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The Case for the Timberwolves Taking Deni Avdija First Overall

Edwards? Wiseman? Ball? What about... Avdija?

Photo by Ivan Terron/AFP7/Europa Press Sports via Getty Images

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m really excited to announce the newest addition to the Canis Hoopus staff — Tyler Metcalf. Tyler is originally from Milwaukee but went on to attend the University of Minnesota before eventually moving down south to Houston. Prior to joining our team, he had been doing some fantastic work at both Hashtag Basketball and Dunking with Wolves. Tyler brings over a wealth of basketball knowledge and is extremely well-versed when it comes to the NBA Draft, so please give him a warm welcome to the Canis community. Thanks Tyler!

The lottery gods finally turned their spiteful gaze towards other franchises as they allowed the Minnesota Timberwolves to move up in the lottery for the first time in franchise history. Unfortunately, it happens to be for a draft class with the lowest top tier talent since 2013. Despite this lack of simplicity, it doesn’t mean that excellent players won’t come out of this class, and it is always more beneficial to have the earliest pick regardless.

Since the Timberwolves draft fate was decided, speculation on what will be done with the pick has run rampant. Gersson Rosas has been shockingly transparent with what their approach will be — stating on the record that the team will either look to trade the pick for a player, trade back, trade for other assets, or draft their favorite player to either play or be traded in the future.

(If the sarcasm wasn’t blunt enough, that’s OK, I’m new, and you’ll eventually get used to it. Just please bear with me.)

While this draft may not have the apparent elite talent of recent years, it does have an excessive number of recognizable names like LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, and James Wiseman. These three are the most common names you’ll find among mock drafts. However, none of these three promising prospects are the correct pick for the Timberwolves.

Ball has the potential to be a generational playmaker, but his defensive effort is nonexistent, and his shooting makes Treveon Graham look like Paul George.

Edwards is the quintessential top pick with his athleticism and shot creation ability; however, he shot only 29 percent from three, played minimal defense, and went through extended periods where you forget he’s on the floor. This fan base and franchise made their feelings towards Andrew Wiggins relatively clear. I don’t think we need to run that experience back.

As for Wiseman — he’s a freak athlete who moves like a wing despite being a seven-footer. However, the fit is all wrong in my opinion and would likely cause numerous issues on both ends of the floor.

The more you look at it, the more you may start to think that this top pick is more like a curse rather than a blessing. While the previous three prospects have promising upside, the correct selection for the Minnesota Timberwolves with the first overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft is...

Deni Avdija

That’s right; it wasn’t a typo. Deni Avdija is the best player in this draft and would be a delightful fit with this roster.

At 6’8 and 210 pounds, the Israeli forward offers the Timberwolves tremendous versatility on both ends of the floor. Avdija’s impressive basketball IQ and high work rate make him an impact player. He sees the floor well and regularly sets his teammates up for easy scores. His scoring arsenal is diverse as he is an excellent driver, one of the best transition finishers in this class, and has a continually improving jumper.

One of the most appealing aspects of Avdija’s game is his playmaking ability. Avdija likely won’t be one of these point-forwards that are becoming more common. However, he will be an excellent facilitator in the flow of the offense and the open court.

As we can see below, Avdija has a knack of using his scoring gravity to create for his teammates. Once Avdija receives the ball, he immediately attacks the lane, using his superior foot speed to beat his defender. Avdija could easily rise for a floater. Instead, he recognizes the interior defender decides to switch, leaving Avdija’s teammate open in the dunker’s spot. Avdija promptly delivers a live dribble hook pass for the easy dunk.

Here we see again how Avdija is willing and capable of making the unselfish read. After giving up the ball to reset the offense, Avdija uses the back screen and flares to the corner. The screen completely dislodges Avdija’s defender, so the opposing big man chooses to follow Avdija to the corner, not wanting to surrender an open corner three. This decision leaves the screener unchecked, and Avdija delivers a perfect bounce pass without hesitation for the uncontested dunk.

This ability to act as a secondary or tertiary playmaker is incredibly valuable to an NBA offense. The Timberwolves offense will be initiated mostly by D’Angelo Russell and Jordan McLaughlin with a sprinkling of Malik Beasley. Avdija won’t have to act in this role too much, but by having a forward on the floor who can adeptly make that extra pass to find the cutter or shooter can change how the offense flows.

The Houston Rockets are an excellent example of a team that didn’t have this. Sure, they had many shooters who could move the ball around the perimeter, but they lacked guys who were confident passers off the dribble and on the move. Once the Lakers forced the ball out of James Harden’s hands, their offensive flow fell off a cliff. The insertion of Avdija into a rotation immediately cures this defect. While Avdija would mostly act as a secondary playmaker, he has shown flashes of operating in that primary role we see more forwards taking on.

Here, Avdija confidently navigates the pick-and-roll to set up his teammate. After dribbling off the first screen, Avdija subtly uses a crossover to stall until the second screen arrives. This move negates the likelihood of an offensive foul. Once Avdija dribbles off the second screen, he does an excellent job keeping his defender on his back while engaging the screener’s defender. Avdija sees that the help defender is too high and delivers a perfect pocket pass to the roll man.

The improvement of Avdija’s pick-and-roll navigation is highly encouraging for his future playmaking impact. Avdija has also shown that he can bring the ball up and handle full-court pressure. This skill hasn’t always been a strength of his, but Avdija’s ball-handling became tighter and more of an asset as this season progressed.

Below, Avdija handles the full-court pressure as if it is his little brother annoying him in the driveway. The defender is tight with Avdija the whole way up the court. Avdija is unfazed, casually avoiding the steal attempts and spinning out of pressure. Avdija briefly loses his defender, but his teammate is slow to clear out of the lane, ruining the spacing. Instead of recklessly attacking the opposing big man, Avdija slows his dribble and glances over his shoulder to locate his defender. This move disallows Avdija’s defender to fully recover and for Avdija’s teammate to set a makeshift screen for the layup.

Avdija’s playmaking upside is exciting when thinking of it being inserted into the Timberwolves rotation. Karl-Anthony Towns and Russell, clearly their two best players, will have the ball most of the time, but both are also off-ball threats. Avdija’s passing allows those guys to move the ball, relocate, and work for a better shot instead of feeling forced to take the first glimmer of space they see.

Passing is a beautiful skill, but I know most of you want more of a scoring impact from the first overall pick. The previous clip of Avdija handling full-court pressure is just a minuscule amount of what he can do in the open floor.

Last season, the Timberwolves ran in transition 14.9 percent of the time (14th in the league) but finished with only 1.08 points per possession (PPP), which ranked 26th in the league, per NBA Stats. The addition of Avdija will immediately improve that inefficiency. In the below clips, Avdija shows us his impressive foot speed, ability to elevate, and his eagerness to grab and go.

Avdija’s impressive foot speed is deadly in transition and an excellent driver in the half-court offense. He is an excellent straight-line driver and is extremely difficult to stop once he gets the corner. He also has excellent body control, which allows him to hang in the air and absorb contact while still finishing. He isn’t an elite ball-handler, but he has shown improvement with his positioning and keeping his defender on his back to negate their impact.

The immediate scoring impact from Avdija will come from his off-ball movement, though. While cutting has been slowly disappearing from NBA offenses, it is still an important area for the Timberwolves as they ranked eighth in the league with 1.33 PPP, per NBA Stats. In the last few years, we’ve seen numerous examples of the Timberwolves’ forwards cutting off of a Towns post-up.

Avdija is a more talented player than Dario Saric, but plays like these have been lacking since Saric was traded. Here, we see Avdija make an almost identical cut.

When Towns posts up, defenses will be entirely keyed in on him. Having forwards who can move off the ball like this to either set up an easy score or alleviate pressure is extremely valuable. Even when Towns and Russell are running the pick-and-roll, Avdija will be a threat to cut backdoor as all the attention will be focused on the ball. Avdija’s ability to create and score on the move will translate immediately. His more prominent role, however, will come with his spot-up scoring.

Avdija would likely take the starting power forward spot over Juancho Hernangomez, who also saw most of his offensive impact in an off-ball role, mainly spot-up shooting. Last season, according to NBA Stats, Hernangomez spotted up nearly 29 percent of his possessions and ranked in the 43rd percentile with 0.94 PPP. Hernangomez is a career 35.9 percent three-point shooter, which is slightly higher than Avdija’s 31.6 percent. Avdija is a much better athlete, though, and has tirelessly worked on improving his shot.

Regardless of what scouting report you read on Avdija, his outside shooting will be the main flaw. Some people blow this up more than others. While I don’t expect Avdija to turn into Davis Bertans, I do fully expect him to grow into a league-average shooter.

The issues with Avdija’s shot are entirely fixable. There isn’t anything inherently broken with his form. Avdija has a smooth, high release, and he isn’t scared of shooting. The issues arise with his consistency. At times he will have a leg kick at the end, which throws off his balance. The biggest problem, though, was that he tended to fall out of his shot too early. As we can see below, Avdija misses badly because of his leg flare, and he is falling back out of his shot before he releases it.

Once Avdija’s team returned from the pandemic break (that’s still an absurd thing to actually write), we saw a shooting form from Avdija that was much more connected and consistent. He stays in his shot, has reduced his leg kick, and has a more fluid release.

Avdija shows off not just an improved shooting form but also the ability to shoot on the move. His form still isn’t perfect as he occasionally has the leg kick, but it has improved significantly. This massive improvement in a short time gives me full faith that Avdija will at least be a league-average shooter.

Reaching league average shooting levels is vital for his shooting production, but it also helps spread the defense. Defenses will have to respect his shot, which creates driving lanes and opportunities to attack the rim.

We saw Avdija’s quality at-rim finishing earlier. When he is spotting up, and defenses recklessly closeout, Avdija will eagerly drive past them, as we can see below. Once Avdija sees his defender decides to closeout, Avdija effortlessly blows past him for the layup.

These opportunities will be plentiful for Avdija in the Timberwolves’ offense. They want to play a five out system for extended stretches, which leaves the lane unoccupied. Having the ability to attack closeouts puts the defense on their heels and creates five-on-four situations. The apparent result is easier attempts at the rim, but with Avdija’s passing, it will also create open shots for Towns, Russell, and Beasley on the perimeter, all of whom are excellent off-ball shooters.

Overall, I think Avdija’s shooting inconsistencies have been massively overblown. He isn’t a deadeye shooter, but he doesn’t need to be. His offensive impact will come in many ways as he does a little bit of everything at a high level. The other “flaw” people like to throw at Avdija is that he is a poor defender. This sentiment is flat out wrong. Sure, he has occasional blunders, but who doesn’t? Rudy Gobert’s most famous clip is him getting spun like a top despite being one of the best defensive centers in recent years.

Avdija has said that he wasn’t taught how to play defense until a couple of seasons ago, and his coaches had previously told him not to worry about defense. Considering that with where he is currently, his defensive upside is exciting. Avdija’s most significant defensive impact will come with his rim protection and weakside defense. His timing is impeccable, he has excellent instincts, and he is already comfortable staying vertical.

Below, we see a perfect example of Avdija’s weakside impact. As the ball-handler is running the pick-and-roll, Avdija positions himself perfectly. If he shades more towards the lane, he won’t be able to recover to the corner shooter. If he doesn’t shade enough towards the lane, then he has no chance of making the rotation. Avdija reads the pass the entire way, times his rotation to meet the roll man on the catch, stays vertical, and blocks the shot while keeping it inbounds.

Avdija’s instincts as a weakside defender are crucial to successful team defense. He will help cover up errors made by the Wolves in the pick-and-roll (God knows there are a lot of them) and help deter shots at the rim.

Avdija’s rim protection is also valuable in transition defense. Last season the Timberwolves allowed the 27th most transition points per game. Avdija shows his impact in this area in the below clip. Avdija immediately rotates to the cutter once the pass is made. Instead of diving for the ball or swatting down, Avdija times his jump in sync with the ball-handler and denies the shot.

Avdija’s timing here is impeccable. Having the ability to recognize and make the correct rotation while also denying the shot without fouling is a special skill. Given Avdija’s size and athleticism, he does project to be a relatively versatile defender. Since he will likely play a lot at the power forward spot, Avdija will eventually defend in the post, despite it being a dying play.

Even though Avdija isn’t the tallest or strongest forward, he is a skilled post defender. Here, Avdija holds his ground and doesn’t allow anything easy. The ball-handler initially tries to move Avdija through pure force. However, Avdija surrenders very little ground and blocks the initial shot. On the second attempt, Avdija stays vertical and forces his man into another lousy shot.

I know, I know — NBA offenses are moving away from the post, so this isn’t relevant. While there is a sliver of truth in that, the takeaways shouldn’t be that Avdija can defend a post-up, but instead that he has the strength and fight to battle with larger opponents and the discipline to alter shots without fouling.

The NBA is moving farther away from the rim, though, so Avdija will have to defend on the perimeter. There is still a lot of room for improvement here for Avdija, but he has shown tremendous growth. The idea that Avdija is a sieve on defense, though, is a complete fallacy. Avdija won’t be a point-of-attack defensive stopper, but having him switch on the perimeter won’t immediately doom the defense.

We see Avdija play drop coverage on the pick-and-roll in the below clip before switching onto the ball-handler. As the ball-handler pulls the ball out, Avdija stays close enough not to allow an open shot while not getting too close where he’d get blown past. Avdija does an excellent job of sliding his feet, stays vertical, and forces the lousy shot.

Avdija has areas of his perimeter defense to improve, like consistently staying lower in his stance. Considering that he only received defensive coaching about two years ago, I fully expect that area of his game to continue improving.

Final Thoughts

No matter what the consensus opinion on a draft class’s talent is, it is always better to have the first pick than to not. It creates numerous options for the Timberwolves to construct trade proposals or take whoever they think is the best player.

I know Ball and Edwards’s big names are enticing, but they aren’t the right choice for the Minnesota. Try to move past the social media presence and look past the highlight tapes because they don’t show you the full package of each prospect.

From day one, Avdija will fill numerous holes in the Timberwolves’ roster. His rim protection and team defense will enhance their scant defense. His playmaking and scoring versatility will complement the games of Towns and Russell while also alleviating pressure from them.

Avdija’s intangibles are also incredibly difficult to look past. He has a very high work rate both on and off the court, which should lead to continued improvements in his game. Avdija is a world-class competitor who desperately wants to win. His ability to do all of the little things that lead to winning basketball is rare for a player his age (still only 19-years old).

Deni Avdija may not possess that one elite skill like a Ball or Edwards do, but he will definitely contribute to winning basketball in every facet of the game. It may not be the flashy pick fans expect first overall, but Deni Avdija is not only the best fit for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he is also the best player in this draft.