With every game so far this season, and seemingly every possession, second-year pro Deni Avdija is gaining more and more confidence.
It was visible earlier in the season, when coach Wes Unseld Jr. entrusted him to pick up the assignment on Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was visible Saturday against the Magic, when he had six rebounds and eight points on 2-of-3 shooting from 3-point territory.
And against the Pelicans on Monday at Capital One Arena, Avdija turned in what was likely his best performance of the season. He scored 11 points (tied for a season-best), had 10 rebounds (a season-best) and played 27:35 (the second-most minutes of the year).
He drew the assignment of the Pelicans’ leading scorer, Brandon Ingram, as the game went down the stretch, and he’s beginning to feel the trust that the Wizards are putting in him.
“It makes me feel like I get trusted,” Avdija said of his role. “For a basketball player to get trusted, it’s the best feeling in the world. When people trust you and you make a stop, everybody throwing the ‘X’, it feels good. I’m just hoping to continue it. I’m just trying to keep it going.”
Off the bench, Avdija played the most minutes of anyone and played more than two starters (Daniel Gafford and Aaron Holiday).
It’s been a welcome sign for the Wizards as they’re starting to see the results of their first-round pick in 2020, and Avdija is starting to see the results of the work he’s put in.
“And it’s starting to pay off for him, so you hope that he’ll see that his work is paying off,” Unseld Jr. said. “Those minutes will come. The opportunities will come, and his teammates will trust him, and he’s shown time and time again that he’s a reliable on-ball defender. With his size, his ability to move his feet, he’s got more discipline, the physicality he brings, it’s a really good thing to see.”
The Wizards were, as it’s well-known, one of the worst defensive teams in the sport a season ago. Then they added Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Aaron Holiday, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and put Unseld Jr. in charge over the offseason and their fortunes flipped.
It also hasn’t hurt that Avdija has become one of the team’s best defenders in the meantime.
“I think he’s becoming a big-time defender for us,” Spencer Dinwiddie said. “I know as a young guy when you do some of the little things, you play defense, that’s going to get you time on the floor. I think he’s creating a rhythm and he’ll start to score a little bit more and that confidence will grow and he’ll start to make more plays on offense. When the focus is in the right area, the way that Deni’s has been, it allows him to now gain that confidence, gain that rhythm on the offensive end.”
Through 13 games this season, the Wizards have held their opponents to fewer than 100 points five times and 100 or fewer six times. Avdija has certainly been a big part of that defensive effort.
Now, with him playing perhaps the best basketball he’s played in the NBA, the key is continuing to add to his game.
“Once again I think he’s just scratching the surface,” Unseld said. “Every week we’ve seen it, we’ve seen it play out. He’s getting better and better. He’s getting more comfortable. He understands guys are trusting him to make plays, to be that defensive anchor. They believe in him and I think he’s starting to feel it and become more confident in his own ability. I think when that happens, it’s just going to keep building.”