On the opening night of the season against the Indiana Pacers, Kyle Kuzma was very efficient, shooting 50% from the field. He only made one of his four three-point attempts but made all six of his free throws. The one thing that stood out during that game was that Kuzma was very quiet early.
Instead, Deni Avdija was the forward who was pushing the pace, getting teammates involved, facilitating, and scoring in transition; all the things Kuzma would have been expected to do. Although Avdija was pushing the action, he wasn’t a high-volume shooter, as he took only eight shots and made four.
Kuzma will likely continue struggling with efficiency in his large offensive role
In the second game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Kuzma came out firing early, but he missed badly. He shot 1 for 10 from 3-point range and 39.1% from the floor on 23 shot attempts. The Wizards won the game, but it wasn’t because of Kuzma’s efficiency. As Kuz fired, Avdija took a back seat to the action, as he primarily played off the ball when the “swaggy buckets duo” was in the game together.
This seems to be a fact of life moving forward. When the starting lineup consists of both Poole and Kuz, it’s hard to demand that Avdija be a primary ball-handler as well.
So, if both Kuzma and Avdija are in the starting lineup with Poole, one player will have to be aggressive while the other plays mainly off the ball. Avdija and Kuzma are both natural ball handlers despite being 6’9, they both like to push the pace and get teammates involved. But they both can’t play their natural game in the starting lineup as presently constructed.
Kuzma and Avdija’s statistical profiles are surprisingly similar
This problem in the rotation points to an interesting fact: Kuzma and Avdija’s game are mirror images. Not only can they both push the pace, but they both can rebound, block shots, and shoot the three inefficiently. The difference is that Avdija is younger and growing into his game, while Kuzma has reached his prime.
Given that last year was Avdija’s 3rd year in the NBA, the table below compares Avdija’s 3rd year to Kuzma’s 3rd year as well as Kuzma’s stats from last year.
Kuzma (2022-2023) / Kuzma (3rd year) / Avdija (3rd year)
FG%: 44.8% / 43.6% / 43.7%
3P%: 33.3% / 31.6% / 29.7%
eFG%: 51.8% / 50.0% / 49.7%
Per 36 Minutes Stats:
OREB: 0.9 / 1.2 / 1.3
DREB: 6.6 / 5.2 / 7.4
REB: 7.4 / 6.4 / 8.7
APG: 3.8 / 1.9 / 3.8
SPG: 0.6 / 0.7 / 1.2
BPG: 0.5 / 0.6 / 0.5
Assist to Turnover: 1.23 / 0.86 / 1.75
PER: 14.0 / 12.2 / 11.2
As can be seen above, the stats are eerily similar. The shooting percentages are almost identical, Kuzma just shoots a lot more than Avdija. In terms of per 36 minutes numbers, Avdija is the better rebounder and defender.
The way Kuzma closes games is similar to Tim Tebow
On paper, Avdija may actually be the better player, but Kuz has something that Avdija doesn’t -clutch performances. He is a fan favorite, not because of his inefficiencies, but because when the chips are down and the Wizards need a win, he is the best option. Kuzma turns into Kobe Bryant in the clutch, with the swag and all, he just gets it done.
The perfect comparison for Kuz is actually in an entirely different sport. In the NFL there was a quarterback by the name of Tim Tebow. He was a lousy quarterback for three-quarters of football, but in the 4th quarter, when the game was on the line, he found a way to win. And he did it so consistently that he took his team to the playoffs and even won a playoff game. Tim Tebow had one of the worst QBRs in the league that year, but every win his team had was because of him.
That’s what Kyle Kuzma was for the Wizards and should be again this year. Don’t expect Kuzma to be a 50/40/90 player, that’s not in the cards. But there will be games won this year that the Wizards should have no business winning at all, and it will be because of Kuzma’s play.
Avdija may need to move to the bench to optimize both players
That description of clutch play does not describe Deni Avdija at this particular point in his career, but everything else stat-wise is essentially the same between the two players.
In order to get the most out of Avdija, the coaching staff will either have to try to get Kuzma to buy into playing off-ball for good chunks of the game, or they may need to move Avdija to the bench. Kuzma buying into playing off-ball would certainly help with his efficiency. But if he doesn’t, Avdija should be given a larger role with the reserve unit. With the reserves, Avdija can play his true brand of basketball and can shine in that role.
If the Wizards ever move on from Kuzma, Avdija is the perfect replacement in the starting lineup. But the Wizards would need to find another closer, because the type of confidence Kuzma has is hard to come by, and finding a player that can back it up when it matters the most is even rarer.