Before the Wizards would travel to a road city last season, Deni Avdija often had questions for teammates and coaches. He had heard of every NBA city before -- while growing up in Israel he was an avid fan of the sport. But while, for instance, he knew of Milwaukee, he didn't know anything about it.
"I’m always asking questions. I’m always asking the guys how the cities are before we go there," Avdija told NBC Sports Washington. "I’ll ask like, ‘How is Milwaukee, is it cold? Is there stuff to do there? Are there any good restaurants out there?’ I’m gonna type it into Google to see how the population is and stuff like that."
Avdija would research cities before the Wizards played in them. He would look up demographics like religious populations and pictures of historic landmarks. But unfortunately, that's all he saw of many American cities in his first trip around the country, as due to the coronavirus pandemic, he was rarely permitted to explore the surroundings.
Avdija would be stuck in his (very nice) hotel room. He would get takeout from local restaurants, as long as it fit his diet as a professional athlete.
"The healthy ones. Not trying to do the cheesesteak in Philly," he said.
This season, Avdija hopes to do much more both on and off the court. In addition to more tourism, he is gearing up for what should be an expanded role for the Wizards.
Avdija is likely to play off the bench after starting 32 of his 54 games as a rookie last season, but that could come with some advantages. New head coach Wes Unseld Jr. sees potential for him as an on-ball play-maker, someone who at 6-foot-9 can make plays off the dribble both for himself and others.
Last season, while starting, Avdija spent much of his time on the perimeter, waiting for a catch-and-shoot opportunity from the team's ball-dominant guards, Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. Now Westbrook is gone and in the second unit, Avdija should have a greater opportunity to create.
"He’s going to have a bigger role," Unseld Jr. said. "Once his minutes see an uptick, I want him to be able to play in late-game situations when necessary. But he’s not there yet, he’s going to have to earn those minutes. Nothing is given and I think he’s well on his way to doing that. But I want to see him get out of his box a little bit. He came in as a shot-maker, playmaker. Didn’t get an opportunity to do much last season, so get him the ball, see where he can help us."
Unseld Jr. outlined several ways where Avdija will be more involved in the offense. He could run some pick-and-rolls and also do more damage on long closeouts. Unseld Jr. envisions Avdija's teammates drawing the defense towards them and Avdija making them pay by attacking the paint off catch-and-gos.
Now, it may take some time. Avdija is a bit behind his teammates after just recently finishing his recovery from the broken ankle he suffered late last season. The initial timeline was 8-to-12 weeks, but it took closer to six months due to a series of setbacks. Unseld Jr. said Avdija had a setback in September, which is why they had to ease him in once camp began.
That could affect the start of this season for him, which would be nothing new for Avdija. Last year as a rookie, he didn't have a Summer League or a traditional training camp and preseason. After playing professionally for years in the EuroLeague, he was prepared for the NBA level in some ways - the physicality and schedule mostly, he says - but nothing could have preconditioned him for that. The league did all it could to complete a season amid a pandemic and outside of a bubble, and it wasn't an easy road for any rookie.
Avdija is also still only 20 years old and Unseld Jr. can see signs of his inexperience.
"It fluctuates. I think that’s the mark of a young player. Some days, he’s really dialed in and he’s got it and it feels like he’s on the same page. Other days, he looks a little lost. I think that’s just the natural maturation a young player has to go through. For him, it’s just stay in the moment," Unseld Jr. said.
"I think sometimes he gets so obsessed with what he perceives as a past failure and it affects his next shot or affects his next play. You can’t bypass that, you’ve got to learn from those mistakes, but you can’t dwell on it. I think it’s important for him to understand you have to have that ‘next shot’ mentality. If there’s a problem, understand what the problem is, fix it and move on."
That type of level-headed veteran poise will only come with time. Avdija has played 54 games, so less than two-thirds of a full and normal 82-game NBA season. As talented as he is, he has a lot to learn.
When it comes to finding his basketball equilibrium, Avdija sees Beal as a model to follow. Avdija played with and against some really good players in the EuroLeague, but he never encountered anyone as good as Beal, who last year made All-NBA for the first time.
Beal is legitimately one of the 10 or 15 best players in the world -- only 15 are selected for All-NBA. And Avdija knows firsthand it's not only because of Beal's physical gifts.
"If he was just a gifted athlete only, I think he might not be in the top," Avdija said. "I think there’s a lot of things in him that really, with the gift he got for basketball, he really elevates himself to a whole different level. It’s his personality, his calm. I always see him calm. No matter what play it is, he always knows how to get to his spots."
Avdija also mentioned Beal's commitment to taking care of his body and trusting the training staff. Learning that type of maintenance is pivotal for any young NBA player, as their metabolism will eventually slow while aches and pains will accumulate.
Beal said he has seen the game slow down for Avdija through training camp and the preseason. He is excited about Avdija's ability to defend different positions and for the expected increase in his offensive role.
Beal has high hopes for the 2020 ninth overall pick.
"I actually got on him a little bit today about being more aggressive. The game is slowing down for him. We need him, he’s back and healthy. He’s getting his lungs back, too. It starts Wednesday. Hopefully he can get off to a good start in his second year and I’ll be there every step of the way pushing him," Beal said.
Avdija spent his entire summer rehabbing the ankle injury, what he called a "sacrifice to be ready for a new season." It wasn't fun, but he put in the time and persevered through unexpected obstacles.
Now he is ready to begin his second season, one that the Wizards hope will better showcase the reasons why they drafted him. It may not click overnight, but the stage has been set for him to find his niche in a way he wasn't able to last year.
"It’s mixed emotions, you know? You’re ready because you know where you are right now, you’re settled in, you’re settled into your city and you have a good house," Avdija said of his second year.
"You already know the facility, the players and coaches. You want to make an improvement, you want to be better, you want to have a better year than last year and help the team go as far as they can."