Author’s Note: This piece begins The Athletic’s annual series about NBA scouts’ opinions of the Washington Wizards’ most prominent young prospects. The articles will run weekly, with each installment focusing on one player, beginning with Deni Avdija and continuing with Bilal Coulibaly, Johnny Davis and Corey Kispert.
What are those youngsters’ strengths? What are their weaknesses? What are their long-term career projections?
This series will answer those questions from the scouts’ points of view.
I seek the scouts’ opinions because they offer valuable perspectives. They evaluate players throughout pro basketball, and as a result, they can assess prospects within the context of the rest of the NBA. Since these scouts have never worked for the Wizards, they provide fresh viewpoints that may differ from what fans normally hear — the viewpoints of Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr., former and current team executives, the players’ teammates and the players themselves. These days, with aggregators and social media blowing out of proportion even the most well-intentioned constructive criticism, newsmakers are less incentivized than ever to speak freely about players’ deficiencies.
Why does The Athletic grant the scouts anonymity? In this case, we grant anonymity because teams almost never allow their scouts to speak to the media for publication. Without granting anonymity, articles such as this one, in which scouts’ evaluations are conveyed accurately, would not exist. In addition, anonymity allows the scouts to be completely honest, without fear of reprisal.
I trust these scouts’ opinions. But even so, because they are speaking anonymously, extreme care must be taken to reference only scouts’ opinions about on-court performance, not conjecture on a player’s attitude and not anything the scouts may have heard secondhand from their own sources. (In case you’re wondering, none of the people I spoke with offered such information, anyway.)
I refer to the scouts as “Scout A,” “Scout B” and so on. Someone who is cited as “Scout A” for this piece may be cited as “Scout B,” “Scout C” or “Scout D” in subsequent pieces. I spoke with them separately.
One last note: I’m defining a “prospect” as someone who has played in three or fewer NBA seasons, but I’m not including 20-year-old forward Patrick Baldwin Jr. or 21-year-old guard Ryan Rollins in this series. Baldwin and Rollins played so sparingly last year for Golden State as rookies that I want to give scouts more time to study their skillsets.
WASHINGTON — When Deni Avdija and Washington Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. were asked to evaluate Avdija’s 2022-23 season, both described Avdija’s individual season as a measured success, especially after the team traded Rui Hachimura in late January.
“I feel like I did take advantage of it, and I played with more confidence,” Avdija said. “I played with more freedom. I feel like it helped develop my game and take my role to the next step a little bit. I think it needs to be more consistent, and I showed I can help the team in a variety of ways. But also on bad nights, I need to find a way to get back into the game. I feel a lot of times I lose focus or have a couple of bad stretches, which I feel I need to eliminate. But, other than that, I feel like I took another step forward for sure.”
Unseld noted Avdija had made “a steady progression.”
The scouts I spoke with aren’t quite as positive about Avdija’s overall progress going into the 2023-24 season, which will be his fourth year in the NBA.
Although they expressed confidence Avdija can carve out a lengthy NBA career — with Scout A, for instance, flat-out saying, “I like him” — the consensus opinion is Avdija hasn’t yet made enough of a jump offensively to prove he will develop into a significant difference-maker on a contending team. The upper-end projections for Avdija when Washington drafted him ninth overall in 2020, at 19 years old, appear less likely now, at 22 years old.
The most undeveloped aspect of Avdija’s game, the scouts agreed, is his shooting. So, while Avdija and Unseld can accurately point to areas where Avdija clearly improved last season — namely, finishing at the rim — the scouts cannot ignore that Avdija converted a career-low 29.7 percent of his 3s last season and regressed slightly at the free-throw line, making only 73.9 percent of his attempts there. The scouts aren’t saying Avdija definitely will not grow in those key areas, just that Avdija hasn’t yet given much reason to believe he will make strides.
What is Wizards youngster Deni Avdija doing well — and not so well?
“The confusing part has been the inconsistency he’s shown on offense,” Scout B said. “He just hasn’t been capable of putting together a long stretch of solid production that would lend itself to a positive projection on offense. So, he’s got to figure that out. If you had watched him before the NBA, he looked to be more of an offensive player than a defensive player. That’s where the confusion comes in, where he’s really embraced this defensive kind of identity and has not really grown offensively to the degree that you’d hope he would.
“So, I think because it was there pre-NBA, you can always kind of look back and say, ‘He could do A, B and C at the lower levels, and those were good indicators of an offensive projection.’ So, you’d hope at 22 it’s still there. He may get more opportunity this year just because of the changes that have been made around him. But there’s no question he’s going to be a longtime NBA player just because of his size and the fact that he’s committed to being such a good defender.”
The most pessimistic evaluation of Avdija among the four scouts I spoke with came from Scout C, who said, “He’s an NBA player. I guess the question is: Is he a rotation player — and I mean a lower rotation player on a good team? That is not clear. I’d say at the moment, no. Would he play on Denver? Who would you rather have, him or their eighth man? I’d probably rather have their eighth man. To me, he’s nine through 11 on a good team or 10 through 12 almost. If he shot it better, I’d feel better about it. ”
A clear consensus emerged in my conversations with scouts about Avdija’s best attributes.
“His IQ and his combination of size and skill level — that is what makes him attractive,” Scout D said. “Defensively he’s been much better than I anticipated from scouting him at Maccabi (Tel Aviv, in Israel’s top league) compared to what he’s done in the NBA.”
Unseld and Wizards players would agree with that assessment of the 6-foot-9, 210-pound wing, who also has played power forward for the team.
“He’s a hell of a defender, and he’s a great teammate,” combo forward Kyle Kuzma said.
Avdija is comfortable as an on-ball defender against primary ballhandlers and secondary ballhandlers — an impressive achievement for someone his size. For the 2022-23 season, the advanced analytics database BBall Index gave Avdija an ‘A’ grade for his defensive matchup difficulty compared to the league’s rotation players and an ‘A’ grade for his defensive matchup versatility.
“Defensively, he does a good job, has a good feel,” Scout A said. “Just overall he has a good feel for the game. So, with that, defensively he’s pretty versatile. He has the capability of guarding bigger guys, smaller guys. So, you can switch with him. He competes on that end of the floor, which I like.”
The clip that follows, from a game last November in Philadelphia, illustrates Avdija’s ability to stay in front of a shifty shot creator. With the Wizards clinging to a four-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Avdija prevents James Harden from generating a clear driving lane to the rim and strips Harden as Harden elevates for one of Harden’s trademark stepback jumpers. Avdija deserves praise not just for preventing a clear look at the basket but also for avoiding a foul while defending one of the league’s craftiest players.
Playing high-level defense isn’t only about having a feel for the game, agility and positional size. It’s also about want-to, and scouts, teammates and Unseld all laud Avdija’s effort. Avdija demonstrates that hustle in the next clip, from the same game last season in Philly. After a teammate’s turnover, Avdija sprints back on defense, first matching guard Tyrese Maxey stride-for-stride down the right sideline, then shifting over to help when forward Tobias Harris receives a pass for a transition layup opportunity. Avdija meets Harris at the apex of Harris’ jump and swats the ball out of bounds.
“He’s really embraced a defensive mindset and a defensive identity in the NBA, and that speaks to his competitive nature, I think,” Scout B said. “It speaks to his willingness to do things that he may not derive a lot of glamor from just in an effort to get playing time and to get the opportunity to be better.”
Another area where Avdija has consistently excelled: his defensive rebounding, where he has ranked as elite compared to wings and combo forwards in all three of his NBA seasons. Last season, he collected 19.3 percent of all available defensive rebounds off missed field goals when he was on the floor, according to the advanced analytics database Cleaning the Glass, which omits stats accumulated in garbage time and heaves at the ends of quarters. The only wings and forwards leaguewide with at least 150 minutes of playing time who posted higher defensive-rebounding percentages off missed field goals last season were the New York Knicks’ Julius Randle, Atlanta Hawks’ Jalen Johnson and Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, per Cleaning the Glass. Last January, Avdija gathered a career-high 20 rebounds in a victory over the Chicago Bulls.
Before last season, Unseld and Wizards assistant coaches challenged Avdija to improve his shot-making and aggressiveness at the rim, and Avdija delivered in those areas. He attempted a career-high 41 percent of his shots at the rim and made a career-best 67 percent of those attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass, which, again, omits garbage-time stats. The success rate ranks only slightly above the league average for combo forwards, but he improved over the prior season, when he converted 63 percent on lower volume.
When Avdija started playing basketball in Eastern Europe, he began as a guard, and true to his roots, he takes extreme pride in his passing and unselfishness. Last season, he took a significant step forward as a distributor, assisting on a career-best 14.3 percent of his teammates’ made field goals, per Cleaning the Glass.
The next video shows Avdija’s comfort handling the ball both in the open court and in closed-in spaces. He dribbles past the midcourt stripe, fakes out the Denver Nuggets’ Aaron Gordon with a crossover and navigates into the lane. Once Nikola Jokić confronts Avdija in the paint, Avdija lofts a precision pass toward the rim, where only Wizards center Daniel Gafford can catch it, resulting in a lob dunk.
“Offensively, I think that he has overall a good feel for the game, and with that, I think that he’s got some creativity,” Scout A said. “He can make plays for others with the ball.”
When asked to describe the areas Avdija must improve, the scouts first mentioned his shooting. Shooting always was expected to be his make-or-break skill — what had to improve for him to grow into an upper-level NBA player.
At best, his shooting remains a question mark.
At worst, it’s deeply troubling.
His 3-point shooting regressed last season from an already subpar level, falling from a career-best 31.7 percent in 2021-22 to a career-worst 29.7 percent. For comparison’s sake, the league average regardless of position last season was 36.1 percent.
His free-throw shooting percentages — 64.4 percent as a rookie, 75.7 percent in his second season and 73.9 percent last year — don’t inspire much confidence, either. The league average last season was 78.2 percent.
“He’s smart,” Scout C said. “The IQ is a positive. But I don’t know. I’m not a big fan just because of the lack of shooting and scoring, really, at his position. That’s what he’s got to be or should be. And if you can’t do that, you’re just limited.”
Indeed, in the modern NBA, where floor-spacing is of paramount importance, good teams often strive to have at least four capable 3-point shooters on the floor, preferably five. Avdija’s lack of 3-point shooting makes the going tougher for his teammates, because it gives them less space to operate and fewer driving lanes.
Are there times when last season’s Wizards overcame that? Yes. Last season, for instance, in 157 minutes together, the five-man lineup of Avdija, Monté Morris, Bradley Beal, Kuzma and Kristaps Porziņģis averaged 123.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s very effective offense.
But the Wizards typically didn’t have the shooting depth on the rest of their roster to withstand times when Beal and Porziņģis were on the bench simultaneously, or sometimes even when either Beal or Porziņģis were out. In 122 minutes last season, the quintet of Avdija, Morris, Corey Kispert, Kuzma and Porziņģis averaged an anemic 102.7 points per 100 possessions — and that playing group logged the second-highest minute total of any Washington lineup!
In mid-December last season, the Los Angeles Lakers made certain to sag off Avdija when he stationed himself on the perimeter. In the following clip, Morris makes the right basketball play, hurling the ball to a wide-open Avdija in the left corner. Note how the two closest Lakers defenders, LeBron James and Lonnie Walker IV, do not even make an effort to close out to Avdija to disrupt or prevent the wide-open shot.
Avdija made two of his four 3-point attempts that night, but his success that evening was an anomaly, not the norm. Last season, he converted only 33.1 percent of his wide-open 3s, which the NBA defines as shots where the closest defender is at least 6 feet away, according to the NBA’s stats database. He made just 25.3 percent of his open 3s, with the closest defender between 4 and 6 feet away.
“It’s the shooting,” said Scout A, the scout who was the most optimistic about Avdija’s future.
“That’s the biggest thing,” the scout added. “He’s had stretches. He seems like a confident guy. The confidence is something that it appears that he has. But he hasn’t really put together in these first couple of years a big uptick in his shooting. It seems like there’s been some variance in the past couple of seasons. It seems like he’s still figuring it out as far as mechanics. But that’s the biggest thing: just shooting, being able to knock down the easy ones, the catch-and-shoot 3s. And then off-the-dribble stuff would be a plus. But ideally, you’d like to see him shoot it better on open shots.”
Unseld acknowledged that “finding a consistent 3-pointer” needed to be one of Avdija’s priorities this offseason, along with improving his handle overall and his playmaking and finishing with his left hand.
Indeed, although Avdija’s assist rate was high last season, his turnover rate was awful. He turned the ball over 15.4 percent of the time when he used a possession last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. To put that figure into perspective, it ranked near the bottom among all combo forwards.
The scouts agree: Whether Avdija develops into a high-level player will hinge on his shooting, and, at best, it remains an open question that the shooting piece will ever come around.
Scout D took an optimistic look at Avdija’s first three seasons. Although the 3-point shooting numbers are subpar, at least Avdija will only turn 23 years old in January, and he’s already gained 212 games of regular-season experience.
“So (with) upside, a lot of it is based on age and when you enter the league and how many minutes you get in the league,” Scout D said. “He’s obviously on the right path because he’s been getting minutes for the last three years and he’s still very young.”
In other words: Avdija has time to improve, though Scout D added, “Obviously, his shooting sort of remains a work in progress and is what will determine ultimately how effective he can be.”
Because he’s about to enter his fourth NBA season on a rookie-scale contract, he and the Wizards can reach a contract extension before the beginning of the regular season. But the executive who drafted him, Tommy Sheppard, was fired in April, and was replaced at the top of the franchise’s organizational chart by new Monumental Basketball president Michael Winger and new Wizards general manager Will Dawkins. Winger and Dawkins have no prior ties to Avdija, and given the lack of Avdija’s offensive production, it would not be a surprise to see Winger and Dawkins take the 2023-24 season to evaluate Avdija up close before they determine a strategy leading into the trade deadline and the 2024 free-agency period.
During Avdija’s first three seasons, with Beal on the roster throughout and Russell Westbrook, Kuzma or Porziņģis launching lots of shots or dominating the ball, the Wizards largely relegated Avdija to a 3-and-D role. Avdija didn’t have much of a chance as a primary playmaker until the final stages of his second and third seasons, when the team had been eliminated from the playoff picture.
“I think he’s been used different ways, and because of guys that were drafted after him the situation there hasn’t been ideal,” Scout A said. “Playing with Westbrook his first year and Bradley Beal, who are obviously ball-dominant guys, I think that that (reduced Avdija’s) comfort level. His strength is having the ball offensively. So, I think that he may not have been in the right role, and the roles have varied with the changes in their personnel. If he can ever get settled, if they can ever truly carve out a role for him, I think he’s got a chance to be a good piece on a solid team.”
Beal’s off the Washington roster now. So is Porziņģis, who was Avdija’s best friend and mentor on the team.
Those changes, along with Avdija’s uncertain contract status, led Scout B to describe the upcoming season as a critical year for Avdija.
“He’ll get more opportunity,” Scout B said. “He’ll get more volume. That would be the hope. The decision internally there has to be: Is his defense good enough to warrant these just sub-average shooting percentages at the position? They have to answer that internally. I think that there’s probably some polarizing opinions about that leaguewide. But because he’s so big and because he’s so committed on defense people will continue to give him a chance to prove (himself offensively).
“Everyone has a different tolerance for that type of thing. An offensive-based team could absorb him and say, ‘Well, we’ve got enough shooting around him’ or ‘We’ve got enough playmaking around him’ because he’s not bereft of IQ. He does have good passing instincts. He’s a good ballhandler for his size. Just those two pieces have always been a little bit of the bugaboo, and it’s his responsibility to clean those up.”
(Top photo: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)