Deni Avdija has proven himself to be a more than capable defender so far this season, in just his second year in the NBA and at only 20 years old. After a strong start on that end of the floor, the bar has been raised for him lately.
In recent games the Wizards have been relying heavily on Avdija to guard the opposing team's best player, no matter the position or style of scorer. He has been assigned to guards like Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker, as well as versatile wings like Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler.
Part of it has been Avdija's success as a defender and some of it has been out of necessity, as the Wizards have been missing a host of players due to COVID-19 protocols. But what it amounts to is an opportunity for Avdija to be challenged while also being given a show of trust from the coaching staff.
"It’s going to be a challenge. People forget he’s a second-year player and we’re asking him to guard All-Stars," head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said.
"So, it’s not going to be great every night, and I don’t expect it to be, but I think there’s growth. The more he does it, he will have a comfort level with guarding those marquee matchups and understanding personnel tendencies. It’s only going to make him better."
Avdija spent a good portion of the first half on Butler before moving over to defend shooters like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Butler went 2-for-4 against Avdija, all on plays at the rim. Avdija contested the first two to force misses, while Butler adjusted to score around him afterward.
Butler finished the game with 25 points and a career-high 15 assists. Kyle Kuzma also spent plenty of time on him and so did others like Spencer Dinwiddie and Corey Kispert. Collectively, they didn't have much success.
Avdija had an uneven night against him, just as he did against Harris and Walker. He was better against Mitchell, who had his way with the rest of the Wizards. Avdija stopped him on a key possession late in the fourth quarter of the Wizards' win.
Avdija's mixed results, though, are to be expected given his age and level of experience. Unseld Jr. sees these matchups as teaching moments for a young player who has the potential to be an elite NBA defender.
"He’s shown his ability to do it, that’s the bottom line. I give him a lot of credit, a lot of nights he’s done a terrific job. Tonight, he struggled a bit early and got in foul trouble," Unseld Jr. said.
"That just goes back to the hand discipline and behind mindful of that’s what Jimmy does. He initiates a lot of contact, he gets to the line. You just gotta be mindful of it and be prepared to absorb some of that contact without getting your hands over the ball."
Avdija has the best defensive rating (105.2) among Wizards regulars. Though it's a team stat, him being an outlier on the team shows they are better defensively when he is on the floor.
Players guarded by Avdija shoot 4.2% worse than their season average, the biggest differential for any Wizards defender. Avdija is also third on the team in contested shots per game (6.3) and second in blocks (0.8/g).
Avdija has only played 88 NBA games. He's still figuring it out. But the defensive assignments the Wizards keep handing him tell you all you need to know about how much they trust him and how they see his potential moving forward.