I'm not typically big on player comparisons. I've been vocal on opposing the tactic because, no matter how much you say you're comparing apples to oranges, someone else will see it as apples to apples.
Comparisons really fall into three categories: play style, player impact and physical similarities.
For example, Lauri Markkanen was likened during the pre-draft process with Ryan Anderson and Nikola Mirotic, two stretch-forwards who will fill a similar role or style to Markkanen. But in doing so, the comparisons identified an inherent ceiling that Markkanen was perceived to have: that he'd be little more than a stretch big and might have shortcomings of how he impacts the game akin to Anderson and Mirotic.
Others are lumped into categories based on the statistical impact they had in college and get put against the mold of a player with similar stats but drastically different style. Take Marvin Bagley from Duke, a hyper-athletic mismatch frontcourt guy. He saw comparisons to Chris Bosh (likely since both are left-handed) despite Bosh being a fantastic shooter, a master of fundamentals and someone who didn't rely on his athleticism.
Some comparisons are pretty lazy and based solely on the physical characteristics. Jonathan Isaac, for example, as a long-armed and wiry 6'10", was given the Kevin Durant comparison despite the two playing polar opposite styles of basketball and having largely differing impacts. Jordan Clarkson, as a bigger guard, received comparisons to Michael Carter-Williams. Clarkson is one of the better scoring reserves in the NBA and shoots 36.8 percent from deep. Not exactly an accurate comparison.
By my measure, I haven't found a way to rectify the differences between all three categories. Some prospects may mirror current pros in terms of how they play and in what role they'll be successful, but by doing so we fit their ceiling and floor into a predetermined mold. Using physical characteristics only tends to underly the skills which make players useful and earn them minutes or dictate how they'll be built around/ fit into a team dynamic. To avoid placing prospects into this dilemma, I've tried to avoid using NBA players past or present to describe future pros.
I'm going to break my cardinal rule today.
Whenever I watch Deni Avdija, all I see is a player cut from the same cloth as Toni Kukoc. For some younger fans, Kukoc's career arc only follows the trajectory of The Last Dance and how he fit as a third cog into the Chicago Bulls team. He made some timely shots, was a unique and skilled European forward and was highly touted out of Croatia.
There's so much more to Kukoc than that, but more importantly, his game would have been perfect for the modern, positionless NBA. Watching Avdija push the bounds of conventional forwards and blend the "point forward" label with a multifaceted scoring approach, all that comes to mind is how well Kukoc would do today.
Avdija's size is a large part of what makes him unique. Blending strong ball handling with a 6'9" frame and underrated explosiveness, Avdija can play on-ball or off-ball.
Modern wings and forwards, like Giannis, Pascal Siakam or Ben Simmons, have figured out that they get to the the biggest threats in transition, so in order to get there, they must attack the defensive glass. As Avdija adds strengths and becomes a reliable rebounder, he'll be a mismatch in transition. He'll have the pace and IQ to push to the rim or hit open teammates. More importantly, he'll force cross-matches. If he gets a big on him, he can reset the offense to the perimeter and allow his teammates to break those mismatches down. If he gets a smaller guard into his crosshairs, he can drop him down into the post and use his crafty interior arsenal to score.
Avdija is comfortable with the ball in his hands without being ball dominant. His shot has come a long way and is getting consistent as a catch-and-shoot option. He's really smart with attacking poor closeouts, uses both hands well and is capable on quick rips or simple moves. There isn't a ton of flash, pop or overt athleticism to his game, but Avdija gets to his spots.
When looking at a potential top-five pick who can help direct an offense, the isolation scoring prowess is a large part of the equation. Avdija doesn't project as an alpha and the 20 point, 8 assist type of guy. For him, the appears like the ideal third cog, averaging 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists on a winning team. Play him at the 4 and he'll kill slower defenders with his perimeter skill and shooting. Smaller guys he can take into the post and have an offense run through him.
The post-up game he possesses is vital for so many of the game's best wings. From LeBron to Kawhi, Paul George to Durant and every All-Star in-between, those mid-post isolations are still a late clock option so many greats rely upon. Avdija has polish and comfort here, and while he has to improve his strength, those signs are just as important for someone at his position as the pick-and-roll effectiveness of a 6'1" point guard.
Hopefully the success of Luka Doncic as a power wing has silenced those who believe the game needs to be played at a certain speed in order to be successful. Doncic, like Avdija, thrives when playing at pace and not at speed, meaning he dictates to the defense how the game will be played and can shift gears at his choosing. Avdija has the potential to do the same. Evidence of snaking pick-and-rolls, hostage dribbles, wise refusals and methodical isolation scoring all point to him having some impact along those lines in the NBA, though obviously not to the extent of Doncic.
When at his best, that's how Kukoc played. The Triangle Offense was a blessing and a curse for Toni: it gave him multiple opportunities and locations to showcase his skills inside and out, but also restricted free movement and creativity with the structure it required. He was a great passer, strong shooter, brilliant cutter and an underrated defender.
The underrated defense is the biggest similarity to Avdija. Since he's not an elite athlete, doesn't possess freakish length for his height and doesn't play in a league known for its athleticism, he gets regarded as having a ceiling far below where it actually is on defense. He's competitive and super smart with his help rotations. He's a good weak-side shot blocker and moves his feet pretty well to stay in front.
The knocks on Avdija are his need for a little more consistency as a shooter and a finisher, and that his face-up moves are fairly basic at this point. There aren't holes in his game, just swing traits that might lead some to believe he won't be great in certain areas as opposed to average.
The defensive polish is a part of things that will haunt Avdija early in his career and could prevent him from making an immediate impact. Avdija can be foul prone on the perimeter and contact-averse on the interior, almost the opposite of what teams look for. These are smaller errors that will be corrected with time, repetition and tutelage of an NBA strength program.
Whichever team lands Avdija will get a ball of clay on offense and a competitive worker on defense. On a nightly basis, a large chunk of the battle on defense is just giving a shit. Avdija clearly seems to care and put his best foot forward. He's a gym rat and he plays like he's confident in the work he puts in.
The positions in the frontcourt have changed. To play the 4, you have to be able to shoot and mismatch, rebound and defend different guys, make an offensive impact but defer to iso or pick-and-roll scorers. Avdija fills all those roles.
I don't know if his ceiling is as high as some of the other names in discussion for a top-five pick, but his floor is definitely higher. Fit isn't how teams should draft, but fit is necessary to maximize the investment in their player. Teams that expect Avdija to come in and be an offensive cog from day one might be misguided. But by year three seeing him as a 16-7-5 guy on a good team is more than realistic.
Kukoc's per-36 minutes on the Three-peat Chicago Bulls: 17 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists with 37 percent 3-point shooting. I can't get the comparison out of my head.