The end is near. With just 26 games left in the season, the Hornets’ draft position is about to become much clearer. As of the publishing of this article, the Hornets are 7th in the draft lottery odds. Compound the 10th-hardest remaining schedule in the league with James Borrego’s full pivot to the youth movement, and it seems likely that they’ll finish the season a bit higher than that. It’s time for us as fans to undertake due diligence, so that we’re properly informed to yell loudly and often on the internet.
The Hornets have only drafted one international prospect with a first-round pick in the history of the franchise; Alexis Ajinca at 20 in 2008 (they’ve taken many internationals in the second round, most-recently Arnoldas Kulboka in 2018), but this could be the year they break the mold. Apparently, the Hornets scouting department has spent plenty of time overseas this season. There are a quite few international prospects at the top of this class, but since Israeli 19-year-old forward Deni Avdija of Maccabi Tel Aviv is rising up draft boards and has been the prospect most-frequently connected/mocked to the Hornets, we’ll take a look at him first.
Draft Age: 19.46 years old
Ht./Wt.: 6’9”, 215 pounds
Wingspan: ~6’ 10.5” (no exact measurements found)
Avdija would fit in on most teams; a playmaking forward and versatile team defender
NOTE: I’d normally use per-40 minute stats from cbb-reference.com for this, but Avdija plays in the EuroLeague, so that is not ideal. Instead, I used his tankathon.com page, The Stepien’s profile, and the EuroLeague website to combine as many stats/charts/etc. as I could. I also linked some YouTube videos at the bottom of this article. I hope that’s all right with you.
What stands out the most when watching Avdija play is how generally good he is at most of the things players do on a basketball court. There are concerns about his physical limitations, particularly lateral quickness, strength and change-of-direction speed, but when it comes to IQ and skill, he doesn’t have a ton of weak spots. Off-court, he seems like a level-headed guy with the work ethic required to be successful in the NBA.
Starting with what could be his biggest strength; transition play. Both as a passer and a finisher, he doesn’t make mistakes often. He has size and good straight-line speed, and he makes really quick reads both on and off-ball. Bounce passes are a specialty, and he differentiates when and when not to throw them; depending on positioning, he’ll rifle a bounce-pass or he can make a soft lob that lands right underneath the rim. He’s a coordinated, calculated passer that doesn’t give up the ball often. He’s more of a spot-up shooter than a pull-up shooter in transition, and despite low percentages (35.1% 3PT, 56.3% FT) he has solid mechanics with a high release point. It seems likely his percentages will exceed the mean — 35.6% is the NBA league-average — once he reaches a larger sample size (13/37 3PT, 9/16 FT this season). Around the rim, he finishes well with both hands and has a sneaky level of bounce. He’s not an above-the-rim player, but finishing over defenders isn’t out of the ordinary. He fills lanes extremely well on the break. His ball-handling could be tightened up a bit (can lose control when being pressured early in a fast break), but it’s still solid, and plenty of young players have struggled more than Avdija does with ball security. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.35, and his combination of court vision and a well-rounded scoring arsenal allow him to play as a point forward, off-guard, or wing. He has the ability to take the ball and go the length of the court with it off of a defensive rebound or loose-ball recovery.
The secondary facets of his offensive game are noteworthy; this is where Avdija’s diversity as a scorer can come in. His back-to-the-basket game is sound and he fights through fronting defenders. He has a pretty spin move that he can finish with a righty or lefty floater from either low block. As a bigger wing with adept guard and post skills, he can create a lot of mismatches down low. Rarely does he shy away from contact; that will only become more rare as he grows into his body as an NBA player. Though his 3-point and free-throw percentages are low, he shoots efficiently from the field at 58.5% (24/41 FG). Almost never takes/forces bad shots unless the shot clock is expiring, most of his shots come from high-percentage looks; a product of him being an active off-ball mover and cutter.
Deni Avdija, who is now approaching 6-10 in shoes, weighing 225 pounds, has become a verticality artist in the #Israeli League, showing the competitiveness to stand up to bigs in the post, attack DREBS + push in transition@Mike_Schmitz report >> https://t.co/7ahl6fczVb pic.twitter.com/UYZsIgPPBR— DraftExpressContent (@DXContent) February 14, 2020
Dump-off passes stick out as a high-level skill for Avdija. With his back to the basket, he sees the floor well and makes quick reads based off of defenders’ actions to find open teammates. As an attacker, he excels at drawing a second defender and waiting until the latest possible moment before dropping a pass off to a trailing big, or a big on the low block. He handles the ball well in the pick and roll, making decisions quickly enough to make one believe he can run it at the NBA level.
As a defender, Avdija is equally versatile. His athleticism, length, or physicality don’t jump out, but he seems to put himself in the right spots to succeed. His hands are always up, especially on closeouts, and it’s not often that he ball-watches or makes mental mistakes. Steals or blocks are not generated at a high rate (seven steals and six blocks in two EL seasons), but he doesn’t get beat often and communicates well with his teammates. He’s not a flashy or exciting defender, but he does the job well; the true definition of a “team defender,” making his teammates’ lives easier on that end by making sound decisions and consistently rotating on-time. He stays grounded on shot-fakes and when his man rises up at the rim, and he covers ground on close-outs. His size allows him to guard 2’s and 3’s comfortably, but if he adds strength and improves his quickness, he could be able to defend positions 1-4 further down the line.
Pretty awesome Deni Avdija defensive possession. Positions himself to take away the entry, great closeout on the skip, slides well and uses his chest to shut down the drive, great recognition to stop the penetration pic.twitter.com/b0rEBb0PwT— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) February 23, 2020
A few of his “swing” skills that may or may not determine how effective he is at the next level are; on-ball shot creation, rebounding, defensive playmaking (very few steals/blocks), and free throw shooting. Currently, Avdija is not a threat to score off the dribble unless it’s 1-on-1, he makes it all the way to the rim, and there’s little help defense. His break-down handles are marginal at best, and he lacks the burst to blow by defenders. His mid-range game is limited, and he doesn’t shoot pull-ups well from anywhere on the floor. A pull-up three in transition and some go-to moves in isolation would transform his scoring. His defensive rebounding is decent. It could be better for a 6’9” guy that will probably find himself matched up with other wings/guards on the interior more often than a big. But, as previously mentioned, he is not afraid to mix it up inside, so it’s not a lack-of-effort issue. He just needs a bit more strength and verticality. Offensive rebounding for a perimeter-oriented wing isn’t something I put a lot of stock into, but that’s not a positive, either, though I expect his percentages/rates to pick up a bit if he adds mass in the NBA.
This isn’t as much a knock as it is an area that could simply stand to improve, but Avdija doesn’t collect steals or blocks often. He’s a team defender in that he communicates his position with teammates, doesn’t over/under pursue on close-outs, always has active hands, rotates to and from help with haste, and cuts down on his attacker’s angles. Free-throw and 3-point shooting accuracy is another thing that could use improvement, but isn’t overly ineffective right now. He’s up to 38.3% on 18/47 3PT across two seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and it seems as if the narrative is still that 3-point shooting is a relative weak spot in his offensive game. It’s a small sample size (as are a lot of Avdija’s stats), but 38.3% on a fair amount of movement and contested shots doesn’t sound an alarm. He will need to prove that he can knock them down at that rate with more volume, but his mechanics are fine, signaling that he’s on an upward trajectory. He can be inconsistent, but it’s hard to be consistent in a role that tops out near 18-20 minutes in a game. The same thing goes for free-throws; once he takes more than 16 of them, it’s likely that the harrowing percentage will progress towards the average. Though he doesn’t generate them often now, I think that will change in the NBA when his 3-point shot is taken away from him and defenders force him to drive into the help.
Overall, Avdija is certainly an intriguing prospect, especially for the Hornets. Any team can use a hybrid forward with ball-handling and passing skills and a reliable shot from beyond the arc; especially a team like Charlotte, who does not possess a player of Avdija’s ilk in the early stages of their rebuild. Devonte’ Graham has settled in as the primary ball-handler and offensive initiator, with Malik Monk dipping his toes in as the secondary playmaker. Terry Rozier is best fit as a catch-and-shoot scoring guard, and Cody Martin and Caleb Martin are primarily defenders with middling ball-handling skill. Devonte’ can’t do it all alone, and as his shooting percentages tank as the months go on, it’s becoming evident that the Hornets need someone else to spread the ball around and free up Devonte’ for easier shots. It’s hard to score efficiently when opposing defenses know exactly who is going to be initiating the offense, and what spots that player needs to get to for a good shot. Enter; Avdija, a playmaking forward off the bench, that can defend down a position if needed and hit the open threes that present themselves. He can share the court with nearly anyone on the team due to his competency as a passer and finisher.
As we all know, it all depends on what players are on the board when the Hornets are on the clock. Avdija isn’t the bucket-getter that Anthony Edwards or Cole Anthony are, and the Hornets do need another bucket-getter. But those guys might not be available in the Hornets draft range (which is picks 5-8, I assume), and they also need secondary playmaking and wing depth, which Avdija provides. The Hornets are 25th in the league with a 15.2 TO%. Their 1.60 assist/turnover ratio ranks 18th. Not to say that Avdija will alleviate that on his own, but the more steady playmakers they have, the better. The shoe fits, and the value seems reasonable; if the rumors are true, and the Hornets’ scouts have spent a lot of time overseas this season, the tall Israeli forward that plays like a Swiss Army knife could become the franchise’s first ever international lottery pick.
P.S. I never knew it was so hard to find streams of EuroLeague games until I sat down to watch Deni Avdija play before writing. FloHoops is outrageously expensive. There’s no way I’m paying $20 per month for that. Thank you to the kind folks from Greece that run the bootleg site I watched Maccabi Tel Aviv games on. This wouldn’t have been possible without them. Here are some of the best YouTube videos that I watched in preparation for this;
This one was awesome, and gives an insight to Avdija’s personality. He seems like a guy who loves basketball and knows how hard he has to work to make it in the NBA. It’s cool to see him break down his own film and identify his flaws and how to fix them with a good attitude. ESPN’s Mike Schmitz does good work.