WASHINGTON -- In the second quarter of the Wizards' loss to Cleveland on Friday night, Cavs center Evan Mobley Jr. caught a bounce pass in stride and charged to the rim. He went up with his right hand, at 7-feet tall and with all the athleticism that helped make him the 2021 third overall pick. Wizards forward Deni Avdija rose with two hands in the air, adjusted with his left and swatted the shot away.
The ball found its way to the perimeter, so Mobley Jr. called for it in the post, knowing he was in isolation with Avdija. He drove left into the paint, only to have his attempt altered and sent wayward once again by the Wizards forward.
It was a familiar sight, as Avdija has become one of the Wizards' best rim-protectors. He is second among Wizards regulars only to Daniel Gafford in blocks per game (0.8) and blocks per 36 minutes (1.3). Those numbers won't win him a Defensive Player of the Year award, but they represent a bit of a surprising step in his development.
Avdija now has 18 blocks on the year in 20 games this season, more than he had last year (15) in 54 games played.
"Wow," Avdija said when told of that statistic. "I’m just taking pride, to be honest with you. I’m stepping onto the court, trying to guard the best guys, trying to help the team to really protect the paint."
Avdija, 20, said head coach Wes Unseld Jr. emphasized rim protection going into the season, so he has focused on that area. Avdija has made strides overall as a defender this season, particularly when it comes to isolation defense. He only allows 0.67 points per possession in isolation, the best rate among qualifying Wizards players.
"He’s getting them at the point of release. So, just having high and active hands, the timing," Unseld Jr. said. "He’s getting those shots, guys are trying to go around him or navigate through him and he’s just kind of playing the angles. He’s smart enough to figure it out."
Teammate Kyle Kuzma has raved about Avdija's defense so far this season. When asked for specifics after a recent practice, Kuzma gave a blunt observation.
"Because he actually plays defense and that stands out, maybe not to the casual fan or somebody that doesn’t know basketball. He just has a good way about moving his feet, staying in front of guys. He does a great job of using his hands at the rim, staying vertical, and he’s getting better off the ball," Kuzma said.
Scour the predraft evaluations of Avdija before he was the ninth overall pick in 2020 and you are unlikely to find much about shot-blocking. And, again, none of this means he's the next Dikembe Mutombo.
All of it is just a pleasant surprise, a sort of untapped talent the Wizards are discovering. For instance, Avdija blocked just six shots in 34 games playing in the EuroLeague before the Wizards drafted him.
Blocks aren't very common in the EuroLeague in general. The current leaderboard for the 2021-22 season features a player (Moustapha Fall) in the top-five for blocked shots averaging just 0.8 of them per game.
The games are shorter, which affects all volume numbers in the EuroLeague. But there are also some differences that may lead to fewer blocked shots in general.
"I think the athleticism is less in EuroLeague than in the NBA. I think there’s more athletic guys here," Avdija said. "I think maybe in the EuroLeague they shoot more from the outside and not from the paint because the paint is really packed in Europe. That’s what I can guess."
Avdija played in the EuroLeague and is now in the NBA, so his perspective is probably the best to elicit when it comes to theories for why there are fewer blocks overseas. Unseld Jr., though, pays some attention to the league. He says he pulls offensive plays from EuroLeague teams to implement for the Wizards because he likes the spacing and ball movement.
So, he pays much more attention to the offense over there but does seem to have a similar theory to Avdija.
"The difference in athleticism, the size and agility of players in this league and the EuroLeague. The examples being Gaff and the high-flyers. You don’t see a ton of those in the EuroLeague," Unseld Jr. said.
Avdija may not have shown his shot-blocking ability before coming to the NBA, but he is showing it now and it's adding another layer to the ceiling of what he could ultimately be once he reaches his potential.