The NBA draft lottery’s biggest mystery: Deni Avdija

One of the most compelling stories we were robbed of this season was the micro ball revolution of the Houston Rockets. What does this have to do with Israeli-Serbian draft prospect Deni Avdija? The guard/forward fills exactly the role that could be the future of the NBA.

The Golden State Warriors, the franchise that is “light-years ahead” of the NBA according to their owner, built their dynasty on dominating teams when they go small. In the 2015 NBA finals, the Warriors, facing a 2-1 deficit against Lebron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr stumbled into one of the most revolutionary coaching decisions in modern NBA history. Once Andrew Bogut, a legitimate seven-footer and a more traditional option at the center position, suffered a left knee injury in game 3, Kerr moved Draymond Green to center, and the rest is history. Three titles in four years with point-forwards Draymond Green and eventually Kevin Durant changing the complexion of the NBA.

Fast forward to the 2019-2020 NBA trade deadline, where Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey pressed the nuclear launch button and traded away the team’s only two centers, Clint Capela and Nene, in a four team deal that sent the two big man to the Rockets and brought in forwards Robert Covington and Jordan Bell. Enter the true small-ball era. Bell, being a former NBA champion with the Warriors in 2018, understood how to play small ball and complement the center pieces: guards and former MVPs Russell Westbrook and James Harden. And Covington was perfectly fit to play center in Mike D’antoni’s famously high-powered offenses that requires volume three point shooting.

In the final 14 games of the NBA season before the league suspended all games, the micro ball Houston Rockets went a mediocre 8-6, nothing to swoon over, especially with a 1-2 start to the new era. But with wins agains the Lakers (a team they had lost to two and a half weeks before), the Jazz, the Grizzlies, and two wins against the Boston Celtics the intrigue and potential for this new wave of style of play was at an unprecedented high. And though we will likely not be able to see this style of play in full effect until the 2021 season, lottery teams are on the clock and might just look at the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors as models for successful team building.

This is where Avdija comes in. Offensively, Avdija looks like a 6’9” Manu Ginobili when the Argentine was just coming out of the Italian first division. Crafty vision with a solid pick and roll foundation and a yearn to make plays from the post all comes before mentioning his quick first step and explosiveness on the fast break. And while he excels as a post passer and pick and roll ball-handler, he doesn’t need the ball to find openings in the defense. Having a player that can both cut with precise timing, and regroup and initiate an offense is an uncommon skill in the NCAA pool of players.

And Avdija is used to playing big for his position. As mentioned in a recent interview with ESPN, Avdija explained how at the 2019 U20 FIBA European Championship Team Israel head coach Ariel Avraham Beit Halahmy moved him to the center position to, guess what, play small ball against Europes best. Avdija went on to win Tournament MVP, averaging 18-8-6 with a PER of 22.6 per-game while leading Team Israel to a championship.

His stats take an expected dip in Israeli Premier League play—12-6-2.5 with a PER of 15.2 in 26.6 minutes a game—but his style of play doesn’t. While the NCAA stars go up against their peers night in night out, Avdija has been going against legitimate professionals for the past two seasons. Playing against grown men with professional level coaching and development clearly bore fruits for the young prospect, seeing major increases in every statistical category except for two-point field goal percentage which moved from a freakish 72% in the 2019 season to “human” 67% for the 2020 season.

But what GMs should be licking their chops about is his improvement in three point shooting: going up ten percent between his two seasons as pro from 28% to 38%. Here is a complete list of NCAA players that average above 35% from three and 65% from two this past season: Obi Toppin, end of list. Both players also share comparable per 36 stats with Toppin at 23-8-3 and Avdija at 18-8-3. While the A-10 and Israeli Super League aren’t exactly two sides of the same coin, the point stands that not a lot of players can do what Avdija does at his size and position in the draft pool as it stands.

A player with this professional experience and versatility seems almost too good to be true, but Avdija does come with some major flaws. His poor free throw shooting (wavering around 50% the past two seasons) sticks out like a sore thumb, and his EuroLeague stats are less than exciting to say the least. His lack of length—6’10.5” wingspan at a height of 6’9” is a concern for modern NBA defense that rely on switching everything—and 215 lbs frame will put into question his ability to guard the 4 right off the bat. The idea that Avdija can play the small ball power forward or even center position will almost entirely depend on how he is coached and nurtured in his early years.

The way to win in the NBA has undergone a massive change since the beginning of the decade. Even Lebron’s championship Miami Heat teams required all-star forward/center Chris Bosh to change his game and become a 6’11” three point shooter. And the common theme of positionless basketball is only growing in demand. Avdija’s upside—the magical words that have lured so many GMs like a siren song—is undeniable. He’s a pure passer at 6’9” with strong ball-handling fundamentals, a love for playing out of the post, a rapidly and significantly improving three-point shot, and professional pedigree. His ceiling is as high as any player in the rather shallow 2020 draft, but a potential do-it-all forward whose game seems tailor-made to the direction of NBA game plans may be too good to pass up on, especially after the first four picks. If Kristaps Porzingis is a unicorn, than Deni Avdija is the mermaid of the 2020 Draft. Mythical, enticing, and if you spicy GMs play your cards right, the perfect edition to a new look NBA.

Floor: Nicolas Batum

Basement (worst case scenario): Al-Farouq Aminu

Ceiling: Lamar Odom

Penthouse (best case scenario): Ben Simmons with a Jumper

True Comp: Hedo Turkoglu