Deni Avdija has by no means had it easy as a rookie this season. Drafted at just 19 years old, he had no summer league, a shortened training camp and preseason. In January, he was in the NBA's COVID-19 protocols for weeks.
And all along the way, he's been thrown into a difficult situation for anyone his age, in being relied on by veterans who want to win now and on a team with playoff aspirations. Though they are falling short of those goals, the pressure to perform has been there.
Just listen to what Bradley Beal revealed on Wednesday night after the Wizards' win over the Magic.
"[Russell Westbrook] yells at him if he doesn’t shoot the ball. Whenever Russ yells, you do what the hell he says and you kind of let the results play out as they may. We all just constantly encourage him to be aggressive looking for his shots," Beal said.
Indeed, Westbrook has been hard on Avdija, and so has Beal. So has head coach Scott Brooks. That's because they know he can be a really good player, as he showed in the victory on Wednesday with 16 points and five rebounds. He shot 6-for-10 from the field and 4-for-7 from three, one short of his career-high for makes.
That continued what has been a recent uptick for the Wizards forward. In his last six games, Avdija is averaging 10.5 points and 8.8 rebounds. Though his shooting percentages have remained lower than the Wizards would like, 40.4% overall and 32.3% from three during this six-game stretch, many are encouraged by the trajectory.
"He’s definitely trending in the right direction. You can just see it in his face," Brooks said. "He’s smiling. Even during the game, I said ‘I like to see you smile.’ He said ‘coach, I’m having fun.’ That’s the point of the game. Have fun every night. Fun should not be predicated on making a shot or missing a shot. If that’s the case, if you’re a great shooter, you’re only going to have fun every other shot."
Avdija generally being more cheerful lately is understandable given how his play has gone up and down this season. Before these last six games, in his previous 26 he averaged just 5.3 points while shooting 24.3% from three. He was in and out of the starting lineup and, at times, even the rotation.
But now he's playing with more confidence and that was seen on Wednesday when he turned to run up the floor before one of his threes even went through the basket.
"He was like that when he first stepped foot in D.C. He was just a confident player. He wasn’t cocky, he just believes in himself," Beal said.
"That’s one thing that I love about him. He doesn’t back down from anybody. He doesn’t back down from a challenge from coach or me or Russ. He accepts everything and he fights it headstrong. You always appreciate a warrior like that."
Beal said he's noticed Avdija become more aware of other players' tendencies and that's helped him find his role offensively. He now has a better understanding of when and where to cut, and when and where both Beal and Westbrook will drive to the rim. Knowing those things, he can position himself better for a kick-out shot or just simply get out of the way and give them space.
Those intricacies are a reminder it will take time for Avdija to realize his potential, which at this point still appears to be substantial. The ninth overall pick just five months ago, Avdija was selected by Washington because of his long-term upside. He was a project of sorts given his age and the fact he was a role player in his last stop, with Maccabi Tel Aviv of the EuroLeague.
Anyone expecting him to come in right away and light up the NBA was misguided. The Wizards picked Avdija because of what they think he will be at 23 years old, not the 20-year-old he is now. His combination of size at 6-foot-9 and skills with speed and playmaking in transition could be special if developed correctly.
But it's going to take time and probably a good deal of patience.
"Whether he went through the so-called rookie wall a month ago or so [I don't know]," Brooks said.
"Sometimes, we all expect and want it right away and he’s no different than all the other young players in this league. He came in as a 19-year-old. I don’t coach him as a 19-year-old. I coach him as a guy who signed up as an NBA player. You’re going to have ups and downs and he’s had his share."