Detroit Pistons draft preview: In Deni Avdija, the chance to land a bookend partner for Doumbouya

Deni Avdija
Deni Avdija was the youngest MVP of the Israeli league, leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to the championship and solidifying his status as an NBA draft lottery prospect.
Dov Halickman/SportsRabbi.com
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

History says it’s a virtual certainty a future All-Star, perhaps even a future MVP, will be available when the Pistons go on the clock to make the seventh pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

It’s too early to judge the 2018 and ’19 drafts – though early returns suggest form will hold as young players like Tyler Herro (13th pick in 2019) and Shea Gilgeous-Alexander (11th pick in ’18) already appear on an All-Star track – but go back a decade and every draft has produced players who either already are or will be multi-time All-Stars and MVP winners who were taken with the seventh pick or beyond.

The 2017 draft has already produced All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell (13th) and Bam Adebayo (14th). Jamal Murray, a breakout star of the NBA’s Orlando bubble, was the seventh pick in 2016. Devin Booker was the 13th pick in 2015 and Nikola Jokic went 41st in 2014.

Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th pick in 2013 and three-time All-Star – and three-time NBA champion – Draymond Green was the 35th pick in 2012. His Golden State teammate, Klay Thompson, was the 11th pick in 2011 when two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard went 15th. Paul George was the 10th pick in 2010 and two-time MVP Steph Curry was the seventh pick in 2009.

So when Dwane Casey said in early October, after months of digesting video of top prospects, he was confident the Pistons will get a foundational piece at the seventh pick, he had history – and faith in the eye of new general manager Troy Weaver – in his corner.

Leading to the Nov. 18 draft, Pistons.com will profile 12 candidates to hear their name called when the Pistons announce the pick. Next up: forward Deni Avdija.

FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: DENI AVDIJA

ID CARD: 6-foot-9 forward, Israel, 19 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 4th by ESPN.com, 10th by The Athletic, 9th by SI.com

SCOUTS LOVE: The element of Avdija’s game that gives him a chance to emerge as a star is playmaking ability at his size. If Avdija hits the high end of projections, his organization can design a significant percentage of the offense that runs through him as a point forward. He’s got the length and vision to be a dynamic passer and he’s already a willing one. As a scorer, Avdija is a major threat in transition and is already comfortable putting the ball on the floor for sustained drives to the rim. If he’s mostly a straight-line driver today, the potential is there to become a more creative isolation scorer and playmaker. At Maccabi Tel Aviv, Avdija became the Israeli league’s youngest ever MVP and led his team to the league championship. He averaged 13.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists a game in league play. Avdija solidified his status as a lottery pick by coming back a much more consistent performer once the Israeli league resumed play following an interruption during the COVID-19 pandemic – at a time when almost no other draft prospects were able to play and Avdija, presumably, had scores of NBA scouts watching.

SCOUTS WONDER: For Avdija to become more than a complementary player, he’ll need to become a more consistent and reliable 3-point shooter. Though he showed improvement there after the pandemic interruption, there is some trepidation about where he’ll settle in as a shooter. Avdija made 34 percent of his threes in the Israeli league but was under 30 percent in EuroLeague play. In EuroLeague games – against a better class of competition than Avdija faced in the mediocre Israeli league – Avdija averaged 4.0 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 14 minutes over 26 games, which came before the pandemic interruption. There are varying opinions of Avdija’s athleticism and those less enthusiastic wonder whether his potential as a playmaker will be muted because of it. While it was once considered a given that Avdija would be the first international player drafted, there is now at least some feeling it could be French teen point guard Killian Hayes.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 55.6 – That was Avdija’s percentage from the free-throw line in EuroLeague games. Historically, free-throw shooting is seen as the most accurate predictor of 3-point potential. Avdija says it became a mental issue with him this season and feels he’ll be a 70 percent free-throw shooter next season and beyond.
MONEY QUOTE: “I think it developed me very much. I played with grown men who, some of them, had a good NBA career. We have a lot of expectations around our team. As a young guy, it was a lot of pressure but as time progressed that pressure became a good thing. It helped me to go in a hard situation that I can meet in the future and I think it’s a great advantage that it happened to me.” – Deni Avdija on Sept. 30 during the NBA’s virtual draft combine, talking about the pressure he faced playing for Israel’s premier team.

PISTONS FIT: Though not as thick as Sekou Doumbouya, Avdija has similar size and positional flexibility as a three/four. It would make for an intriguing forward pairing with the Pistons able to manipulate matchups to their advantage. Avdija’s playmaking ability from the forward position would mesh with Dwane Casey’s desire to field lineups with multiple playmakers while lessening the need to have a point guard capable of shouldering the burden of serving as an every-possession facilitator. Casey has said he’d like to implement more zone defense next season after watching teams like Miami and Boston employ it effectively during the Orlando bubble; having a player with Avdija’s length at small forward would be an advantage within a zone.

BOTTOM LINE: Most mock drafts have Avdija going in the top five with Chicago and Cleveland – each with a need for Avdija’s positional skill set – as popular destinations. But Avdija is among the more polarizing lottery prospects and there appears a decent chance that he’ll be available to the Pistons at the seventh pick. He’ll be as thoroughly scouted as any international draft prospect in history given the unprecedented November draft date and the fact the Israeli league was able to resume and complete its season while the majority of the basketball world had ground to a halt over the spring and summer. If he’s available to the Pistons at the seventh pick, Troy Weaver and his front office will be comfortable that they have a complete view of his present and his future.

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