One of the most surprising developments in this young 2020-21 season for the Wizards has been the defense of rookie Deni Avdija. It is not often a 19-year-old steps in and makes an impact right away on that end of the floor. And it's not that people didn't know he could play defense, it's just that much of the focus in pre-draft evaluations related to his offensive potential, mostly involving his speed and skills at size.
Avdija, though, is arguably already one of the team's best defensive players. Granted, that hasn't traditionally been a high bar, as the Wizards last year ranked 30th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive rating. But Avdija has shown toughness, versatility and smarts on defense and those traits seem to be central in why he has earned a starting role and a consistent spot in the rotation.
The numbers suggest he's been solid, at least in the context of the Wizards, who are 27th in defensive rating this season. He leads the team in defensive points saved. He is third on the team in deflections (1.9/g) and contested shots (7.4/g), and second in steals (1.3/g). And he leads the team in net rating at +10.5.
Beyond the numbers, he has shown a knack for team defense, knowing when to help and when to gamble for steals and blocks. He has also for the most part been able to avoid fouling. His 4.0 fouls per 36 minutes rate is seventh among Wizards players who have logged at least 10 minutes. That is skewed by his four fouls in 14:10 of play against the Magic on Dec. 26.
Avdija has also had many plays where he successfully contested a shot without fouling, by keeping his hands up and not leaving his feet.
"I started doing that when I got to the senior level [at Maccabi Tel Aviv]," Avdija said. "I started to understand that I have good verticality. I need to be smart with my defense and not foul. I just saw that when I’m raising my hands and being vertical, guys have a hard time trying to score. I just stayed with it. I’m trying to play as hard of defense as I can."
Defending without fouling is something every rookie has to learn at the NBA level. The game is officiated differently, sometimes with rookies getting called for fouls that veterans can get away with. Some players are exceptionally good at baiting their opponents into fouls and selling it to the referees.
Avdija, though, has shown remarkable discipline, even when guarding smaller and quicker players. He has been switched onto point guards like Coby White, Ricky Rubio and most recently Kyrie Irving, and he's gotten stops on all of them.
Switching onto an island with Irving is about as lonely a place as an NBA rookie can be, yet Avdija stopped him twice on Sunday in the Wizards' win over the Brooklyn Nets. That included a block in the first quarter when Irving drove to his right into the middle of the paint.
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"He does a good job of moving his feet and absorbing the contact through his chest," head coach Scott Brooks said.
"I think he has a good awareness. He’s still understanding the league’s personnel and the tendencies of the players. That could take a couple of years, but he studies. He’s strong, good size and he’s willing to take the hit. The thing I like about him is he’s always keeping his hands out. He’s using his length, his wingspan. He’s using that."
Avdija likes to say he's not scared of going up against anybody. It's a familiar refrain whenever he's asked about facing great NBA players for the first time.
When it comes to players like Irving, he sees a way to test himself.
"I just like being challenged. I see those quick players and people doubting my lateral quickness and defensive abilities," Avdija explained.
"I’m just taking a challenge, staying solid, putting my hands up and trying not to foul. Even though it’s hard because you’re a rookie. But I like taking challenges. I’m glad I like fighting and that’s all I do."
Avdija and the Wizards have a long way to go on the defensive end, especially if they want to make the playoffs this year and do any real damage in the Eastern Conference. They won't fix their defensive issues overnight.
But in Avdija, the Wizards appear to have someone who can help that cause, already at only 19 years old.
Tune in at 6 PM to NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday for complete coverage of the Wizards game against the Philadelphia 76ers.