Wizards

Avdija’s Aggression Is Slipping, and So Are His Numbers

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Fans of the Washington Wizards were quickly introduced to the reality that they wouldn’t be winning many games this season, so they took solace in what positive storylines or development stories they could find. 

Three narratives elevated above the rest: Kyle Kuzma is more than your average good stats/bad team guy, Bilal Coulibaly’s draft selection looks like a hit, and Deni Avdija is having a two-way career year.

Now that we’re past the season’s first-quarter milestone, a swift survey would tell us that Kuz is still doing the best he can and Bilal continues to look better every game, but Avdija looks to have cooled off in the last two weeks. He was shooting the three-ball better than ever and using the improved spacing to open up more driving lanes, but his shot attempts and efficiency look like they’re nosediving back to the mean of his last three reluctantly offensive years. What’s going on?

The team can’t align on the same page

It’s been a tough tug of war for the 4-22 Wizards, who, as bad teams do, have struggled to get everyone to play well at the same time.

Outside of Kuzma as the go-to option, the only other constants have been Corey Kispert’s three-point shooting from off the bench, Daniel Gafford’s efforts as the only true center in the District and Bilal Coulibaly’s growth. 

Tyus Jones and Jordan Poole have started all but one game together in the backcourt, and they each slumped out to underwhelming starts. Jones took some time in getting his assist numbers up to his standard, Poole floundered in forcing his score-first mentality without the ball always in his hands, and they together formed one of the worst defensive duos in the league. 

Their defensive ratings of 124.6 and 125 points allowed per 100 possessions with them on the floor, respectively, made for the two highest marks of anyone on the team, even those on the outskirts of the rotation. Their efforts — and occasional lack thereof — helped form the association’s worst defense.

When December rolled around, something changed in Washington’s guard play. Jones began churning out double-doubles backed by efficient scoring outputs and timely passes, and Poole finally began to capitalize from three-point land.

But like something out of Space Jam, their powers had to come from somewhere. Avdija, the fifth day-to-day starter, has backslid on both ends of the floor. 

Reverting to old habits

The small forward entered the league as a defensive-minded prospect, with his offense clearly lagging behind. He operates best as a secondary playmaker, orchestrating attacks in transition and finishing plays with his evident passing talent. 

His long-range shooting was a major question mark in 2020, and Washington’s variety of ball handlers in the last several years have forced him to wait in the corner and fire away anyway. 44.8% of the shots Avdija attempted through his first three years came from behind the arc, where he only drained 31% of his tries.

It looked like he’d cracked the code to his scoring, driving harder and finishing at the cup with unforeseen confidence. Through the end of November, he posted a field-goal percentage of 53.6% thanks to his casting fewer unassisted shots than ever (52.2% on twos). 

The increased shot versatility forced defenses to respect him as a multi-level scorer. He’s averaging a career-low 30% three-point attempt rate, settling less than he ever has as a Wizard. That enhanced freedom has empowered Deni to launch 2.7 threes per game, another new low, and he canned 40% of them leading into December. His stroke is quicker than before, and the threes he was trying were by his own volition.

Here he is splashing a quick three against the Atlanta Hawks in the second week of the season, then using that shooting threat as leverage to score with the ball on the floor.

That was, until Dec. 1 against the Orlando Magic, when he suddenly hit a wall. He went 0/2 that night from distance, and has since cut his three-point success in half to 20% in the eight games since. He looks more reluctant than he has, and it’s hurting his drives. He’s shot 40% from the field since that point, with his game clearly neutered without the shooting threat.

Jusuf Nurkic hustled to guard up that time, but defenses will continue to dare Avdija from downtown if he can’t connect on open jumpers.

How has the rest of his game held up?

The lack of a respectable jumper throughout his career has been Avdija’s glaring flaw since moving to D.C., as it’s all that’s stopped him from entering the conversation of young 3&D prospects.

Deni’s defense at 6-foot-9 has been his calling card, but he’s not the same immovable fire hydrant he was through his first three seasons. 

His personal defensive rating on the 2020-21 Bradley Beal/Russell Westbrook-led squad was 109.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, which persists as his high-water mark. The next season, he averaged a 110.1 defensive rating, then 110.1 the year after that. 

This season? A new high at 121, completely removed from the class of elite perimeter defenders he’s spent years establishing himself among. 

Rookie Coulibaly has bested him to this point with 118.6, and even Delon Wright managed to get his number down to 116.3 before he missed significant time with injury. That makes two defenders who have bested Deni at guarding out on the wings, and the eye test has backed it up.

Avdija is still guarding opposing top scoring threats, they’re just shooting like he’s not there. This wouldn’t be a problem if his offense were enough to fill the gaps, but as of recent, that hasn’t been enough, either.

The one silver lining since the beginning of his slump has been the jump in his rebound and assist numbers, which have hopped slightly from 5.4 to 5.8 boards per game and 3.6 to 4.5 assists a night. It’s good that he’s figured out how to help along the margins, but the team needs his full skill set if they want to reach double-digit wins by season’s end.

About Henry J. Brown

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