3/12: Deni, Half Full

“We really think we have something unique here."

You’re reading DENI DIARY, a weekly dispatch from Deni Avdija’s rookie season by Louis Keene. (Follow me on Twitter!)

Read the last post here.

Well, we’re at the halfway point of Deni Avdija’s rookie season, so it’s time for a mid-season review! No report card because I DON’T BELIEVE IN GRADES. But we did bring in an expert to talk about what went right and what didn’t for Deni in his first 30 games in the NBA. And I really think I brought in the expert — someone who not only watches every Wizards game, but who has also been following Deni since his teenage days breaking in at Maccabi Tel Aviv. (Remember, he started there when he was 16.)

Pini Barel fell in love with basketball tactical analysis after a career in team handball. His Hebrew-language YouTube channel “High Level Sports,” where he posts interviews and in-depth breakdowns of Deni Avdija’s performance after every game, has over 50,000 subscribers. That’s even more than this newsletter!

Barel lives in Israel, which means he watches most Wizards games on delay; they air live on Israel’s Sport5 channel at 2 a.m. (the D.C.-to-Israel time difference is seven hours), and even Barel isn’t hoops-crazy enough to watch those. So he gets up and catches the 7 a.m. replay, then gets to cutting tape for the YouTube faithful.

I condensed the interview because I didn’t have the time to type it all up. If you want more let me know and I’ll post the rest. But I’m not doing any more intro because I hate when people do that on Q&As. Have at it!

LOUIS KEENE: What were the traits that made Deni a top pick in the draft, and what were the question marks?

PINI BAREL: He has a unique feel for the game and basketball IQ, more than anything. He’s a 6’9” forward who can dribble, take smaller guys into the post, take bigger guys to the basket, and drive.

His question marks were shooting and defense, but those question marks were from people who hadn’t seen him in the Israeli league. If you saw his shooting stroke in the Israeli league, you saw that he won’t be able to make shots like Luka Doncic — you know, stepbacks and things of that nature — but he can shoot efficiently. And because his shooting was not necessarily a strength, it became a big question mark in today’s NBA where the three-pointer is a must for every prospect.

The second-biggest red flag was his defense, but I spoke to a lot of Maccabi Tel-Aviv basketball players who played with him, who said, “To us it was always obvious that he would be a great defensive player — he always was. The question was if he would be able to make the adjustments to not foul as much, because in the NBA, they whistle differently than in Europe.” In Europe, they allow you to play more physically.

In the NBA, defense has become his calling card! He’s one of the few Wizards who plays defense — that’s kind of been the joke. Do you think that will remain his a big part of his game in the NBA? I wonder because he’s good at moving his feet, and he’s good at staying with small guards, but he doesn’t have an elite wingspan. And his defense is very fundamental — he’ll keep his arms up, but he doesn’t try to block shots. Is that a strategy offensive players will eventually take advantage of?

I don’t think we’ll see him as a good shot blocker or have defensive stats jump off the page. But like you said, his main strength is fundamentals — trying to force the opponent to take the toughest shot he could take. That’s very European. But even not all Europeans are playing the same type of defense.

“In the NBA, they whistle differently than in Europe.”

I do think it will translate in the future. When I saw some of the calls the referees gave him lately, I don’t want to say they’re ridiculous, but…when you look at the replay, you say, okay. Once the referees start to know him and understand him, and understand the defense that he plays, he can become a good defender. I’m not sure lockdown defense will be his main strength, but I think defense will be a big part of his game. Defense and playmaking.

I want to ask you about the tough whistle, because in a recent press conference you asked him in Hebrew what his conversations were like with referees, and he kind of melted a little for you! Tell us what his response was.

I said, “It looks like it’s easy for the referees to blow whistles against you.” So I asked him, What do you tell them? Immediately he told me, “Some of them told me, they can’t even see me because I’m so young. They think, who is this rookie to challenge the whistle and tell me what I did wrong?”

But then he said something important. He said, “This is funny for me, because the whistles I get against myself today, I hope I get when I’m a veteran. In the future, when I play against the rookie me, I will get those whistles.”

You mentioned his playmaking, and the main way we see that is in transition. He’ll get a steal and take off in the other direction like, ‘I’m free!’ He’s playing with two ball-dominant players in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, so you don’t expect him to get a ton of shots. But a lot of the time it seems like he’s just…standing in the corner? Tell us how he’s being used on the floor right now, and how he might be used differently in ways that could open up his game.

For now, Coach Brooks is using him as a 3-and-D guy. A lot of it is because of the Wizards’ system. A lot of pick and roll, a lot of possessions that end in shots after four or five seconds with only one player touching the ball. So in those cases, he has nothing to do other than wait in the corner to get the ball.

I talked to Omri Casspi about it. He said, “You know, playing small forward is the toughest position in the NBA. Because when you’re point guard, you have the ball — you can decide. When you’re shooting guard, they’ll run some screens for you to create a shot, because it’s your job to create points — and that’s something Bradley Beal has been incredibly good at this year. When you’re center, you’ll always end up involved in pick and roll, you can grab the offensive rebound, and get points that way.

“Small forward is the toughest position in the NBA.”

“But for small forward, it really depends on the system. The only thing Deni can do to get more shots, if Brooks doesn’t get him the ball more, is to make some cuts through Westbrook’s vision when he has the ball on the elbow. Westbrook is trying to find the cutter. The other thing he can do is be the first guy out in transition and try to steal one or two offensive rebounds in the game.”

Besides that, he just needs to make his open shots, and that’s something he hasn’t done so well lately. So that’s also a criticism that we need to say. In the beginning of the season he had confidence, but he’s been in a slump lately.

Let’s talk about his jumper. I feel like his form is pretty good — his body is square to the ball, it’s a very mechanical looking shot, almost like Klay Thompson. I feel like it should be going in more. Why isn’t it?

Deni worked on his form in the offseason — before, he took the ball into his chest. Now he’s working on straightening his arms up to take a quicker, more consistent shot.

As with any young kid, the main thing that influences his shot is confidence. Now, I believe his confidence is dependent on his jump shooting — I really need to make this shot when I get the ball, this is what everyone will remember from this game, not my playmaking or my defense. And of course him getting Covid, he came back slowly and struggled to find his rhythm.

He also lost his starting job. How has that affected his usage? It feels like if he’s not playing with the starters, he should have more playmaking opportunities. But that hasn’t really been the case.

This is something that hurt his confidence a lot. On the outside, he said, ‘I’m doing whatever the team needs.’ But as a rookie in the NBA, we need to remember that this young kid is only 20 years old, and he transferred his whole life to a different country without his friends and most of his family. He doesn’t have the same support system. So there’s culture shock for him, and it’s something that I think tilted him, when I look at his confidence.

For us, Deni was a no-brainer top-5 pick. When he dropped to ninth, we said, okay, at least he’ll get his minutes and his shots. Then Russell Westbrook came onto the team, and even though Deni isn’t in the starting five, he still always plays with either Westbrook or Beal.

Deni is more of a team player than a scorer — he always tries to make the right play. Because that’s the European play style. And this is a mindset adjustment a lot of European players who come over to the U.S. have to make. In Europe, if you have a semi-contested shot and you have a wide-open teammate next to you and you don’t make the pass, you’ll go to the bench. In the NBA, it’s so different. And it takes time for players to adjust. Luka was insane and unique — but he was one of a kind.

“He’ll try to earn his respect in whatever way the team gives him.”

So do you think Deni will start to take that semi-contested shot, or do you think people will begin to appreciate that he’s making the pass?

No, I think he’ll start to take those shots. Deni is a really nice and maybe a little bit naive kid, but he’ll also try to earn his respect in whatever way the team gives him. If it’s defense, he’ll make a defensive play. If it’s shooting, it will be shooting.

Right now, his usage is number 26 or 27 out of 32. That’s how I want to see him improve. Because he’s a very good rebounder for his position, and he’s a solid defender. But I think in the right system, he would have more impact defensively, because he’s a great rotational defender, too.

So what are the milestones Deni can check off for the rest of the season to end it on the right note?

The mindset is what I really want to see him change. I saw it in the last couple games, but it’s not always up to him. I would like to see him more aggressive with offensive rebounds. On defensive rebounds, sometimes he needs to grab the board and go coast to coast, and not wait for other players to make the play for him. When he’s standing in the corner, I want to see him make more cuts. I want to see him take shots when he has the ball in his hands. That’s the mindset I want to see.

It’s not really statistical. I don’t think stats are the way to look at it this point. I really believe the statistics will come, because he had some games where he flirted with a double-double — he just needs to make his open shots. Let’s see him make 1 of 4 or 1 of 5 instead of going 0-for, because this will have a big impact for him.

Thanks for reading! If you want to hear more from Pini let me know and I’ll upload more of our conversation next week. As always, if you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, subscribe or forward it to a friend.

Pini's YouTube Channel

Shabbat Shalom,