Wizards

Kuzma, Avdija are developing bond on and off court

Wizards

WASHINGTON -- After every Wizards practice and shootaround, the team splits up into groups to finish the workout with shooting drills. Montrezl Harrell and Daniel Gafford generally pair up with assistant coach Joseph Blair. Bradley Beal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are a usual grouping. Davis Bertans and Corey Kispert often shoot together.

One of those groups is Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Anthony Gill. All three are about the same size and like to shoot from the outside. And for Avdija, it gives him a chance to shoot alongside two veteran players who are serious about their craft and pride themselves on putting in extra work.

Kuzma and Avdija, in particular, have really hit it off. Their connection has been seen in games and in press conference settings. There was a picture-turned-meme of Kuzma embracing Avdija after he missed a layup in a win against the Celtics. 

And in the weeks since, both have had very nice things to say about each other and the connection they have built in a short time as teammates.

"I really can't stand him as a person really. He annoys me every day," Kuzma joked after one shootaround. "I think that he does a great job defending, that's the No. 1 thing I love about him. He'll mix it up, he'll defend. He's coachable, you can talk to him, he receives things. He's a very sweet kid, a very sweet kid."

That last phrase prompted a follow-up after a practice days later. Washington Post reporter Ava Wallace asked for an explanation, as it's not often you hear one professional athlete call another "sweet."

 

Kuzma seemed very self-aware of that.

"He's just a sweet kid, you know what I mean? I guess you don't really use that type of words for people, I guess nowadays, because that comes off as being soft," he explained.

"But when you ask me about someone being a human being, being sweet is the ultimate compliment. That's being kind, someone that you can talk to, someone that is caring. That's rare in society nowadays and it's refreshing when you have those types of vibes around you."

When asked about Kuzma, Avdija also mentioned "vibes." That, in addition to the fact he feels he can learn a lot from Kuzma as a professional. Kuzma is in his fifth NBA season, but came to Washington this summer with a championship ring and the experience of being around all-time greats like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson (and Alex Caruso) during his time with the Lakers.

"He's very professional, he loves the game and likes to work extra. Guys that like to work and want to do extra shots or extra work, I'm always getting along with them because I've got that mindset, too," Avdija said. "I don't know, we are just enjoying our vibe together working out and shooting the ball."

On the court and in games, the two have also developed chemistry. Kuzma appreciates Avdija's game because of the style he plays and how his current path reminds him of himself.

Kuzma came into the league on a struggling Lakers team and was a key cog in their offense, with plenty of shots to go around. But then James and Anthony Davis showed up and he had to adjust his role and essentially take a backseat as a scorer.

Avdija may not be playing alongside legends (give Montrezl Harrell some time), but he is on a roster deep with veterans who can score. The minutes and shots just aren't going to be there for him in the short-term.

What Avdija did on Saturday night against the Magic is probably the best he can hope for. He played 18 minutes and scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds while adding an assist, block and steal. He shot 3-for-4 from the field, 2-for-3 from three and was a game-high +22 in the box score.

Avdija is only 20 years old and it's not easy for young players to be efficient in smaller roles. That's generally something players learn how to do over time. But he has shown on various occasions he can do that, in addition to being consistently one of the team's best defensive players.

"Deni doesn't really have a flashy game and doesn't really need to. He impacts the game so much at a young age that I just try to tell him, through my experiences, just stay with it," Kuzma said.

"Just work on all the little things because in this league, you're always going to have the opportunity for what you want at some point, you just never really know when it's going to come. I think for me saying that, the past two years I just tried to work on my entire game and do the little things; defense and rebounding. That's what he's doing right now and he impacts the game every single night guarding players and he's a very underrated rebounder."

 

One could make the argument their similarities go beyond the parallel of having to learn how to defer to others offensively. Kuzma and Avdija are about the same height and offer versatility on both ends. Both players can defend guards, wings and bigs and they are unusually mobile for their size with the ball in their hands.

Kuzma is further along as a shooter and scorer, but Avdija is six years younger and could get there someday. While he develops that area of his game, Kuzma sees Avdija doing exactly what the Wizards need him to.

"He does a great job of playing the right way and play-making for others," Kuzma said. "He gets downhill and he makes the right pass ahead of him. He keeps it simple. He's doing well this year."