Traditionally, an NBA player's second year is considered a major jumping point. When players return from the summer break fresh - both physically and mentally - and the numbers begin to show their natural progression.
But 20-year-old Israeli Deni Avdija says he already feels a dramatic change in his game, even before the 2021-2022 NBA season kicked off.
The start of the season on October 19 would mark six months since the Washington Wizard's small forward broke his ankle during a match with the Golden State Warriors on April 21. It's a long period without basketball, during which the former Maccabi Tel Aviv player says he made a complete change of himself.
In the meantime, the Wizards find themselves moving on from the failed experiment of last year. Superstar point guard Russell Westbrook is gone and with him many key players like center Robin Lopez and point guard Ish Smith, while Wes Unseld Jr. replaced coach Scott Brooks. Avdija, who last season found many playing opportunities as the team's small forward due to a lack of depth in that position, is now joined by the talented former Laker player Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie three point expert Corey Kispert.
But for Avdija the most important thing now after recovering from his injury is only basketball – feel the floor and not think too much about lineup position.
"It is fun to kick off the second season," he says. "Recovery took much more than I thought it would, but the team was patient with me and now everything is in place and working as it should be."
Avdija says rehabilitation was a difficult process, going step by step from getting up, to walking and then to running. "I was patient and managed to get just in time to join training camp," he says, adding that he feels "120%" recovered both physically and mentally.
"I feel more mature now, more determined and sharper," he says. "Other than the physical aspect, I got more used to the training, the games, the intensity of play. It's a matter of experience."
The weak points
At the end of the day, Avdija's first season, which did end prematurely, went pretty well and left an impression that he has so much more room for progress.
After going ninth in the draft, he played 54 games, 32 of which he started – even going into quarantine in the middle of the season after coming in contact with a confirmed COVID carrier.
Scoring 6.3 points and grabbing 4.9 rebounds over 23.3 minutes a game really does not say much about his skills.
The team did like his playmaking, but he did not get the ball enough, mainly due to playing with the far more domineering Westbrook and Bradly Bill, averaging only 1.2 assists per game.
On the other hand, the numbers cannot show the fact that at just 19, Avdija last season was one of the best defenders on the team, which aided him in getting more playing time.
For him, one of the most memorable instances was going up against Lebron James, tasked with guarding the basketball superstar and doing a pretty good job overall.
But if there is one part of his game he had to improve rapidly was his three-pointers, shooting only 31.5% from the field – hardly justifying the many times he was placed at the corner of the arch.
While many slammed Washington for signing Westbrook, who is notoriously known for his rather selfish style of play, Avdija said he learned a lot from the veteran player.
"He taught me to be ready for anything and be professional off the field," he says. "I came into the league from Europe and had to get acclimated to the play style. He gave me time to get a handle on things and was very patient. He showed me I belong in the NBA."
Those who followed the Wizards last season got used to very specific faces and plays: extremely individualistic basketball from Westbrook and Beal, with Latvian forward Davis Bertans shooting threes at his leisure due to a small bench unit – in other words, not very good basketball.
Over the past season and summer, the team went through a drastic makeover, signing former Bull Daniel Gafford, as well as center and 2020 Six Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell.
Joining the core of Beal and Roy Hachimura are guards Caldwell-Pope, former Brooklyn Net Spencer Dinwiddie and small forwards Kispert and Kyle Kuzma – possible competition with Avdija for the position.
Asked where he sees himself in this new rooster, Avdija says he doesn't see it as a contest, promising to show his best.
"I'm going to play my game and help the team," he says. "So far, the chemistry is really good in training and the new players are reinvigorating the team's drive."
Avdija says he still has many goals to achieve, with the primary one for him to be the first Israeli player in the NBA playoffs.
"I believe our team is strong enough to get there," he says.