The Washington Wizards’ 3-1 honeymoon start to the 2022-23 season is certainly over after losing their third straight game on Monday, this time to the Philadelphia 76ers (without Joel Embiid), 118-111, which was less close in the second half than the final score indicates. Deni Avdija was relegated from the starting lineup to the bench by head coach Wes Unseld Jr. in favor of Anthony Gill who also started the second half on Sunday against the Boston Celtics. As a result of the diminished role, Avdija played just 28 minutes over the last two games combined and was scoreless against Philadelphia as his lone shot attempt rimmed out.
Wes Unseld Jr. on Deni Avdija's second half benching
"I didn't think he played the way we wanted him to. He struggled defensively. It's gonna happen some nights, that's ok. He'll get another crack at it."pic.twitter.com/YkbXPEcuee
— Neil Dalal (@NeilDalal96) October 31, 2022
Unseld, in his second season as head coach, reasoned the change was more about Gill’s fit with the rest of the starters than Avdija’s play. Although the third-year forward was culpable for subpar contests against Jayson Tatum on two of his three 3-pointers in the first three minutes of Washington’s loss at Boston, the Wizards’ defense as a whole has been poor the last three games (allowing 127, 112, and 118 points). Avdija has played well defensively in difficult matchups against DeMar DeRozan, Donovan Mitchell, Cade Cunningham, and Tyrese Haliburton already this season so it is odd he gets singled out with a smaller role.
“I thought it was just the way AG [Anthony Gill] found action for us against the switches, against cross-match defenses. He has a feel for playing without the ball,” Unseld rationalized the starting lineup change after the loss to the 76ers. “Moving off the ball, he’s not a playmaker off the bounce, he doesn’t play pick and roll, but when teams do try to heat Brad up or double team KP in the post, he has a good knack of cutting, moving, finding the pocket, and he can facilitate from that area.”
Unseld declined to name his starting lineup during his pre-game media availability on Monday as he is not obligated to disclose such information until 30 minutes prior to tipoff, which foreshadowed a change from the prior six games to start the season. The head coach was asked by The Sports Rabbi about the conversation that took place during halftime of the Celtics game to inform Avdija he would not start the second half.
“He took it fine,” Unseld began. “His response was great and I think he gets it. He knows that I’m not picking on him, I’m not putting all of our woes on one person. We win together, we lose together and we all have a part to share in that, myself included. I think he understands that. That’s the only way to approach it is to have a face-to-face and tell him why and explain that it doesn’t mean you don’t trust him, you don’t have faith in a person, it’s just you want to try something different.”
When probed further by The Sports Rabbi’s questioning if such a decision could negatively impact a 21-year-old’s confidence, Unseld went on the defensive.
“It’s a six-game sample so I don’t know if that’s a quick trigger. Any change that you make is well thought out, it’s not a knee-jerk reaction. I just liked what AG was doing and I went with it.”
That would indicate Unseld was already considering pulling Avdija from the starting lineup prior to Tatum’s three-pointers on his watch, which is truly hard to fathom. On a team that is without one of their best defenders, Delon Wright, for the foreseeable future with a hamstring strain, how is it logical to give one of your last remaining (if not the last) plus-defenders less playing time?
Gill is expected to remain in the starting lineup entering Wednesday’s game at the 76ers because to Unseld’s point, “it’s tough to have a rhythm if it’s a new starting lineup every night,” but that further makes curious why less than a tenth of the way through a grueling 82-game season Avdija was already demoted without a longer leash to gel with many new pieces in the starting lineup.
“I’m sure it’s not easy, but he’s a pro,” Unseld said about Avdija. “You can have the conversation, but people aren’t always going to like it. I think he handled it well. Sometimes it’s not anything that a player has done or hasn’t done, but maybe it’s not the right fit. It’s not necessarily a knock on that player, it just doesn’t fit that group or those pairings as well as we hoped. That doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone or it won’t change, but after six games, I wanted to take a look at another option.”
Avdija is not one to pout so he will continue to work on improving his game each and every day to be ready in the limited minutes he will receive moving forward. Without a true backup point guard available due to Wright’s injury, the Israeli may have more opportunities with the ball in his hand to facilitate for the second unit as many fans have clamored for. Avdija will still have chances to defend the likes of James Harden (as he did on Monday), Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Ja Morant, and LaMelo Ball over the coming week to further demonstrate his value to the Wizards. As Avdija said last Thursday following the news of Wright’s injury and prior to his demotion, “if I need to take on more challenges, I’m ready and more capable to do it.”
Deni Avdija straps James Harden on back-to-back possessions leading to easy Wizards offense on the other end 👀 pic.twitter.com/5jsB2L5EqF
— Hoop District (@Hoop_District) November 1, 2022