Wizards

Deni Avdija Has Arrived

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Deni Avdija walked into New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center already in the midst of a career stretch of games, averaging 23.3 points over his last three.

He’d never notched back-to-back 20-point games over his three and a half years in the league entering February, so his doing it through three-straight outings while tying a career-high 25 points on Monday seemed to signify that he may finally be taking that leap that the Washington Wizards and their fans have longed for.

No one could have prepared themselves for Valentine’s Day, when the forward, who’d failed to ever scratch 30, suddenly dropped 43 points before falling to the No. 6 Pelicans in a 133-126 shootout. He did it with unmatched aggression hunting for his own shots, and his dominant interior scoring empowered him to sink six three-pointers for another milestone.

He began the game in attack mode, scoring the first bucket of the game with a pull-up three from the top of the key to save a floundering possession. The shot sent confidence coursing through his veins, as he turned in his most decisive performance to date.

Again, the Pelicans are no chumps, evidenced in their top-10 defense and 33-22 record, but they hadn’t adequately prepared for a burly 6-foot-9 power forward eager to score at multiple levels. Avdija careened into the paint and finished over multiple defenders early, finding the proper gaps in transition and remaining ready for when the ball swung his way in the half court.

He had a great nose for taking advantage of his various Pelicans defenders, relentlessly picking on CJ McCollum on switches and quickly driving to catch the slow-footed Zion Williamson off-guard. Few defenders could remain in front of him, as he proved himself too big for guard defenders and too quick for the bigs.

Five of his 13 field goals arrived in the third quarter, when he fully showed off his range. The 23-year-old, once a reluctant shooter whom defenses were more than willing to sag off of, called for his own screens and quickly hoisted smooth-looking threes. 

Kyle Kuzma’s non-COVID injury-related absence opened the door for Avdija to fully take the reins in transition, as he Euro stepped and dunked his way into easy points at the hole. It helped that his teammates sensed his hot hand, as Tyus Jones and Jordan Poole repeatedly fed the night’s top scorer on the fast break. He consistently repaid their trust with more points.

A temporary lack of Kuzma and the hole left by Daniel Gafford have also encouraged Avdija to become a board horse in recent games. His 6.6 rebounds per game is another new high water mark, and it’s a feature that continues to emerge in his big games. His 15 rebounds led everyone in the game by a good margin, and nowhere was his effort more evident than in his wrangling of five offensive boards.

His aggression as a slasher, shooter, rebounder and floor general are all dramatically up from his past seasons spent in the shadows of stars. The team may not be bagging victories, but the process looks good.

The Wizards missing out on the win despite their competent play has been an unfortunate theme in recent weeks. Interim coach Brian Keefe has the team playing with the 18th-best defense over his 11 games at the helm, but their gauntlet of a February schedule has led to their losing by single-digits in five-straight games against a slew of playoff-ready squads.

Still, games like this help solidify the 2020 lottery pick’s spot in the team’s coveted young core, right alongside Bilal Coulibaly. Avdija, for his part, is averaging 13.8 points on 52.1% from the field, clear improvements over last season’s then-highs of 9.2 points on 43.7%. His three-point rate of 40.5% has never been more impactful, and his downhill scoring has never been more daunting for defenses.

The rookie front office should be credited with the team-friendly, four-year, $55 million deal they gave the forward right before his breakout, but former General Manager Tommy Sheppard is probably feeling very vindicated right now.

Deni Avdija is here to stay.

About Henry J. Brown

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