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Deni Avdija’s Brutally Frustrating Season Comes To A Brutal End

Wizards rookie Deni Avdija lies injured on the court.
Photo: Will Newton/Getty

There’s a decent chance that you, a sub-sicko-level fan of NBA basketball, have forgotten all about 20-year-old rookie and former buzzy draft prospect Deni Avdija. The name is rattling around in there—he’s the guy that was drafted out of Israel, right? In the lottery! Yeah! Yeah, it was in the top 10, wasn’t it? Hey, didn’t he have some moves? Whatever happened to that guy? I’ll tell you what happened: He became, in just the most thorough way imaginable, a member of the Washington Wizards. They grabbed him up and put him in a Wizards jersey and fired their proprietary crud laser right at his chest, and they haven’t taken their finger off the trigger for even one second in the months since.

Anyway you can now go back to forgetting about him. Avdija nuked his right ankle on a layup attempt during Washington’s win over the visiting Warriors Wednesday night. It looked real bad—Avdija was visibly crying on the court, and teammate Jordan Bell rushed over and threw a t-shirt over the busted part of the leg, and trainers used a wheelchair to get him off the court—but word so far is it’s a hairline fracture that will not require surgery. The win over Golden State put the dreaded Wizards, who’ve won six straight, in sole possession of the extremely dubious prize that is the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference, which comes with a berth in the new play-in game. Avdija will no longer factor into this nominal playoff push.

Phrasing it like that does Avdija the favor of pretending that he has factored into really anything for the Wizards this season. The reality is, since selecting him with the ninth overall pick in the 2020 draft, the Wizards have had no plan for letting Avdija do anything that ought to be described as “basketball.” His job has been to stand in the corner for 23 minutes a night. Technically this made him a floor-spacer and a release valve for Washington’s two ball-dominant guards, but only in the sense that a boisterous court-side fan might also momentarily draw the attention of a nearby defender and thereby create some offensive space, or that that same fan taking an errant skip pass to the groin could technically be considered a release valve. A person who stands gloomily to the side in a pickup game and never touches the ball is called a spectator—only in a professional game optimized to within an inch of its life could this behavior be described as participation.

The stats tell a grim story. Some 88 rookies have taken the floor in an NBA game this regular season, including undrafted free-agents, fringe players hanging onto two-way contracts, players from previous draft classes who’ve only now been brought stateside, and a handful of emergency 10-day contract-type guys. Of that extremely unsexy group, Avdija—who I must reiterate was the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA draft and was selected by a team that finished second-to-last in the dismal Southeast Division in each of the last two seasons—ranks 81st in usage, at just 11.8 percent. Per Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time, Avdija’s usage ranks 437th out of 466 players who’ve seen at least 100 minutes of playtime this season. For a point of comparison, in no season of Tony Allen’s 14-year career did his usage fall below 16.6 percent, and Allen was one of the last truly offensively inept wings to hold down a rotation job in a sport rapidly evolving to exclude defense-only non-centers. Jan Vesely’s usage never dropped below 12.0, and he was one of the worst, most apocalyptically embarrassing draft busts in history. Bismack damn Biyombo gets more looks at the cup.

The problem isn’t necessarily that Avdija lacks skills, although like a lot of young rookies his game needs lots of refining. And it certainly isn’t that he lacks confidence—Avdija has been a pro since he was 16 years old and won MVP of Israel’s premier league when he was just 18. What he’s lacked is the opportunities that usually come with being a top-10 draft pick in the NBA. The Wizards stink—current six-game winning streak notwithstanding—but in Bradley Beal they employ the NBA’s second-leading scorer, which will tend to focus opportunities away from the hotshot rookie. Hilariously, despite scoring 30 points a game and gobbling up 34 percent of possessions for his own offense, Beal doesn’t even lead the Wizards in usage. Russell Westbrook, who is in the 17th percentile in points-per-shot attempt and in the 14th percentile in turnover percentage, is all the way up to third in the NBA in usage, at a whopping 36.4 percent of Wizards possessions. Even with head coach Scott Brooks staggering their court time, Westbrook and Beal play more than 24 minutes together per game. On a team with those two, plus hungry sharpshooter Davis Bertans and sophomore Rui Hachimura, who is starved for his own offense, the opportunities for Avdija to try his hand at really anything other than glorified spectating simply aren’t there, and will not be there.

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This has sort of become Washington’s thing during the Scott Brooks era. They drafted 18-year-old wing Troy Brown Jr. with the 15th pick in the 2018 draft, but on a squad with John Wall and Bradley Beal and in an organization that still extremely incorrectly thought of itself as a fringe contender, the role and the minutes and the opportunities never materialized, and earlier this season they shipped him off to Chicago in a shuffling of flotsam. They drafted Hachimura with the ninth pick in the 2019 draft, and after a reasonably encouraging, plague-shortened rookie season his touches in the front court and usage have both declined this year and are now well below league average. The reason to draft those players—the reason to draft any player—in the top half of the first round is because they have promising offensive potential, but in order to tease out and maximize that potential, you simply must let them have some of the ball. If that’s not in the cards—if the only use you have for another player is to play a narrow role and never touch the ball—there is quite literally no point in using draft picks to build your roster. The same work could absolutely be done by players acquired via veteran minimum contracts, who’ve already adapted to thrive in the orbit of veteran ball-hogs.

This is the downside of owner Ted Leonsis’s infamous proclamation that his Wizards would “never, ever tank.” Tanking sucks. It’s good to not tank. But there’s some distance between tanking—deliberately sandbagging your team in order to lose games—and charging pell mell after whatever the lowest possible rung of playoff contention happens to be, season after season. That area in there, between tanking and scrambling, is where good, smart front offices orient the priorities of their non-contending periods around the middle- and long-term health of their team. Dismissing any sacrifice of meager short-term rewards in pursuit of longer-term goals—obliterating the useful distinctions between rebuilding and tanking—forces a lot of bad and dumb maneuvering, especially when prioritizing those immediate rewards yields largely the same shitty short-term result. It’s not clear at all that letting Beal and especially Westbrook utterly dominate the offense has made the Wizards all that more viable a playoff team. They’re eight games below .500; they’ve got the eighth-worst net rating in the league; their offense, in the hands of Beal and Westbrook, ranks seventh from the bottom in points per possession. The results suck. That the conference around them sucks bad enough for that level of mediocrity to power a playoff chase shouldn’t change its appraisal. That’s a shitty team with a garbage offense. The kids might do worse, but they could hardly do much worse.

Instead of finding out, the Wizards are training yet another potential future core player for a job standing in the corner, spectating, sucking, and losing. Or at least they were, before Avdija’s season abruptly ended. But it’s a handy reminder that you can only train your future foundation to stand in the corner, spectate, suck, and lose for so long before that becomes the identity of your team. Unfortunately for the Wizards, they crossed that horizon whole lifetimes ago. The NBA should make it illegal for them to draft anyone ever again.

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