WASHINGTON -- Early in the fourth quarter of the Wizards' win over the Grizzlies on Friday night, Memphis big man Jaren Jackson Jr. ran out to the top of the key, caught a pass and turned around to face up with Wizards forward Deni Avdija. He dribbled back and forth before driving left, only to have Avdija trail him every inch of the way and force a missed left-handed hookshot.
It was one of several plays where Avdija was able to neutralize Jackson Jr., who is one of the league's most mobile big man, and one of many plays in the young 2021-22 season where Avdija's defense has stood out. He has become one of the most versatile defenders on the Wizards, who so far can count that end of the floor a strength, with the 10th-best defensive rating according to Basketball Reference.
Avdija has the second-best defensive field goal percentage on the team at 36.2%, second only to Bradley Beal. According to Second Spectrum, opponents shoot 5.4% lower against him compared to their season averages.
Making things more interesting is that Avdija feels he is targeted by opposing teams who seem to believe he can be exploited. Time and time again, teams are learning that is not the case.
"I think I was a good defender even last year, but last year I didn't get the most respect. I'm just, it's my heart, you know? I'm not the most athletic. You see people bring me in pick-and-roll all the time. They think they can attack me, they think they can score on me, and it's fun," Avdija said.
"I'm taking it as a challenge. It's fun to see them thinking like 'oh yeah, there he goes, slow feet, tall guy, I'm quicker than him.' But it's not all about that. I'm playing with my heart and I'm doing everything I can to play 100 percent every play on the court."
Head coach Wes Unseld Jr., who was brought in to lead the Wizards in part because of his defensive reputation, has also noticed Avdija is being targeted. But given how well Avdija tends to rise to the challenge, he has the utmost confidence in his ability to make teams regret doing so.
"I think he's done a terrific job. Keep doing it. It's one thing if it's hurting us and it's a deficit or an issue we have to try to fix. But it bodes well for us, he does a great job keeping those guys in front and making them take tough, contested twos. So, I have no problem. If they want to, it's almost doing us a favor," Unseld Jr. said.
Avdija, 20, showed flashes as a defender last season as a rookie, though he had to take his lumps while adjusting to a new league and new personnel. He had a tendency to get into foul trouble, as it was a common sight for him to stay vertical and keep his feet down, only to get the whistle when opposing players initiated contact.
The NBA's change in foul rule enforcement this season has probably helped that cause, but so has having one year of experinece under his belt. Avdija is averaging 3.4 fouls per 36 minutes this season compared to 4.0 last year.
"I'm slowly building my reputation as a defender," Avdija said.
Part of that process has been dealing with trash talk from other players. Avdija is young and, as he said, not the most explosive athlete on the floor. That said, he's got excellent size at 6-foot-9 for a guy who can defend nearly all five positions. And he does a great job moving his feet to stay in front of opponents, which has allowed him to improve as a shot-blocker. He is now averaging 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes despite not being in traditional shot-blocking position as a center manning the lane.
Basically, to opposing teams, it's 'mess' around and find out.
"Trash talk, it comes on probably the first play, but after that first stop or me defending, it slows down. Be sure about that... I don't talk back, I show it on the court," he said.
A native Hebrew speaker, Avdija added his "vocabulary in trash talk" isn't yet up to speed. Maybe that will come with time. For now, he's saying plenty by how he plays.