.
Deni Avdija went from being drafted in mid-November to starting in his NBA debut a month later. Just 30 games into his NBA career including three weeks off due to COVID-19, the rookie has averaged 5.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in 22 minutes per game while shooting a respectable 35.6 percent from beyond the arc. Sure, those are not LaMelo Ball or Tyrese Haliburton numbers, but the Wizards were not expecting Avdija to star immediately so everyone should have started with tempered expectations.
“It’s been good. I’ve had my ups and downs, it’s my first year in the league, but it was good for me,” Avdija reflected on his first few months in the NBA. “I learned a lot of things, I faced a lot of good players, and in general, it made me a better player getting this experience on the court, playing time that I’m getting.”
“He’s getting better, he’s young,” teammate Russell Westbrook assessed. “It’s a new experience for him, NBA is a different league, but he’s doing a good job of just listening and understanding where he can be effective.”
An early qualm among Avdija fans and supporters has been his usage and role on the Wizards. In the NBA’s star-driven league, the ball is in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook’s hands the majority of the time often leaving Avdija with few touches. The Wizards rookie has only eclipsed double-digit shot attempts twice in his first 30 games, both coming in games where Westbrook did not play and one where Beal did not play either. It should not have been unexpected for Avdija’s role to be limited less than four months into the league and he has taken on the correct mentality of doing whatever he can to help his team win presently while also continuing his day-by-day development that his close Maccabi coach Veljko Perovic alluded to in December.
“My role right now is my role, I’m doing whatever I can to help the team win and what the coach needs me to do on the court and we’re winning games, playing good so that’s what I’m going to keep doing,” Avdija addressed. “Hopefully, my role is going to be bigger and bigger when the years go on and I improve as a player, but for now, I’m just reading situations. If there’s a game I need to be more aggressive with the ball [versus] various games I won’t touch the ball much, whatever the situation may be and what the coach going to decide, I’m just filling my role as best as I can.”
In an effort to make Avdija’s transition as seamless as possible from Maccabi Tel Aviv to the NBA, the Wizards have had their foremost player development guru, David Adkins, work closest with the 20-year old. Adkins, a former high school assistant coach to the likes of Kevin Durant at Montrose Christian several years ago, works with Avdija every day whether it be watching film or pre-game warmup drills. The lone holdover from Randy Wittman to Scott Brooks’ coaching staff in 2016, Adkins also works closely with Rui Hachimura as the Wizards hope to hit the potential they see in their last two ninth overall draft picks.
“DA [Adkins] helped me a lot since I got here,” Avdija expressed. “We’re talking tons, very much about how I’m going to improve. If I have bad games, I’m going to talk to him about it and he’s going to explain what I did wrong, watching a lot of film. He just knows my mentality, learning how I react to things, what’s my game style and he does a great job of developing and adding more things to my game. Our relationship is good and it’s going to get better throughout the years.”
The future for the Washington Wizards beyond this season is unclear with general manager Tommy Sheppard and head coach Scott Brooks entering the final months of their current contracts along with Bradley Beal’s patience put through another test, but Avdija remains a focal point for the organization for years to come and he is diligently working to be worthy of such. In the midst of now a year-long global pandemic, it is understandable to be impatient, but Avdija had not even scratched the surface of what he can develop into as an NBA player.
“It’s getting used to everything, getting used to the amount of games, get used to the pace, get used to the physicality, but at the end of the day, I think I’m adjusting pretty quick and working very hard. I just hope to keep improving,” Avdija reflected on the adjustment to joining the senior Maccabi Tel Aviv team to the NBA.