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NBA Daily: Deni Avdija Flashing Skill, Poise As 19-Year-Old Rookie

Through six games this season, young Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija has the confidence and versatility needed to be a star.

Tristan Tucker

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The Washington Wizards’ 1-5 start to the season has clearly been a rocky one – an early journey with several close heartbreakers and blown leads along the way. While frustrations have been mounting in D.C., Deni Avdija is seeing this stretch as a growing opportunity, one that paid off after the team’s first win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, Jan. 1.

“I learned that everybody needs to be patient,” Avdija said. “Fans need to be patient, players need to be patient, everybody needs to be patient. We’re great players, if you sit in our locker room and look around, we have great talent. But sometimes it takes time to figure things out, we got a new superstar in and I’m new to the team, I’m new to the system, it takes time for everybody.”

Avdija is one of the youngest players in the NBA, turning 20 tomorrow, Jan. 3, and yet all of his teammates, including superstars Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, can’t stop talking about his maturity and poise.

“He’s constantly learning,” Beal said. “It’s so funny because before he got here they told us he’s a man of a million questions, like Deni asks a lot of questions. And that’s a great thing because he just wants to learn, he wants to get better, he wants to be on the floor. And it’s amazing to see how poised he is on the floor, he doesn’t really get fed up, he doesn’t get bothered by anything.”

Despite being a young rookie, Avdija started in all six games that Washington has played thus far. Against Minnesota, Avdija recorded his first double-digit game, scoring 11 points to go along with nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block, shooting 60 percent from deep.

This versatility is what caused Washington to select Avdija with the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, he’s a guy that every contender wishes they had.

“I like the fact that he knows how to play and he looks for his teammates,” head coach Scott Brooks said after the win over Minnesota. “He’s not trying to fill the last category on the stat sheet, he’s looking to make plays, he wants to rebound, he wants to pass, sets good screens. I thought he made a nice drive with his left hand, that’s something we’ve been working on, where he made the pass to Thomas Bryant for the alley-oop.”

Avdija joined Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth team at just 12 years old and joined the professional club when he was only 16. His experiences overseas have left strong impressions on his veteran teammates, which allows him to flash such great and infectious confidence to his team.

“He just does what Deni does,” Beal said. “He doesn’t do anything extra, he just plays basketball the right way, he uses his body well. It’s amazing for a rookie, he has great professional attributes, he’s been playing since he was 12 probably.”

Too often in the NBA, fans and teams alike see young players consumed by the limelight, and those players tend to chase stats instead wins and tend to peter out over time. Avdija is the antithesis of this – often making plays like a pro and going for winning moves over statistics.

“In order to maximize our potential, everybody’s going to have to participate,” Brooks said. “We don’t want all the ball handling, all the playmaking and all the shooting in Russell and Brad’s hands, it’s a work in progress, trust me. It’s something we’re gonna continue to talk about and build . . . I think Deni has the capability, I mean, he’s 19 years old, I love him, I love how he competes, I love how he wants to get better, I love the questions that he’s asking me, it’s always about the right things.”

So far this season, Avdija is averaging 7.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals compared to just .7 turnovers in 26.2 minutes per game. When Avdija is on the floor, the Wizards boast a 129 offensive rating compared to a 111 defensive rating.

In the first week of the NBA, so much noise is being generated about the passing prowess of rookies like LaMelo Ball and Killian Hayes, but Avdija is dishing as well as one could ask. Avdija excels at making competent passes to his teammates that might not be the flashiest but still set up his teammates in the best ways possible.

“I love playmaking, I love making plays for my teammates,” Avdija said after the win over Minnesota. “I love getting my teammates involved, I’m looking for them at every opportunity. It makes me feel good, it makes the whole team feel good, I’ll find them every time. So for me, I took a big step today, I had some playmaking plays . . . it’s gonna come through time.”

In one of the best plays of the Wizards’ season, Avdija set up the equally-impressive youngster Thomas Bryant on an alley-oop. Avdija excels in the art of a bounce pass that allows his teammates to slip past defenders to the basket.

Avdija has also excelled as a shooter, something that was a question mark about his game heading into the draft and the season. His form could use some work but there’s no denying the raw skill and the result that he’s showing so far. Currently, Avdija is shooting 47.6 percent from deep on just under four attempts per game, one of the leaders on the team in that regard.

“There are times where [Avdija] asks questions because the game is going a little fast for him,” Beal said. “But for the most part, I think he’s going above and beyond what we expected him to be. He’s showing glimpses of his versatility, he’s an excellent three-point shooter, he probably has the highest percentage on our team right now.”

Despite losing five straight to begin the year, Washington is offering reasons for excitement, having led the Philadelphia 76ers for much of the first game of the season and scoring 130 points in back-to-back games.

“You can’t expect magic to happen right away,” Avdija said. “‘Okay, we’re booming, we’re 7-0.’ No, it’s gonna happen, we’re gonna lose games. But eventually, how we turn it into a team, that’s the most important thing for me and that’s why I smiled to the team and everybody was positive about it. Of course, we were frustrated and angry but at the end of the day we know ourselves, we know we’re good.”

Avdija, Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Troy Brown Jr. make up the Wizards’ young corps and this season is about the perfect blend of learning and being competitive, the latter of which Avdija believes will come with time.

Through six games, Avdija has already established himself as a young leader and poster child for a winning mentality in the locker room. By talking to Brooks and Beal, and seeing just how high on Avdija the entire franchise is, it’s evident why the Wizards selected him ninth overall.

“I’m super positive about this team,” Avdija said. “Mark my words, we’re gonna be good. We just need to figure things out, play hard, play defense. When we play simple and we play defense, we’re playing very good. I’m all about positive for this team.”

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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NBA Daily: Get Familiar With the Phoenix Suns

Drew Maresca discusses the Suns’ roster, why they’ve flown under the radar for much of the season and why fans should expect even more from Phoenix.

Drew Maresca

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What in the world is going on in Phoenix?

Unless you’ve deliberately followed the Suns this season, it’s understandable if you’ve missed their incredibly hot start. They’re not mentioned by the national media (e.g., ESPN) nearly as often the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers — but they should be.

And it’s not as is you can easily do your own research, either. Unless you’re an NBA League Pass subscriber, you’ve had limited opportunities to watch what’s going on in Phoenix. The Suns were scheduled to appear in only the tenth-most nationally televised games through the first half of the season, behind the Lakers, Nets, Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami HEAT (and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers).

But at a certain point, numbers are just too powerful to continue to overlook – and that point was months ago for the Suns. And while they still haven’t even really received the credit they deserve, it’s coming.

After a loss against the Clippers on Thursday night, Phoenix is 36-15, good for the second-best record in the entire league. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games and boast the fifth-best defensive rating (109.4) and seventh-best offensive rating (116.3) – which works out to the third-best net rating in the NBA (+6.6).

The Suns – and pretty much every NBA team – have a long way to go before cementing their playoff seeding. According to Tankathon, the Suns have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule, with games against the Jazz, Nets, 76ers, Clippers, Lakers and Bucks – but that’s less alarming when you look closely at the Suns’ results thus far.

The Suns are 18-7 against teams with .500 records or better. They’re also 7-5 against teams with .600 records or better and 3-2 against the ultra-elite (Jazz, Nets, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers).

Ultimately, the NBA is about winning – not expectations – so the Suns still have every opportunity to accomplish what they’d hoped to prior to the season. They play smart and are well-stocked with star power. Opponents probably won’t overlook them, but fans may. And it’s the fans who could miss out.

But how did Phoenix turn the corner so quickly? They went from a 19-63 team in 2018-19 to the league’s second-best team just two seasons later.

Adding Chris Paul helps. But it’s also understandable that adding Paul means being overlooked – he’s been overlooked for most of the recent past, written off as great but not great enough.

Upon closer inspection, Paul’s resume is jaw-dropping. Most recently, he led the seriously under-manned 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder team to the fifth-seed in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. He was also responsible for catapulting the Houston Rockets into serious contention mode; at their pinnacle in 2017-18, the Rockets were up 3-2 against the champion-to-be Golden State Warriors before Paul strained his hamstring and missed games six and seven, both of which Houston dropped.

Paul, who will turn 36 this May, is still a magician on the court. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He’s also played in all but one of the Suns’ games. But what’s most impressive about Paul is that his net effect is far greater than any stats can communicate.

Ironically, in giving Paul his flowers, we inherently overlook Booker, the team’s leader in points (26.0) and minutes played (34.2). Objectively, Booker should be in the MVP discussion, but he plays in Phoenix and alongside Paul – so individual accolades will have to wait.

But the Suns’ success is about more than just the backcourt. There’s also the first-overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton, who’s averaging a double-double, again, while shooting career-bests from the field (62.8%) and the free-throw line (76.7%). There’s also Mikal Bridges – who is quietly outperforming guys taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, scoring 13.3 points per game on 41.5% shooting from deep – and Jae Crowder.

And then there’s the other guys, who were recently overlooked or disregarded by other teams – Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric and Cameron Payne.

Johnson was the 11th overall pick in 2019. But because of his advanced age relative to other lottery picks – Johnson was 23 on draft night – and the fact that he wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, the Suns and Johnson were ridiculed.

But Johnson hit the ground running, averaging 8.8 points while shooting 39% on three-point attempts in his rookie season. And he’s gained momentum in his Sophomore campaign, scoring 9.8 points per game while maintaining his shooting from deep (38.7%) and increasing his two-point shooting percentage from 52.6% to 56.6%.

Saric is a versatile big who’s been aided by the game’s move to pace-and-space. Drafted in 2014, Saric remained in Europe until the 2016-17 season. He’s been effective at every stop he’s made, but (surprisingly) didn’t latch on in Philadelphia or Minnesota. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 35% on three-point attempts. And given the league’s move to mobile bigs, Saric is a valuable role player and complements the more physical play of Ayton beautifully.

And then there’s Payne, who was best known as a former Russell Westbrook hype man. But the book is being re-written on Payne given what he’s done in Phoenix so far.

Payne cemented a spot on the Suns with his performance last season, averaging 10.9 points on better-than-50% shooting from deep in eight games in the bubble. And while the addition of Chris Paul has translated to fewer minutes for Payne, he’s still producing. He’s scoring 6.8 points in 16.8 minutes per game on 40.2% shooting on three-point attempts, but the more he plays, the greater the effect; Payne is averaging 13.4 points per game when he plays at least 20 minutes – which includes games against Dallas, Portland and Miami.

The Suns get a whole lot out of their roster, including younger guys like Bridges and Ayton. That’s a testament to the second-year head coach, Monty Williams. So while the path here could be misinterpreted as involving shortcuts, it’s actually followed a deliberate plan that’s been executed to perfection by the team’s front office.

Phoenix may have arrived sooner than expected, but Paul doesn’t lose much – which is probably rubbing off on Booker and others – so betting against him (and the Suns) was always a fool’s errand. And regardless of outcomes, one thing’s for sure – people will learn about the Suns this season. And they won’t be written off anytime soon.

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G-League

NBA PM: Jeremy Lin, Activist and Basketball Player

Racism in the United States continues to rise as the fight for equality continues. In the NBA, Jeremy Lin has stepped up and used his voice in support of the movement to end Asian hate.

Dylan Thayer

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a strong movement for social justice and human rights in America. Recently, the headlines have involved racist remarks and attacks on people of Asian ethnicities across the United States.

In the NBA, various teams and players have come out to voice their support for the movement to stop Asian hate such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and an Asian-American himself, Jeremy Lin. The basketball world has done an excellent job with social justice reform and human rights issues by highlighting them on the players’ uniforms, banners and signs throughout their arenas, while also letting the players express their thoughts on racism without backing down.

“As a part of our ongoing commitment to promote racial equality and social justice,” the NBA’s recent statement read, “We stand with the Asian community against any acts of hate and racism.”

Within the past few weeks, there was a mass shooting in Atlanta at a massage parlor that left six Asian women dead. The shooting occurred on Mar. 16 and has been highly publicized as a hate crime. This act of racism put the Asian hate movement in the spotlight once again, but, sadly, hate crimes towards Asians related to the coronavirus pandemic are not new.

Lin – always willing to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost – used his platform as to speak out and highlight the hate seen against Asian-Americans.

“We have to keep standing up, speaking out, rallying together and fighting for change. We cannot lose hope!” 

Lin, who has now played for the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, has a large platform as an Asian American basketball player. Today, the point guard for the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors has been a vocal leader of the movement to end Asian hate. But as one of three Asian basketball players in the NBA system, he serves as a role model for young Asians everywhere. For every three-pointer he hit this year in the G League, he donated to organizations for youth empowerment or human rights work, per CBS News

Of course, during a G League game, Lin was called ‘coronavirus’ by another player – which led to him speaking out against Asian hate but did not name anybody as he did not want to contribute to more hate.

“What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down?” Lin said in a lengthy Twitter note posted in late February.

Listen to the voices that are teaching us how to be anti-racist towards ALL people.”

Experiencing recent hate while enduring numerous other instances of racism towards him, Lin is a powerful voice and a leader in the Asian American community. 

As a player, Lin has had an up-and-down career while playing overseas in China – all following an NBA Finals win in which he played just one minute for the Toronto Raptors. Back in America and the G League where he famously got his start, Lin has tried to prove that he’s ready and able to contribute to an NBA team once more.

Appearing in nine games for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin posted averages of 19 points and 6.4 assists per game, plus a field goal percentage of 50.5 percent, a 42.6 percent three-point percentage and 87.9 from the free throw line.

Without a doubt, Lin still has a lot of good basketball left in the tank, but why hasn’t he been called up to the NBA? The Golden State Warriors are already in the luxury tax and the team’s other guards have performed particularly well. An unfortunate circumstance for him to be in, but Lin is one injury away from a call-up and a contract if the situation arises. 

This season may not be the one where Lin makes his return to the NBA, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying. It was clear following his short G League stint that he can still play in the NBA and deserves to still be on a roster. Even if he is not in a large role, he can be an instant threat off the bench at any moment with his offensive IQ creating shots for himself and opening up the floor for others. 

But as Lin works to re-fulfilling his dreams, it hasn’t stopped him from using his platform for good. Throughout his long, bumpy career – full of meteoric rises, brutal injuries and false starts – the veteran point guard has always been a source of kindness and thoughtfulness. And in this day and age, Lin stands to be a powerful voice for progress not only in the NBA, but in the country at large.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Pelicans-Thomas Partnership a Low-Risk, High-Upside Bet for Both

Bobby Krivitsky examines the partnership formed between the New Orleans Pelicans and Isaiah Thomas, a low-risk wager that could pay dividends for both sides.

Bobby Krivitsky

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On Apr. 6, Isaiah Thomas played in his first NBA game in over a year.

Between then and now, Thomas had a hip resurfacing procedure to address the bone-on-bone issue in his hip. The pain was so excruciating that Thomas favored his right side, compromising his balance and overall effectiveness. As a result, he bounced around the league and spent brief stints with four teams in three years before being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers after they acquired him in a deal with the Washington Wizards. Back on the court, the one-time Mr. Irrelevant, who rose to near-MVP status with the Boston Celtics, said as much about his journey.

“It’s like night and day for me,” Thomas told ESPN back in October. “There’s no more pain. I’ve got my full range of motion. For three years, I was trying to play the best players in the world on one leg. I needed help from my kids to put my socks on in the morning.”

Now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Thomas played 25 minutes in his return to the hardwood, scoring 10 points on 13 shots to go along with two assists and two rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. Though it was far from a gaudy stat line, it was great to see Thomas moving well and looking comfortable attacking off the dribble.

 

“I felt good out there. I was moving; I got to my spots; I just didn’t knock down my shots,” Thomas said after the game. “I’m still going to be a little rusty from not playing for so long, but coach Stan (Van Gundy) was like, ‘be you, go out there and be aggressive, make plays, score the ball, we want you to be you.'”

“That’s all I can do — and I’ll be better tomorrow.”

The next night, in Thomas’ second game with the Pelicans, he registered a stat line of 11 points on 12 shots to go along with three assists and a steal in a 139-111 loss on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. The fact he was able to play on both ends of a back-to-back is an encouraging sign in and of itself. As a one-way guard who the Pelicans brought in on a 10-day contract hoping to get more scoring from their second unit, Thomas reaching double figures in his first two contests of the 2020-21 campaign bodes well for his chances of sticking with New Orleans for the rest of the season.

Before joining the Pelicans, Thomas most recently played for the USA Men’s Basketball AmeriCup Qualifying Team. He started in both of their qualifying games in February, leading the USMB team to wins over the Bahamas and Mexico. In those two contests, the nine-year NBA veteran averaged a team-high 14 points, two rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and logging 21 minutes per contest.

That performance undoubtedly gave David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, the confidence to sign Thomas to a 10-day contract. 

And Thomas just might be the spark they need down the stretch. The Pelicans currently sit 11th in the Western Conference, just two games out of the play-in tournament, a concept first introduced when last season resumed in Orlando. The team’s bench is contributing an average of 32.2 points per game, which ranks 25th league-wide. Perhaps, Thomas, who’s healthier than he’s been in years, provides the scoring boost necessary to help vault them into the postseason.

Of course, Thomas would have to acclimate very quickly for that to happen. New Orleans has just 21 games left this season. Furthermore, teams are working with condensed schedules, making practices a rarity.

The former will challenge Thomas and the Pelicans’ training staff in their ability to keep Thomas’ hip fresh, to maintain his health and the energy he can provide off the bench. The latter is going to make it difficult for Thomas to develop on-court chemistry with his new teammates. Most of that feeling-out process will be happening in high-stakes games with a spot in the postseason on the line.

Another challenge Thomas is facing is that he’s signed to a 10-day contract, meaning he has to immediately prove to the Pelicans that he’s worth keeping for the rest of the regular season. It’s a low-risk gamble for New Orleans and an opportunity Thomas wasn’t going to pass up — it may not work out with the Pelicans, but another team might take a chance on Thomas if he can prove he’s rediscovered the burst that made him so lethal in Boston.

Time will tell how effective this partnership works out for both parties. But, either way, it’s great to see Thomas back in the NBA. And to this point, he’s moving well and once again scoring the ball effectively, which bodes well for his chances of sticking around beyond his current contract.

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