Like most NBA rookies, Deni Avdija has gone through a process this season of learning how to defend without fouling. It hasn't been a major problem, but a problem nonetheless and Avdija is working on it.
He averages 4.2 fouls per 36 minutes, which is fourth on the Wizards, who rank 29th in the NBA in fouls per game. In some instances, it has been a roadblock for playing time. In December, he had four fouls in 15 minutes against the Bulls. Last month, he had five fouls in 20 minutes against the Rockets.
Avdija understands why he should cut down his fouls, but also does not want to get away from what he believes is a strength of his defense.
"It’s hard, man. I like being physical on defense. That was my kind of name [in the EuroLeague]," Avdija said. "I used to guard on the post, on the perimeter; I used to be very physical. Since I got here, I’m getting a lot of calls because of that. I’m not going to say I’m less physical, I’m going to be smarter with my physicality."
Some older basketball fans might find it refreshing that a guy who turned 20 in January has a bit of an old-school mindset. He likes defending with contact despite the modern NBA game generally allowing less of it.
Interestingly enough, some of that reputation is a misnomer. In fact, NBA games this season currently average 19.6 fouls per team per game, which is tied for the fewest in NBA history with the 2011-12 season. Teams are also shooting the second-fewest free throws per game on average (21.9) in league history.
The previous eras which many yearn for had way more fouls. The 1981-82 season, for instance, had 26.2 fouls per team per game. The 1990s never saw a season with fewer than 22 on average.
The difference between now and then has been more in the nature of fouls and not just on plays where fouls are called that previously would have been no-calls. There used to be harder fouls at the rim and the threshold for flagrant fouls is now seemingly much lower.
For Avdija, there have been cases where he got the whistle for not much contact at all, leaving him in obvious disbelief. He has received fouls on several plays where he stayed vertical with his hands in the air and didn't leave his feet, only to have an offensive player initiate contact with him.
Those types of fouls, Avdija believes, are part of the learning experience.
"I’m gonna know when to use my body, when to back up a little bit," Avdija said. "I’ll know who’s the guys they’re going to call more or call less. I’m really careful. I really think when I defend now rather than be physical."
Avdija said he has been watching film of his fouls in order to make adjustments. And he remains optimistic he can learn the tricks of the trade the more NBA experience he gains. Avdija has only played 34 games since being the ninth overall pick in November.
"I feel like it’s been easier since every game I’ve played. I’m just gonna get better," he said. "I’m going to be smarter, better and more experienced. Hopefully by the end of the season, I’m going to have a game without fouls."