He also got used to the hazing.
“We didn’t have rookie duties overseas, but guys were definitely hazing me. Tying my shoes together, taping my locker up,” Avdija said, laughing Wednesday during a virtual news conference. “I got hit with some things, but not something like rookie duties with [wearing] the backpack and bringing food and stuff. … If I need to do it, I’ll do it out of love, you know. Those are my teammates.”
Avdija has gladly taken on Washington’s newbie burdens of wearing a kiddie backpack around and bringing the team food.
For the team, having drafted a rookie who doesn’t need to be taught the ins and outs of playing pro hoops is a huge lift during a condensed season in which training camp has been shaved down and the schedule has been trimmed from 82 games to 72 in the regular season. The Wizards expect to be in the playoff conversation this year, and that means they can’t waste time easing into the season or coddling their first-round draft pick. Brooks has no qualms about playing rookies, as last year’s No. 9 pick Rui Hachimura demonstrated, and Avdija is in the running for the only open starting spot Washington has, on the wing.
Brooks is observing a few different players for the position — he named Troy Brown Jr., Isaac Bonga, Davis Bertans and Jerome Robinson alongside Avdija after practice on Tuesday — and imagines it could be a fluid spot in the starting five all season.
“I think we have some pretty good choices, and I’m excited to see how it all unfolds in the next couple of weeks,” Brooks said in a virtual news conference Tuesday. “ … I don’t think we’re always going to be locked in at that three spot. Maybe it’s going to be how we’re playing, how that player is playing, what the second unit … we’re just trying to find quality minutes at all five positions.”
Thus far, Avdija has stood out by blending in with the team, an unusual achievement for a rookie. His and Brooks’ side conversations during practice aren’t about scheme or position, rather, the coach uses their tete-a-tetes to learn more about Avdija’s background and life before he became an NBA player.
Avdija’s teammates are more impressed with his shooting prowess, perhaps the element of his game that was most criticized by NBA draft analysts who saw clips of him competing. Hachimura went so far as to compare him to the team’s three-point specialist Bertans, who has yet to join a group practice due to NBA protocols after he arrived in Washington late because of a visa issue.
Avdija practically glowed when he heard about Hachimura’s praise: “Rui, thank you so much, man!” he said.
Brooks’ assessment of his shot was more measured.
“He needs reps,” Brooks said. “He’s made shots every day he’s practiced, it seems like he makes big shots as well, I think his shot’s good, he’s just going to have to — it’s a work in progress. But his form, the mechanics, I think are pretty solid.”
The slow, occasionally maddening work that it takes to transition from a rookie to experienced veteran is something Avdija is already familiar with, albeit on a different level. He remembers playing fast and frantically as a 16-year-old in the Israeli premier league, trying to speed up his development all while acclimating to a game that was played at a higher level than anything he’d experienced before.
In the even faster and more physical NBA, Avdija will have to make that exact jump yet again. This time, he’s telling himself to simply play his game and not sweat the transition period.
“I saw it in my third year in Europe, I [felt] like it was all slowing down for me. I’m not playing as fast, I’m thinking more, I’m reading the game better. So it’s going to happen here, too,” Avdija said. “I just need to get used to everything, I just need to break through. Hopefully it will be like that here, and I think I’ll play better.”