The big news surrounding the Washington Wizards midway through the season is Wes Unseld Jr. will no longer continue as head coach, the organization announced Thursday morning. Somewhat a surprise mid-season instead of in three more months, but also not at the same time as Washington has been much less competitive than anyone would have predicted at the beginning of the season. With the second-worst record in the NBA at 7-36 and a top lottery pick already within reach, the front office of Michael Winger and Will Dawkins decided it was time to gracefully move on from Unseld who will transition to a front office advisory position.
Coincidentally enough, all of this comes hours after Deni Avdija’s best scoring game of the season recording 24 points on 7-for-12 shooting including 4-for-5 from three, six rebounds, and six assists against the Western Conference leading Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I think it’s the hat design for sure,” Avdija semi-joked about his strong performance on the same night his personally designed hat was a giveaway to fans in attendance. “I’m just playing aggressive, I’m getting to my spots, I’m feeling a lot more comfortable each and every game. We as a team tonight had a good effort too so that got me going a little bit.”
Deni Avdija looks at Timberwolves bench like, ‘you gonna keep giving me space?’ 😂
On his hat night he has 15 first half points including 3-3 from 3 🔥 pic.twitter.com/4mZQHo5ciS
— Neil Dalal (@NeilDalal96) January 25, 2024
Avdija has scored in double-figures in 12 of his last 14 games averaging 15.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in 29 minutes per game on 52 / 45 / 72 percent shooting slash during that stretch. This comes after a slow December averaging just 8.6 points on 39 / 16 / 81 shooting slash in the previous 11 games. Part of the 23-year-old’s development has been his strong attacking of the paint and playing through contact that earlier in his career he was timid to engage in.
“He’s worked a lot on his footwork,” Unseld assessed after the game Wednesday in what ended up being his final press conference as head coach. “He’s worked a lot in the weight room. Not just absorbing, but delivering a little bit of contact and playing through some contact. He’s also worked on his finishing in traffic and around length, which you just have to slow down a little bit. Finishing with a little bit of touch in traffic is not easy. He’s put a lot of time in those areas and it’s paid dividends.”
“This season and even a little bit of last season, I’ve been able to use my body more and be more comfortable really getting into people. I understand how strong I can be. I feel like it’s building up and when teams try to ramp up the physicality, I’m already used to people being physical with me and me being physical too. Even when they ramp it up, I’m still ready and I’m still creating contact. That’s part of my game now. When you create contact in the league, you get a lot of fouls. Me embracing the contact and became better and keep improving on it,” Avdija explained. “I didn’t put crazy weight on. I did work on how I move and my movement and how I create force and just be able to move my body. I was always shy from contact, I was always trying to finish around people. Then I understood, I’m 6-9. It takes time to understand how physical you can be to your advantage.”
As with any player in the NBA, teams adjust once there is enough film on a player’s development. Avdija was given plenty of space on the perimeter by Minnesota guarding against his paint production, which he took advantage of on multiple occasions by either knocking down open shots or knowing that Karl-Anthony Towns would play his drive before a step-back 3-point attempt that got a friendly bounce.
“Now when I go downhill people expect it sometimes,” Avdija reasoned when asked about his corner three against Towns. “So me being able to go both directions and change pace and create some space and be able to shoot the ball is going to be big for me.”
This bucket from Deni on KAT 🔥 pic.twitter.com/PAY49Mlvyv
— Bijan Todd (@bijan_todd) January 25, 2024
With the trade deadline two weeks away and more veterans likely being sent out, Avdija’s playing time should increase and become more consistent under interim head coach Brian Keefe who worked on the Oklahoma City Thunder staff when Winger and Dawkins were in the front office. It will be interesting to see how Avdija continues to develop the rest of the season after what has already been a strong start to his fourth season in the NBA.
Strong words from KD on Wizards interim HC Brian Keefe:
“He wouldn’t take any credit for it, but he taught me everything I know.”
“He’s easily one of the most influential guys that I know in this business, in this game, and in life… I got nothing but love and respect for BK” pic.twitter.com/2E0YzlOREl
— Will Clayton (@WillCIayton) January 25, 2024