CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 02: Deni Avdija #9 of the Washington Wizards guards Terry Rozier #3 of the Charlotte Hornets in the first quarter during their game at Spectrum Center on December 02, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)(Jacob Kupferman)

Deni Avdija's undeniable defensive impact

With NBA offenses performing at a historic rate and individual offensive skills higher than ever, it’s crucial that teams have a versatile perimeter they can rely on. In his third season out of Israel, Deni Avdija has turned himself into that guy for the Wizards. 

When it comes to defending at the NBA level, there are three boxes you need to check in order to be elite: 

  1. Physical tools 
  2. Relentless effort 
  3. Knowledge of the opposing offense 

Avdija’s physical gifts have never been a question. At 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds, he has a frame big enough to bang around with big wings, but he’s also light enough on his feet to stay in front of quicker, shiftier guards. That’s a rare combination. Most guys fall on either end of the spectrum. They’re either quick enough to stay in front of speedy guards or big enough to play a physical style of defense – not both. 

Effort has never been an issue for Avdija, either. From the minute he stepped onto the NBA scene, he was a maximum-effort guy. It's always been obvious how badly he wants to be successful on both ends of the court and how much pride he takes in his all-around game.

Finally, his basketball IQ is one of the traits that made him such a tantalizing prospect in the 2020 NBA Draft. Going back to his EuroLeague days playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, his feel for the game stood out. However, transitioning into the NBA is never easy. Just like college is a different game than the pros, playing in the EuroLeague is different than playing in the NBA. It’s all basketball, but different leagues have different points of emphasis and different styles of play. The games are also officiated differently. so it’s common for young, scrappy defenders to get themselves in foul trouble early and often. Just like every other young guy who steps into the Association, Avdija had to learn the ways of the NBA game. 

Thankfully, his growth on the defensive end has shown through, and a lot of that can be attributed to his basketball IQ. When asked where he’s seen the most improvement in Avdija’s defensive game, Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. pointed to his increased knowledge of the game. 

“The biggest thing that stands out is he’s doing a better job of not fouling,” said Unseld Jr. “In general, he’s been more disciplined. Maybe that’s just a better feel for who he’s guarding. A better understanding of game plan and personnel discipline – guys’ strengths. Guys are really crafty at getting to the line, drawing fouls… He’s done a better job, in general, of not falling into some of those traps.”

As he continues to learn the game and his experience piles up, Avdija's getting more and more comfortable.

"I'm comfortable," said Avdija. "There's also guarding the best players every night, so sometimes you'll struggle a little bit. That's part of your growth... But I'm confident and comfortable. I know I can slide my feet. I know I can make plays on defense and help the team. I think that, for sure, [I'm] a whole new player on defense."

Avdija wasn't being hyperbolic when he referenced guarding the best players every night. That's been his assignment all season long. When the Wizards played the Warriors on Monday, Avdija spent most of his time on either Jordan Poole or Draymond Green -- two guys who play a completely different style. Then, on Wednesday in New York, he had to guard Immanuel Quickley, Jalen Brunson, and Julius Randle. In addition to his primary assignments, he was also comfortable picking up guys like Andrew Wiggins or Steph Curry in transition. His ability to defend his assignment -- whether it be scoring guards or bruising forwards -- is uncanny.

The numbers speak for themselves. Avdija is third on the team in defensive win shares (1.3), behind only Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma. And, with a defensive box plus/minus of 0.7, Avdija is second among all Wizards who have played at least 400 total minutes this season. Only Jordan Goodwin ranks above him (2.0).

Defensive work sometimes goes underappreciated in the NBA. Playing lockdown defense isn't as flashy as rocking a windmill dunk or splashing a deep three. But Avdija is relishing in the role the coaching staff has given him. He enjoys being the defensive stopper for the Wizards.

"I like the trust that [the coaching staff] has in me," said Avdija. "They want me to make plays. They want me to help out the team. And I feel like they give me a role that I love and embrace it... It makes you feel like you're important."

Avdija's elite on-ball defense at the point of attack is crucial for this Wizards team, but as any coach will tell you, the defensive possession doesn't stop until the rebound is secured, and that's another area that Avdija has begun to assert his dominance in. He has turned himself into one of the team's (and the league's) top defensive rebounders.

At 20.3%, only the 7-foot-3 Porzingis has a better defensive rebounding percentage for the Wizards than Avdija. And, per Cleaning The Glass, Avdija is in the 98th percentile among wings in defensive rebounding percentage on field goal attempts. There are only two wings that rank higher: Jarrett Culver (who has only appeared in 10 games this season), and Josh Hart.

Avdija's become a master of reading shooting angles, timing his jumps, boxing out, and grabbing the ball firmly with two hands for safety. He punctuated his rebounding efforts with a career-high 20 boards (17 defensive) on January 11 in a big win over the Bulls.

"I feel like I'm physically stronger," said Avdija when asked what has led to his increase in rebounding numbers. "I'm jumping higher. I know where to position myself. And I just really challenge myself. I go to grab boards. I know it helps the team."

Just like the rest of defense, rebounding is often an undervalued task. Nobody shows up on Instagram highlights by boxing out and grabbing a defensive rebound. But don't let that fool you -- rebounding is a skill, and it's a skill Avdija has honed.

"You gotta be physical," said Avdija. "You [need to] know how to box out, how to use your body. And then to secure the rebounds, you gotta jump and know where it's going to be located. As Dennis Rodman said, it's an art."

With Avdija's A-list perimeter defense and rebounding artistry, he's morphing himself into one of the most versatile defensive weapons in professional basketball.