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Deni Avdija needs to play more minutes, Beal perhaps a tad less

The Wizards’ 2020 first round draft pick has shown a lot of promise in his sophomore season, while the veteran star has continued to underwhelm more often than not.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Charlotte Hornets
Feb 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) yells at forward Deni Avdija (9) as they play against the Charlotte Hornets in the first half at Spectrum Center.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

I get it wrong sometimes. Very wrong. So one time when I do get it right — even very right — allow me momentarily to bash in the glory.

I wrote a pre-draft piece back in 2020 highlighting Deni Avdija’s unique skill set and potential and its possible fit with the Wizards.

Before that I spent some one-on-one time with Avdija and wrote an in-depth piece about him and his close circle:

When Deni was drafted I then went all-in and declared that the Wizards won the jackpot by drafting Avdija.

When doubters, and there were many in this community, claimed following his rookie season that Deni was perhaps mis-evaluated by the Wizards at Draft Night, I went on the record saying that what Deni needs most is a change of coach and increased opportunities and pointed out his defensive strength on a team that played defense optional under Brooks’ tutelage.

So, you can imagine my delight in seeing Deni, under a new coach, lead the Wizards' defense and gradually carve out for himself an essential role on this team.

It is true that the new officiating rules have helped Deni, but I would argue that a new coach and philosophy have helped even more.

This is very small sample size, but as I recently pointed out the Wizards are 6-0 when Deni plays at least 27 minutes. His season average stands at about 22 minutes/game.

There are two things that inevitably happen when Deni plays 5-8 minutes above his average: a) the Wizards get more stops, b) the Wizards run more in transition. Of course, one is related to the other: the best teams are those that get easy buckets. Easy buckets are typically after a defensive stop (as the other team is scrabbling to set its defense and contain the transition). So, typically, teams that are solid on defense fare better overall.

Perhaps a third thing happens as well when Deni plays more: some other, replaceable Wizards, play less. Be it Holiday, Neto, Bertans or Dinwiddie. Or for that matter a ball-hogging, minute-heavy-fatigued Beal.

Another interesting stat is that in pre-Christmas competition the Wizards are 4-0 in games without Beal. This is a a very small sample size. And the win are against rather weak teams (Pacers, Magic, Pelicans, Knicks). But in second thought, the Pacers are not an easy team to beat, and the Knicks with 44-points from Kemba in MSG aren’t necessarily either.

To come back to the stat about Deni, the 6 wins came against Memphis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Miami, Utah, New York. As you can see this spans 4 games with Beal and 2 without Beal, and spans excellent as well weak teams.

To me, the conclusion, albeit from a small sample size, is clear: play Deni a bit more, and at the same time slightly reduce Beal’s usage and/or minutes. (To be clear these are independent: one could allocate Deni’s extra minutes from others, not from Beal’s.)

Some data points

Let me end by collecting some statistics regarding Deni’s defense:

  • Deni ranks 33rd (out of 227) in the league in DRTG among players that played at least 21 minutes/game at 103.7. The next best Wizard is Harrell at 106.1 (ranked 74th). Dinwiddie is next at about the median at 107.6 (112th) followed by Beal at 109.1 (145th). Then KCP at 110.6 (173rd), Kuz at 110.9 (180th) and swiss-cheese Gafford at 112.2 (ranked 200th).
  • Interestingly, Deni and Trez are at the bottom of the team in deflections per 36 minutes. Not sure what to make of it.
  • Gafford leads in contested shots per 36 minutes at 15.5 (4th in the league among 225 who played at least 500 minutes), followed by Trez at 11 (35th) and Deni at 10.6 (36th).
  • Deni leads the Wizards in 3-point shots contested per 36 minutes at 4.1. Neto and Holiday follow at 3.3 and 3.
  • Interestingly, Gafford leads the Wizards in Field Goals Defended at Rim Percent at 52.7, which is good for league’s 17th out of 226. Not sure I quite understand how this reconciles with Gafford horrid DRTG. Deni is 2nd on the Wizards at 60.9. Kuz at 61.5, Harrell at 63.6, Beal at 71.1, Dinwiddie at a horrible 76, and KCP at mind-boggling 77.2. In other words, if you are on an opposing team you basically try to switch onto anyone but Deni or Kuz and then drive.

In sum, we see that Deni is key for the Wizards defense both on the perimeter and around the rim. Further, advanced tracking data from Second Spectrum I saw earlier in the season indicated Deni was among the league’s best iso-possession defenders. If anyone has access to that please share it in the comments.