Wizards

Deni Avdija set to play first game since April ankle injury

Wizards

When Deni Avdija first fractured his right ankle in April, ending his rookie season, he was told it would take 2-to-3 months to recover. In his mind, he expected 10 weeks.

At different times over the summer, expectations seemed to match up with reality. But there were also a series of setbacks that got in the way, which played into why he didn't participate in the Las Vegas Summer League in August and then was eased into training camp and the preseason by the Wizards.

On Saturday, his wait is expected to be over, as the Wizards have him on track to make his preseason debut against the New York Knicks. Avdija worked his way up to 5-on-5 scrimmages in practices this week and is all set to give it a go.

"Wow, it’s been a long time. It’s been a long time since April [when] I got injured," Avdija said. "It was a pretty tough ride for me at the beginning. All the preparation and rehabbing wasn’t easy... It was not the plan for me to be out so long, but I just had to keep going and I had to deal with it."

"I know my body didn’t repair itself like everybody thought it would but, hey, I had more time to work on my game, more time to get stronger and work in the weight room. It didn’t stop me from getting up every morning to just work."

 

Avdija, 20, said this was his longest injury absence since he was 14 years old back home playing in Israel. The time off has added motivation and perspective. He had a rollercoaster of a rookie year between the injury and playing during a pandemic, but he's excited for Year 2 with what he believes is a good foundation to build on.

"I feel like I’m part of the team more now, kind of, if it makes sense in any way," Avdija said.

There may also be differences in how he's utilized by the Wizards. New head coach Wes Unseld Jr. believes there is some untapped potential in Avdija's game.

At 6-foot-9, Avdija is uniquely agile with the ball in his hands. He can dribble coast-to-coast with the speed and court vision of a guard.

The Wizards only saw glimpses of that last season as he shared the court with high-usage stars like Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. But Westbrook is now gone and there's a decent likelihood Avdija is placed on the bench where he can take on a larger playmaking role in the second unit.

At Friday's practice, Unseld Jr. gave Avdija what he called a "pop quiz" by changing his position on the fly during a scrimmage. Avdija spent some time at point guard, as well as on the wing. It was a learning experience for both sides. Unseld Jr. is figuring out what the 2020 first round pick is capable of.

"Right now, he’s kind of playing catch-up as far as where we need him to be going into the regular season, but we’ve seen opportunities for him to be more than what he was maybe last year," Unseld Jr. said. "By design or by accident, I think he’s got more layers to him. His ability to play-make and he’s obviously a shooter." 

Unseld Jr. added: "Though he didn’t shoot it great last season, I think the game has slowed down for him a bit. All rookies go through that where the game feels fast, the spacing and the timing. You don’t feel as open as you really are. As the game slows down, you’re able to make more reads and you feel more comfortable."

The last note was interesting and Unseld Jr. explained it a bit further to reporters after his press conference was over. He believes part of a young player's adjustment to the NBA is understanding what counts as being open at that level. The defenders are quicker, longer and more experienced, which means they can close out much faster than opponents at lower levels of basketball. Players need to recognize which windows are bigger than others and take advantage of them.

 

Avdija, Unseld Jr. explained, also presents versatility on defense. He expects him to mainly defend threes -- what Unseld Jr. described as the "marquee ball-handlers and play-makers" -- but also be able to switch onto smaller, "attack guards" and power forwards in the post.

It may be a lot to handle, but with one season under his belt, Avdija is ready for the challenge and to take another step forward.

"Hopefully it will be better. I just feel more mature and more ready," Avdija said.