NBA DRAFT

Deni Avdija a fit for Bulls? Yes, but it’s complicated

/ by Rob Schaefer
Presented By BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois
NBA DRAFT
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* Between now and the 2020 NBA Draft’s currently-scheduled date of Nov. 18, NBC Sports Chicago will be making the case for the Bulls to select some of the consensus top prospects with their No. 4 overall pick. We’ve broken down LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Next up, Deni Avdija.

Deni Avdija has quickly become a favorite draft target of online prognosticators and Bulls fans alike, and it’s easy to glean why. 

The (reported, until combine results are in) 6-foot-9 Israeli forward is the picture of a modern wing — fluid handling the rock, togglable between the 3 and 4, adept playmaking out of the pick-and-roll and in transition, and a smart team defender. His trophy shelf already includes a FIBA U20 European Championship MVP (2019) and Israeli League MVP (2020). He’s the youngest to achieve the latter — seasoned for a 19-year-old.

In two full seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv, a club that carries weighty expectations, he ascended from fringe rotation player to focal point, scraping his way onto the floor for key moments against elevated Euroleague competition and putting together some impressive all-around performances in the Israeli League playoffs.

“At the beginning, as a young guy, it was a lot of pressure,” Avdija said during his Zoom media availability as part of the draft combine when asked how the expectations that come with playing for Maccabi impacted his development. “But as the time progressed, that pressure became a good thing. It helped me going into hard situations that I can meet in the future. I think it’s a great advantage.”

 

Let’s break down the strengths, improvement areas and general specter of Avdija’s game, and his fit with the Bulls should Artūras Karnišovas select him No. 4 overall in the Nov. 18 draft.

Stats

A comparison of Avdija’s raw statistics between the Israeli League and Euroleague reveals a vast difference in role and competition level. Via RealGM:

2019-20 I-BSL: 33 G (21 starts), 27.6 mpg, 21% usg | 12.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.7 apg, 2.2 tpg, 1 bpg, 0.9 spg | 52.6% FG, 35.3% 3P, 59.4% FT | 61.3% TS, 17.1 PER

2019-20 Euroleague: 26 G (5 starts), 14.3 mpg, 15.6% usg | 4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.7 tpg, 0.2 bpg, 0.4 spg | 43.6% FG, 27.7% 3P, 55.6% FT | 51.5% TS, 10.5 PER

Israel won Gold at the 2019 FIBA U20 European championship, held in the summer of 2019. Avdija was 18. Via FIBA:

2019 FIBA U20: 7 G (7 starts), 32.5 mpg | 18.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.9 tpg, 2.4 bpg, 2.1 spg | 42.9% FG, 28.6% 3P, 60% FT (45 attempts) | 51.7% TS

His best two games were the semis and finals, across which he averaged 24.5 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks with 50-41.7-82.4 shooting splits.

Strengths

Avdija’s blend of handling, agility and feel is rare for someone his size and age. He’s a patient decision-maker in the halfcourt, showing comfort making a variety of reads out of the pick-and-roll and post with Maccabi. His proficiency in each context is easily projectable to the NBA, especially considering he’ll be playing with vastly improved spacing stateside.

His athleticism — which, at the NBA level, probably grades out as solid, not necessarily elite — pops most as a straight line driver in transition. His fastbreak reps feature nice flashes as a ball handler, awe-inspiring hit-aheads and outlets, and graceful finishes. Though not a terrific rebounder, he pulls down enough (his 22.1% defensive rebounding rate in I-BSL is great, 18.2% in Euroleague slightly above average for his position) to make his grab-and-go ability legitimately promising.

These are the pillars of Avdija’s offensive potential. At best, he’s a gap-filler, able to shoulder creation duties for a spread-out NBA offense and facilitate easy buckets in transition — all while standing 6-9, guarding wings and forwards and rebounding at a fair rate. An all-encompassing prospect with whom scoring guards, especially, (*cough* Bulls *cough*) will love playing.

Defensively, because Avdija is not overwhelmingly athletic or long, there’s probably a cap on his impact. But he’s at least consistently aware, stays vertical contesting and gives genuine effort. He’ll never be a stopper, but he won’t be your weakest link either and is generally a very intelligent team defender. Dartier guards and post bruisers give him trouble, but he should be laterally quick enough to hang with most NBA wings and packing on muscle should help the latter.

 

And it’s again worth noting that he’s been and produced in big games early in his career. There are holes in his game, which we’ll discuss shortly, but being a gold medalist and Israeli League champion — and MVP — while still a teenager is wildly impressive at best and indicative of valuable experience at worst.

Improvement areas

This entire section could be devoted to Avdija’s jump shot. It’s his biggest NBA swing skill. 

First, the percentages. On its face, Avdija’s shooting splits of 50.8-33.3-58.8 (across all competitions) are downright alarming, especially the free throw shooting. Hitting one out of every three 3-pointers as a developing teenager in a pro league (or in Avdija’s case two pro leagues, one of which is the second-best in the world) is workable — even on lowish volume — but sub-60 percent free-throw shooting almost always foretells struggles at the next level. This is not a new issue either; it’s permeated his basketball life, as evidenced by his percentage from the line during the 2019 U20 FIBA championships.

Dig a little deeper and there’s some reason for optimism. Avdija’s form is sound and he did improve shooting the 3 over the course of the 2019-20 season in confidence and efficiency. In 47 pre-pandemic hiatus games, he cumulatively shot 33.6% from 3-point range on 2.4 attempts per contest, but had a hot streak and spike in attempts through January and February.

 

I-BSL 3PA (3PA/g)

I-BSL 3P%

Euroleague 3PA (3PA/g)

Euroleague 3P%

Cumulative 3PA (3PA/g)

Cumulative 3P%

Oct

11 (2.8)

36.3%

3 (0.6)

33.3%

14 (1.6)

35.7%

Nov

6 (2)

33.3%

2 (0.5)

0%

8 (1.1)

25%

Dec

12 (2.4)

25%

9 (1.8)

22.2%

21 (2.1)

23.8%

Jan

16 (4)

43.8%

9 (1.5)

44.4%

25 (2.5)

44%

Feb

22 (5.5)

45.5%

17 (4.3)

35.3%

39 (4.9)

41%

March

5 (5)

20%

7 (3.5)

0%

12 (4)

16.7%

TOTAL

72 (3.4)

37.5%

47 (1.8)

27.7%

119 (2.5)

33.6%

The free throw shooting is less encouraging. No pattern, low volume (even on a per 36 minute basis, his free throw attempt average in I-BSL was 3.8 for the full season, Euroleague 1.7) and fairly consistently in the flip-a-coin range. There’s no sugar-coating it.

 

I-BSL FTA (FTA/g)

I-BSL FT%

Euroleague FTA (FTA/g)

Euroleague FT%

Cumulative FTA (FTA/g)

Cumulative FT%

Oct

10 (2.5)

60%

2 (0.4)

50%

12 (1.3)

58.3%

Nov

3 (1)

33.3%

2 (0.5)

100%

5 (0.7)

60%

Dec

21 (4.2)

47.6%

4 (0.8)

50%

25 (2.5)

48%

Jan

4 (1)

75%

2 (0.3)

100%

6 (0.6)

83.3%

Feb

17 (4.3)

47.1%

6 (1.5)

33.3%

23 (2.9)

43.5%

March

2 (2)

50%

2 (1)

50%

4 (1.3)

50%

TOTAL

57 (2.7)

50.9%

18 (0.7)

55.6%

75 (1.6)

52%

OK, maybe a spoonful: In seven post-pandemic regular-season games (all Israeli League), Avdija shot 41% from deep on 5.6 attempts per contest, and 72.4% from the free throw line on 4.1 attempts per game Both did regress in the postseason — in five games, he shot 25% on 25 total 3-point attempts attempts and 70% on 10 total free throw attempts, eight of which came in one game.

Avdija candidly addressed concerns regarding his shot during his draft combine comments to reporters over Zoom.

“The shot is not always about your technique. I think my technique is good. I just think people don’t see the surroundings,” he said. “People forget that I was young, I was going through a team with a lot of experience, with a lot of pressure, with a lot of fans every night. I played several kinds of minutes — sometimes less, sometimes more, sometimes there’s more pressure — so it was kind of ups and downs in the shot.

 

“But I think towards the end, I felt very comfortable in the team and that’s the main reason I think I shot better. I think my confidence raised and I felt better and the guys made me feel better. I think my technique, I can shoot, I’m a great shooter. I don’t think about the same shot, I think about the next shot. And I mean, if I couldn’t shoot I wouldn’t shoot 3s, but as long as I shoot I’m confident and I’m trying to make every shot I can.”

There are two ways to interpret that bite. On the one hand, post-hiatus improvements point to growing confidence, and if Avdija’s shooting issues are truly mental, perhaps they’ll fade as he matures. On the other, pressure isn’t lessening if he’s a top-five pick in the NBA Draft and steps into a high-profile market like Chicago, and shooting in the low 70s from the line still wouldn’t be ideal for an offensive-minded wing.

Ultimately, it falls in the eye of the beholder, and it’s up to the Bulls to make their determination based on underlying on-court indicators and whatever personal interaction they can finagle.

This is more words than we’ll spend on any single aspect of Avdija’s game, and the reason for harping on his shooting is multifold. Chiefly: Avdija’s early-career NBA role at the offensive end of the floor is probably going to be predicated on catch-and-shoot looks, closeouts attacks and fast break sprints as he develops the strength and smarts to consistently break down NBA defenses. While his IQ translates to being a heady mover off-ball and strong cutter, if his jumper isn’t a threat — or, worse, he becomes discouraged taking them — it’s going to sap multiple avenues for him to impact the game.

As for other improvement areas: Avdija is a bit right-hand dominant; needs to get stronger to consistently penetrate defenses/draw and finish through contact (as evidenced by his cumulative 1.9 free throw attempts per game in 2019-20) and not get bullied on the block; and he’s prone to flippant turnovers every so often. All can be ironed out and worked up. More concerning: His wingspan is reported to be in the 6-9 to 6-10 range, leaving a bit to be desired.

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Range of outcomes

Avdija’s ceiling outcome is extremely alluring for the modern game. If his jump shot comes around and his inside game improves as he develops, he’s an incredibly valuable archetype: A swiss army knife wing that plays both ends, handles like a guard, reads the game well, creates for others and can score in a variety of ways (transition, post, off-the-dribble, spotting up, cutting). A true point forward that can affect the game in myriad facets.

 

But there exists major downside potential. While his jack-of-all-trades skill set raises his floor as a prospect, pinpointing a surefire elite NBA talent in Avdija’s arsenal is an elusive proposition. His handle is smooth, but one-sided. He flashes agility, but isn’t explosively quick. He’s a great passer, but not a game bender (yet?). A fundamentally sound defender, but lacking from a tools perspective. The concerns with his shot are laid out above.

If he continues to improve in all of the above areas, he could be a special player. But if one or more of the ancillary components of his game don’t translate, and he can’t consistently get to the rim or hit jumpers, he could become a mid-rotation glue-guy type player — not a bad thing, but not worthy of a No. 4 overall draft choice.

Which side of the spectrum Avdija lands is unknowable at this point. The good news is he’ll be 19 on draft day and appears committed, competitive and self-aware. His intangibles are billed as a strong suit.

“I’m gonna get there,” Avdija said during the combine of being a consistently above 70 percent free throw shooter. “And if it’s gonna take me to stay until after practice to make 3,000 to get over that 70 percent, I’ll do that. I think I improved my free throws after the [hiatus] and I’m gonna be humble and keep doing that until I get my goals.”

Bulls fit

The best version of Avdija would be a tidy fit on the Bulls’ current roster. With Maccabi, he played in a scoring-guard-centric offense alongside Tyler Dorsey and Scottie Wilbekin, a meaningful analog when considering Zach LaVine and Coby White’s current starting status. His passing and fast break prowess would help a team that was inefficient dishing and pushing the ball last season, yet wants to implement an up-tempo, read-and-react offense.

He’d also — incidentally — fill an area of long-term need on the wing and, if Otto Porter Jr. stays healthy, can be brought along in a supplementary role at first. Whether Avdija is most comfortable at the small or power forward slot will be a dynamic to watch wherever he lands. Offensively, given his suspect but not altogether lost shot, he’s probably best suited at the 4, but would probably need to play alongside a strong defensive and rebounding center. His perimeter creation can be a major advantage as a power forward too.

As a big, versatile wing, Avdija has enough upside to justify pegging as the best talent available at No. 4. But, as with most atop this draft class, downside exists. 

For Bulls fans: Take heart in the fact that, given how plugged in Artūras Karnišovas is in the international scouting scene, we can assume optimistic early indicators on the question marks in Avdija’s game if he is indeed the choice at No. 4.