- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2023

After a made basket during Washington’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Wizards forward Deni Avdija moved his hands as if he was revving up a motorcycle. The celebration was more than appropriate: The Wizards got the bucket because the 22-year-old picked off the opposing pass and zoomed down the court for a layup.

Avdija was the engine of a one-man fast break. 

“The biggest thing for him is just being decisive,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. told reporters. “And he’s done that of late.” 

The Wizards have now won five straight, including three since the team’s front office traded forward Rui Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers. In explaining the move, general manager Tommy Sheppard said on an in-game broadcast that the deal was done in part to free up minutes for Avdija — the ninth overall pick in the 2020 draft. 

Avdija wasn’t inserted into the starting lineup, but he has seen an uptick in playing time. And that has paid off for Washington. In the last three games, Avdija is averaging 13.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 29.8 minutes per contest. When Hachimura was on the roster, Avdija averaged just 8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in almost 25 minutes per game.

Avdija’s jump has also coincided with Kristaps Porzingis (ankle) out of the lineup, so those stats could dip upon the Latvian’s return. But Avdija’s play is still encouraging for a player whose offense has been hit-or-miss since entering the league.

Deni was playing less and less and that’s somebody that we see as a big part of our future going forward,” Sheppard told NBC Sports Washington. “Defensively, I think he’s one of our best defenders. … It’s a difficult decision anytime you trade anybody because you have all the memories.” 

During his interview, Sheppard referred to a “logjam” in Washington’s frontcourt. Avdija began the season as Washington’s starting small forward, but he has seen his role change in a variety of ways. In late December, Avdija was moved to the bench full time when Unseld began starting a frontcourt of Kyle Kuzma, Porzingis and center Daniel Gafford. 

By trading Hachimura, the Wizards have started to untangle that web. The deal gives them one less forward to play — and it was a move that the Japanese forward more than welcomed. Hachimiura said “no comment” and smiled when asked if he requested a trade from Washington

Hachimura’s exit, too, mattered for Avdija because Washington will spend the next few months evaluating what to offer the Israeli when he becomes eligible for a long-term extension. The Wizards traded Hachimura months after the two sides failed to reach an agreement, seemingly making Avdija more of a priority. 

Over his first three seasons, Avdija has developed the most as a defender. Sheppard called him one of the league’s best at defending wings in pick-and-roll situations. But Avdija’s offense has been slow to develop. With the Wizards, Avdija doesn’t have the ball in his hands as often as he did overseas — when his playmaking ability rocketed him up draft boards in 2020. 

Still, on occasion, Avdija shows promise  — particularly as a playmaker in open space, as he’s done the past three games. 

“It’s been good for us,” Unseld said. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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