In Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, the Wizards have two recent first round picks expected to play important roles in their rotation this season under new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. One of them, however, may have their role adjusted.
It won't be Hachimura, whom Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said last month is projected once again to start at the four, which he has done in every one of his 105 career games.
"I don’t see Rui’s role changing. He’s started since his rookie year," Sheppard said.
Avdija, on the other hand, may see more time on the bench this season than he did as a rookie. Avdija came to Washington as the ninth overall pick, but at only 19 years old and with a relatively raw skillset. Despite that, he cracked the starting lineup out of training camp last year and 32 of the 54 games he played.
With more depth at the forward position following the Wizards' offseason moves, it sounds like Avdija could be bumped to the second unit more consistently. Washington may turn to one of its new players to start at the three, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Kyle Kuzma.
That, however, may not represent a reduced role for Avdija. In fact, Sheppard sees Avdija moving to the bench as a way to potentially unlock value he wasn't able to provide last season while sharing the starting lineup with high-usage players like Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal.
"I think Deni, it gives him a little bit more confidence, I believe, if he comes off the bench. In that second unit, he could be a secondary playmaker," Sheppard explained. "He can do a lot more things that he wasn’t able to do in that starting lineup last year. No roles are nailed down. Certainly, if he earns more minutes, he earns more minutes."
Avdija, now 20, was drafted as high as he was in large part due to his ability with the ball in his hands. At 6-foot-9, he has excellent ball control and vision, particularly on the fastbreak. But last season, the Wizards were scarcely able to utilize that as transition was often initiated by Westbrook and their other guards.
As a result, Avdija was often relegated to be an off-ball, spot-up shooter. Of his field-goal attempts as a rookie last season, 68.9% of them came after zero dribbles. His usage rate, which measures how many plays a player impacts while they are on the court, was 19th out of 21 players who appeared for the Wizards last season. Only Isaac Bonga and Garrison Mathews had lower usage rates, while guys like Jerome Robinson and Chandler Hutchison ranked higher.
Similarly, Avdija's 5.8 field goal attempts per game placed 10th among the Wizards' rotation regulars. Only Alex Len attemped fewer shots on average.
Now, Avdija may have to improve his shooting percentages to justify a larger offensive role, as he shot just 41.7% from the field and 31.5% from three (and 64.4% from the line). But the potential is obvious given his size, athleticism and skillset and the Wizards appear intent on trying to see what he's capable of as a playmaker.
Sheppard also mentioned something relevant about Avdija that he later expounded on. It was regarding Avdija's confidence as a young player and how playing on the bench could help that cause.
"I think we really want to start off the season, as you’ve seen really the last five years we’ve started off the season kind of in a hole; whether it was injuries or we couldn’t finish out games, or whatever. We want to get off to a great start. We want to get the confidence rolling, and that’s for everybody on this roster, not just Deni and not just Rui. I think those guys will able to certainly be big contributors to our roster next season. Rui has for two years and Deni was on his way. That injury really kind of stumped him," Sheppard said.
Sheppard was referring to the fractured right ankle that ended Avdija's season and prevented him from appearing in the playoffs. That put a bow on what was an unusual and trying rookie season overall. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Avdija and other rookies in his class did not have a summer league or a normal training camp to get up to speed.
Avdija also had his rookie season interrupted by an outbreak of Covid-19 across the Wizards' organization, which kept him out of the lineup longer than some of his teammates who were affected and put him behind the competition in terms of conditioning when he returned. There were also the difficult circumstances of adjusting to the role he had, which as Sheppard himself suggests, did not fully take advantage of his strengths.
Perhaps performing in a lower leverage spot on the bench, with more of an opportunity to show what he can do as a playmaker, will help that cause.