Amid NBA’s wave of COVID uncertainty, Deni Avdija continues to deliver for Jewish and Israeli fans

“He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni,” says Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.

Original Article Published in the JNS

The Zamir family came to Madison Square Garden from Woodmere, N.Y., hoping to see their beloved Deni Avdija and the Washington Wizards play against the New York Knicks. Elad Levi and his son came all the way from Tel Aviv — part of a 24-person tour group hoping to see their fellow countryman Avdija, the only Israeli in the NBA, play in several games.

Yet their luck was running out after the Washington Wizards’ game against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 21 was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Nets’ roster. They came with their signs and Israeli flags and jerseys, and prayed the Wizards’ Dec. 23 game versus the Knicks would go on.

Four hours before tipoff, Wizards star Bradley Beal entered the league’s health and safety protocols. It is unclear whether he had received a positive test result or whether it was a matter of contract tracing. He joined fellow starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was already in the protocols.

Ultimately, the Zamir and Levi families fished got their wish. But just barely. Avdija scored in double digits for the fourth game in a row, with 14 points, as well as five rebounds and a career-high three blocks. It was his fifth multi-block game this season. The Wizards defeated the Knicks, 124-117.

“I like that [Avdija] is a really good shooter and his defense is pretty amazing too,” reports Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in Woodmere. “He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni.”

The Zamirs, all clad in custom-made red number 9 Avdija jerseys, enjoyed their view from the first row, close to center court. Like other Jewish and Israeli fans, they enjoy following 20-year-old Avdija’s continued growth in his second year in the NBA. Very few fans saw Avdija play in person last season.  He made his first appearance at the Knicks’ home of Madison Square Garden on March 23, 2021, and scored 14 points before fouling out in a Wizards loss. Due to COVID-19 rules at the time, the arena was at 10% capacity. One month later, on April 21, 2021, Avdija suffered a season-ending right fibular hairline fracture, followed by a long period of rehabilitation.

This season, Avdija is thriving on and off the court, though he could do without the day-to-day uncertainty of the pandemic. “To be in question is a bummer,” he says. “It is not fun, but we have to keep being safe. We have to just keep working ourselves.”

Avdija worked hard to return this season and he feels it is paying off. “I see progress every day and hope I will maximize my potential until I retire,” he says. “I learn new things every day and get better every day as I become a more complete player.” For instance, Avdija describes that he is “more mature” and “knows what spots to shoot from,” and is learning to “trust my shot and not think too much.”

Wizards Head Coach Wes Unseld Jr. likes what he sees and has been giving Avdija more playing time. “He has progressed well,” he says. “We are putting him in different situations. I am learning to trust him more. His teammates are learning to trust him more. He is stepping up and making big plays —facilitating, scoring, and we have seen the defensive side of it. So, I think he is starting to put together a nice run here. If he can play this way night in and night out, this is going to be great for us.”

Unseld also admires Avdija’s energy and attitude. “His energy is always good. He is a very positive guy, doing things for his teammates,” he says.

Despite the many precautions in place due to COVID-19, Advija has had some opportunities to get to know the local Washington, D.C., Jewish community — and he enjoys speaking with Israeli media. Avdija recently lit Hanukkah candles, signed autographs and answered questions from fans at the Rockville Town Center in Montgomery County, Md., 20 miles north of the team’s Capital One Arena.

When asked what was his best moment of the year, Advija enthusiastically reports that it was being back in Israel for the first time and seeing friends, family and all of the support he has been receiving.

And Avdija’s New Year’s resolution? “That by the end of 2022 I will be better than I was at the end of 2021. That’s all I’m asking for. Just to be a better person, learn more, know more, and be a better player and to be healthy. That’s really important.”

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