Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija are quietly giving the Wizards hope

Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija are quietly giving the Wizards hope

Depending on your mood, the 2022-23 campaign might feel like another ho-hum year for the Washington Wizards.

Last season, Washington faded to a 35-47 record after starting 10-3, and finished under .500 for the fourth season in a row. The Wizards have ultimately returned to a state of mediocrity, which defines a franchise that has surpassed 45 wins just twice since 1978-79.

So far, the team has not made a serious move to launch itself out of the Eastern Conference's bottom rungs. In the 2022 NBA Draft, the Wizards selected Wisconsin's Johnny Davis at No. 10 overall to provide a long-term solution in the backcourt. They also made one minor trade I liked that added Monte Morris and Will Barton to the mix, and they're reportedly in on the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes at some level according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Unless a Mitchell trade materializes, though, we've likely seen the major moves from Washington already. This means the franchise is relying on second-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr. and a young core to keep pace in the constantly improving East.

Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija didn't light the world on fire in 2021-22. That said, the former No. 9 draft picks are two of the leaders in Washington's prospect group, and, despite rocky seasons, they showcased the small jumps that fans should be hoping for.

Hachimura played just 42 games last season and didn't make his season debut until Jan. 9 after a mysterious off-court absence. While we can piece together that it was due to personal reasons, Hachimura never detailed the issues and the Wizards respected his privacy. Ultimately, the fact that he felt comfortable enough to return to play is a victory for Hachimura, and we can hope he's in a better, happier place in his life.

That absence places Hachimura's abbreviated season into some context. He logged a career-low 22.5 minutes per game and started just 13 contests, with Washington going 16-26 in his appearances. As winter turned to spring (and the Wizards fell out of contention), his playing time increased to 30.5 minutes per game in six April matchups.

In his short season, Hachimura gave us a revelation in the form of a scorching 44.7% clip from three-point range — nearly a 12% leap from 2020-21.

Those shots, quite frankly, were not difficult. Hachimura was often left alone in transition to spot up, and rarely faced hard closeouts from defenders. They dared him to make threes, and Hachimura did. Nearly all of his long-range came from a standstill; 117 of his 123 attempts did not require a dribble. But Hachimura also looked confident shooting it. He didn't need to gather himself or fake a jab step.

Hachimura was able to knock down some off-balance shots where he had to rush. He was also featured in rare two-man actions with guys like Avdija (see the third clip).

It's absolutely fair to question if Hachimura's efficiency is repeatable. Free-throw percentage can be another indicator of shooting potential, and he shot just 69.7% from the charity stripe in 2021-22. I wouldn't expect another mid-40s year from distance, but if Hachimura is even hovering around the upper 30s, that's significant for his offensive impact.

When he attacks a closeout, Hachimura likes to pull up for the long two-pointer. It's an undesirable shot in general that he didn't perform well with last season (35%, per Cleaning the Glass), and it's a poor way to use his power as a driver.

Hachimura finished 75% of his at-rim attempts last season, in the 98th percentile among forwards. A solid chunk of those makes was off of cuts and transition finishes, but approximately 46% were unassisted.

Hachimura isn't a speedster or leaper; he makes up for it with a stoic frame and impressive balance. Hachimura can accelerate to the rim and simply shrug off opposing defenders, and has even shown the ability to finish high, as exemplified in the above drive against Christian Wood. He can beat the slow-footed switching or drop bigs of the league and bully the smaller mismatches. 

This should be the roadmap for Hachimura right now. If he can reach a consistent, threatening perimeter presence and pair that with an imposing driving game, he'll be a weapon as a complementary scorer who can bend defenses. Hachimura offers little as a passer, but, fortunately, he has a prospect partner who can make up the gap.

Avdija played all 82 games in his second season, and though he only started eight times, he had more of an entrenched role in the Wizards' rotation. His fit is almost a polar opposite from his fellow ninth pick in Hachimura.

Avdija's box score numbers and assist rates don't jump off the page, but he graded out extremely well in BBall Index's Passing Versatility (99th percentile) and Passing Creation Quality (92nd percentile) metrics. I'd like to focus on the first one, which aims to diagnose NBA players who have different levels of passes in their arsenal.

Here's a highlight clip chock-full of Avdija's different passing reads this season. He's perusing in the pick-and-roll, whipping passes to the weak side, curling around screens and kicking out, or driving and dumping off. The vision, creativity and dexterity are apparent. Avdija sometimes gets too ambitious, leading to turnovers, but for a young player, that's not a problem as he continues to acclimate to the league.

And the playmaking potential isn't even the signature skill with Avdija right now. As Stephen Cagan (a.k.a. NBA University) says, Avdija is a K.B.I.F. king:

Avdija is 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds with a strong base and quick feet and hips. He spent over 20% of the time guarding players in BBall Index's top tier of usage. Avdija graded out in the 88th percentile for the database's Matchup Difficulty metric, 98th percentile in Positional Versatility and 94th percentile in Role Versatility. Washington placed a ton of responsibility on the shoulders of a second-year forward, and for the most part, Avdija lived up to the task. He's also one of the better defensive rebounders in the league at his position.

It's easy to look at Avdija and Hachimura and wonder how they fit long-term in a wing/forward group that includes Kyle Kuzma, Will Barton and 2021 No. 15 pick Corey Kispert. The two young guns still need to turn the flashes into substantive production. Avdija has to find a niche as a scorer, and Hachimura needs to exhibit some connective passing and defensive chops. 

But both players seem to be flying under the radar in the general discourse around prospects. Hachimura is further along in the timeline at age-24, but gets somewhat of a fresh start after his challenging third season. Avdija will still be just 21 years old on opening night. 

These two young forwards are worthy pieces to build with in their unique ways, and should make the Wizards one of the underrated fun teams to watch next season. 

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