By putting him in the starting lineup for their preseason opener, and by talking up his shooting ability during training camp, the Wizards had engineered some hype for rookie ninth overall pick Deni Avdija ahead of his first NBA game. Yet, somehow he exceeded it, and then some.
Avdija was brilliant in his first NBA action with 15 points on a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and 3-for-3 from three. He's only 19 years old and didn't get to play in the summer league, yet he hit the ground running opposite Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets.
"At the beginning, I will be honest. It was like 'whoa, you're in Barclays Center and you're playing against all those players you saw on TV," Avdija said. "As soon as I broke through, I felt comfortable. That's what it's always about. I played hard and look what happened."
Avdija may be young, but he also isn't new to the professional ranks. He came to the NBA from the EuroLeague, widely considered the second-best league in the world. He knows how to prepare for games and how to battle grown men with more experience than him.
Playing up a level is something he's accustomed to. This time happened to go much better than previous ones.
"People don't understand what I've been through. Four years ago, I was just a kid going up to the professional league and I was so nervous going on the court. I think my first game, I scored one point," he said.
"It was a hell of a journey for me to get here. I woke up early throughout all the seasons, I went late to shoot, I was always in the gym working while my friends were hanging out. That's what brought me here and that's why it's so fun to perform because you know you did those things and you worked so hard. I see what it brings me, so I'm never going to take the foot off the gas. I'm always going to work extra."
The preparation showed in his outside shot. One of the knocks on Avdija entering the draft was his developing three-pointer, as he shot just 27.7 percent from three in the EuroLeague. He also made only 55.6 percent of his free throws.
But once he arrived with the Wizards, he was insistent those numbers didn't tell the whole story, that he had improved over the offseason. Head coach Scott Brooks and general manager Tommy Sheppard each praised his mechanics and raved about his potential as a shooter. Teammate Rui Hachimura even compared him to Davis Bertans, one of the best three-point marksmen in the league.
It was just one game, but Avdija backed all of that up with a perfect performance from long range. His three triples matched his best game in two seasons in the EuroLeague.
"First of all, I'm not afraid of anything. Don't expect it to be perfect like that all the time. I know it. I shot perfect today, but I'm not expected to shoot like that next time," he said.
"I'm going to put those shots up confidently and I'm going to keep those reps. I'm [practicing] a lot, a lot of shots and keeping up my mechanics. I know I'm just going to shoot it with confidence and what's gonna happen is gonna happen."
Avdija also flashed his unique ability to push the pace as a ball-handler. At 6-foot-9, he can fly in transition, like an oversized guard. He can also pass accurately off the dribble.
All in all, it was about as good as anyone could expect from his debut. In fact, it may have a significant impact on the Wizards' biggest preseason roster battle. Brooks is sorting through his options for who could start at the three. Avdija had the best showing of the candidates in the first game.
Given Avdija was a role player most recently in the EuroLeague, it would be a bit surprising if he vaulted into a starter role this early in his NBA career. But if he continues to play like he did on Sunday, the Wizards will have no choice but to give him playing time.
There are only two preseason games left before the Wizards begin the regular season on Dec. 23 against the Sixers. Avdija has one strong game under his belt, now it's time to build off of it.
"It's amazing. I mean, it's a dream come true. I worked so hard for it," he said.