In order to have a slight competitive advantage entering the regular season, Washington Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. did not reveal who he planned to start at small forward during training camp or preseason. When the 2022-23 season opener in Indiana rolled around last Wednesday, it was finally unveiled that third-year forward Deni Avdija would join the likes of Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma, and Monte Morris on the first unit. Despite missing all four preseason games, Avdija recovered from a groin injury sustained late in EuroBasket to participate in a couple of practices before the start of the regular season.
Will Barton was seemingly a favorite to start because of his familiarity with Unseld from Denver, but bringing him off the bench in a sixth-man role that can generate offense makes sense. At 6-foot-9, Avdija provides size to a starting lineup with undersized guards at 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3, if that, in Morris and Beal.
“Him as a ball mover, he’s a guy you don’t have to run plays through necessarily, but he’ll find his way in second-side pick and rolls,” Unseld said after the season-opening win about starting Avdija. “He can rebound and push, play make in the open floor. I think it gives us a little bit more balance, gives us positional size at the 3, which I like as well as the versatility to switch when necessary.”
🏀🇮🇱💪Deni Avdija with a solid performance 6p 2/2 from 3, 10r, 4a +16 in 23min in the Wizards 102-100 over the Bulls!
— Sports Rabbi (@thesportsrabbi) October 22, 2022
There is only one basketball to go around and when sharing the floor with Beal, Porzingis, and Kuzma who will need a larger share of touches, Avdija’s scoring numbers and chances are not going to be abundant. Instead, the Israeli wing will be handed difficult defensive assignments on a nightly basis. In his first three games of the season, where Washington has gone 2-1 after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road on Sunday, Avdija’s primary defensive assignments have been Tyrese Haliburton, DeMar DeRozan, and Donovan Mitchell.
Before exiting with an ankle sprain that initially looked more concerning based on Avdija’s frantic reaction, Haliburton only scored 3 of his 26 points against Avdija. Next game, DeRozan had just 4 points (on 1-for-4 shooting from the field) of his 32 when matched against the 21-year-old. Late in the fourth quarter, Beal asked Unseld for the defensive assignment (citing throwing a different look and getting away with more physicality than Avdija would) on DeRozan after he got a foul whistled against Avdija, but before that the Wizards starting small forward held up well against the crafty scorer.
“Underrated. It’s growth for him not to bail guys out with fouls. He was mindful of showing his hands, trying to stay down on pump fakes, and rebounding,” Unseld said about Avdija’s performance after the home opener win over the Chicago Bulls.
Against Cleveland, Avdija was called for four fouls in just 14 minutes of play and did not see the court for the fourth quarter or overtime. The 2020 first-round pick still does not get the benefit of the doubt from NBA officials, especially when guarding talents with bigger resumes. Caris LeVert drove into Avdija’s body in the first quarter and was gifted a whistle that Mitchell would do similarly for two calls against Avdija who also had a bad swipe reach-in foul on Evan Mobley that was unnecessary with Kuzma in decent guarding position.
At times, Avdija is going to have performances that are not up to his high standard when constantly getting difficult assignments, but he is up to the challenge to give his team the best chance of winning by providing rotation balance. Over the next week, Avdija will be tasked with guarding the likes of Cade Cunningham, Haliburton again, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and James Harden as the NBA gauntlet of talent never slows down.