Deni Avdija

The Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

The Israeli basketball star notes that he is “excited to play against the NBA greats—all the guys I played against when I was little … in video games!”

Israel’s Deni Avdija recently moved from Israel to Washington, found an apartment, met with the media at a Washington Wizards press conference and ate his first meal at Chipotle Mexican Grill. “I really liked the idea of Chipotle. I like to eat healthy. And it was kind of healthy!”

Avdija, the 19-year-old Maccabi Tel Aviv phenom, was taken No. 9 overall by the Wizards in the recent NBA Draft. The 6-foot-9 inch, 225-pound forward is excited to play in the NBA and understands what it means to make it to the most elite league in the sport and to represent Israel. “I worked so hard to get here. I am here to show Israelis there is no limit.”

In a pre-season debut on Sunday night at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., he played a near-perfect game to the delight of fans—Israeli, Jewish and otherwise. The Wizards have also embraced Israel, where basketball is one of the nation’s top sports, and launched a Twitter account in Hebrew.

Israeli-born Liron Fanan, a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the director of player development for the Canton Charge of NBA’s G League (and a minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers) stresses the importance of Avdija drafting so high and playing in the NBA for Israelis. “It is a great accomplishment for Israel to have another Israeli in the NBA. When Omri [Casspi] went, it made a huge impact. We see where Israel basketball has gone in the 11 years that he played. It got bigger and better, and pushed kids to believe it is possible and to give their all—not just to see basketball as a hobby, but they can dream about the NBA. Deni is a vivid example of it. He probably watched Omri at night and dreamed!”

She also points out that another Israeli was picked in the recent NBA Draft.

“Yam Madar is also a great player. I think Deni helped Yam as well since scouts were watching Israel basketball more,” she says. “This is huge for Israel basketball.”

Madar was drafted by the Boston Celtics and will remain with his current team, Hapoel Tel Aviv of Israeli’s Premier League, for at least one more season. “It puts Israel on the sports map in the world and gives kids reason to keep trying their best,” adds Fanan.

Avdija spoke with the media about the contrast between growing up and playing in Israel, and now playing being on a bigger stage in a much bigger country. “I grew up in a comfortable environment where everyone knew me,” he says. “Now is a new beginning, a new career. It’s like starting over again. I am a tough kid who has been through a lot. I am ready!”

And he will have the support of the local Jewish and Israeli communities. Casspi, his mentor and friend who played 11 years in the NBA, has helped prepare Avdija for the experience. Casspi is well-known for representing Israel and Judaism in a positive way, including speaking with and signing autographs for his many fans, and for bringing fellow NBA players to visit Israel—often with a visit to his parents’ home for a meal. Casspi has also participated in Basketball Without Borders, a program sponsored by the NBA and other organizations that brings together the top 60 or more boys and girls ages 17 and under from 22 countries. The group traveled to Israel in 2017.

Once it is deemed safe in terms of the coronavirus, Avdija is looking forward to interacting with audiences. “Israeli fans are the best,” he exclaims. “There are Israeli and Jewish fans in the United States, and I will have their support. I will represent Israel and the Jewish community the best as I can.”

‘A major chapter in the country’s basketball story’

Matthew Levitt, a Fromer-Wexler Fellow and the director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism & Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, appreciates both Avdija’s basketball skills and the educational prospects his playing in Washington have to offer. “It will also be an opportunity for D.C. sports fans to get to know an Israeli athlete who reflects aspects of Israeli culture they may not be familiar with,” he said. “Israeli society is about more than conflict and religion. The child of a Muslim father and Jewish mother who grew up on a kibbutz, Avdija may challenge some common misperceptions about Israel. He will certainly challenge those assigned to defend him on the court!”

Marc Stein, the NBA correspondent for The New York Times, notes a wonderful irony in Avdija, a Maccabi Tel Aviv star, who is now joining the Washington Wizards. “People may not remember that the Wizards, then known as the Bullets, were the first NBA franchise to play Maccabi in the late 1970s, and now Deni goes to the nation’s capital as the first NBA lottery pick in Israeli history,” he writes. “It’s a great opportunity for him because the Wizards wanted him badly and never thought he would slip to them at No. 9, and it’s obviously a major chapter in the country’s basketball story.”

An additional irony is that Avdija joins the team whose name was changed from Bullets, stemming directly from the sadness then team owner Abe Pollin felt when his dear friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a bullet in 1995.

While eager to start his NBA career, Avdija realizes that he will miss a lot of things about Israel, including friends and family. He quips that he will also miss good Israeli hummus, but adds that “hopefully, good guides will show me some.”

One reporter on the recent Zoom media session pointed out that there indeed is a restaurant that serves the iconic Middle Easter dish very close to the Capital One Arena. Avdija was pleased.

He also acknowledges he will miss Israel’s stunning shorelines. “I love to go to the beach, but it is not an option. I will find new hobbies for sure.”

The youthful Avdija playfully notes that he is “excited to play against the NBA greats—all the guys I played against when I was little … in video games!”

In fact, he continues to be positive about all that awaits. After all, he declares: “You gotta do what you gotta do!”

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

“I thought, ‘Whoa, you are in the Barclay Center, playing against all those players you saw on TV, and now you’re just playing against them on the court,” said the 6-foot-9-inch Israeli forward.

Coach Scott Brooks liked what he saw in his newest player, Israeli Deni Avdija, during the short Washington Wizards pre-season. He decided to start Avdija in the first NBA pre-season game on Sunday evening against NBA legends Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. Brooks wasn’t sorry—Avdija was flawless in his NBA debut at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Avdija, sporting No. 9, kept excited Israeli fans up until after 3 a.m. as the Wizards nearly battled back against the Nets. They were unfazed by the 119-114 Nets victory. They stayed awake to see their 19-year-old future NBA star. The 6-foot-9-inch forward scored 15 points in his 24 minutes, shooting with 100 percent accuracy. He was three-for-three from three-point range and scored six points from the field. Avdija also had four rebounds and had two assists.

Brooks like what he saw.

“I liked that he competed,” he said, “that he took the challenges and that he was playing against some high-level players who have had a lot of success and experience in this league, but he took the challenge. I talked to him before the game and said the only pressure I will put on you is that you will go out there and play hard. I said, ‘You do that already, so the pressure is gone. That’s how you gain respect from your teammates, opponents and referees. Go out there and play hard, and don’t complain about anything.’ I think he did that tonight.”

Brooks admired his perfect game, though is mindful that won’t happen every time. “He’s not going to go every game and not miss a shot, but he played the right way; he wasn’t looking to force anything. If there was a pass to make, he made the pass; if there was an open shot, he made the shot. He drove when he had to drive. He was solid, and in order to have success in this league, you really got just be solid. If you are solid, you will have big-time success in this league.”

Avdija was proud of his performance and confident, although he acknowledged some initial nervousness when he stepped out onto the court. “At the beginning, I thought, ‘Whoa, you are in the Barclay Center, playing against all those players you saw on TV, and now you’re just playing against them on the court. It was cool at the beginning. I think my teammates were with me and pushed me forward, and as soon as I broke through, I felt comfortable. I played hard, and look what happened.”

‘It was a helluva journey to get here’

Avdija reported that his confidence comes from his three years playing professionally in Israel in the EuroLeague.

These days, he said, he is “repping a lot and keeping up with my mechanics. What is going to happen is going to happen. If I have the confidence, I am going to shoot it, so I may as well not be afraid.”

Avdija also has the support of his teammates. NBA veteran Russell Westbrook didn’t play on Sunday, but appeared to be sporting a clipboard and offering guidance on the sidelines to his teammates.

Brooks said he is “always into the game and was helping one of the young players.”

Avdija appreciated that. “He brings a lot of happiness and smiles and makes us love the game. He is a super competitor; he will always be there, and he is someone to learn from. I am glad he is on my team.”

The Wizards will play two more pre-season games (both at home against the Detroit Pistons) before starting their shortened season on the road on Dec. 23 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Unlike last season, NBA teams will not play in a special bubble in Florida. Each team will play 72 regular-season games, which is 10 games fewer than in a typical, 82-game NBA season.

The reality of Avdija’s journey from Israel to the NBA is beginning to set in for him. “It is amazing; it is a dream coming true,” he said. “I worked so hard for it.”

He knows that fans, family and friends don’t fully understand the effort required to get to the place he’s in now, saying “it was a helluva journey to get here.”

Avdija explained that “four years ago, I was just a kid going up to the professional league. I was so nervous about going to the court and scored one point. I woke up early and stayed late to shoot. I was in the gym while my friends were hanging out. That’s what brought me here, and that’s why it’s so fun. I see what it brings me, so I’ll never take my foot off the gas.”

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News syndicate

The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder becomes the third Israeli, after Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel, to play in the NBA.

Israeli basketball fans had to stay up very late or rise very early to witness the Washington Wizards taking 19-year-old Deni Avdija No. 9 overall in the NBA Draft 2020.

Just after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called his name at 9:02 Eastern Time from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., ESPN commentators highlighted the Maccabi Tel Aviv standout’s basketball IQ and his versatility, calling him “the steal of the draft.”

They noted his “tremendous versatility in the open court” and said he was “a fiery competitor.”

“It means a lot to me,” said Avdija when asked what it means to be the highest-drafted Israeli in history. “Israel is a small country and to represent Israel is amazing. I am super excited to get my game to the next level and to see what happens.”

The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder becomes the third Israeli to play in the NBA after Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel. “Omri has been in touch with me. We talked a lot about his route here, what I can do as a rookie, travel and more.”

The emotional Avdija thanked his friends and family for their support. “I truly love them. I love the support and will make you proud. I will work 100 percent!”

ESPN commentators playfully noted that Avdija, who addressed the media in fluent English, “gets by in two-and-a-half languages.” They noted that he learned English by “watching TV and playing ‘Call of Duty,’ ” the video game. “He is quite fluent in basketball, thanks to his Dad.”

His Muslim father, Zufer Avdija, was born in Yugoslavia and played for Yugoslavia’s national basketball team. The dual Serbian-Israeli citizen and sports coach also played for several Israeli professional basketball teams. “He played a big part in my journey,” said his son. “It was great to have another competitive sportsperson in the house. He taught me how to act on the court, small tricks, how to be a professional and how to have a good work ethic.”

His Jewish mother, Sharon Artzi, was a competitive track-and-field athlete. Avdija grew up in Beit Zera, a kibbutz in northern Israel, and currently lives in Herzliya. Soon, he’ll move to Washington, D.C.

“My American agent is from D.C., and he has said great things!” reported Avdija during the post-draft Zoom media conference, attended by more than 150 journalists from around the world. “Washington, D.C. is the capital—I heard it is a great place.”

Not only are the Wizards “a great organization,” he will play with such famed players as point guard John Wall.

Avdija doesn’t expect to have a difficult time making the transition from playing in Israel to playing in the NBA. “I am easy to adjust. I think it won’t be hard to adjust to the NBA style. I will be asking questions to get better every day and have the best environment around me to help me make sure I fit in and get better in the NBA.”

He will likely play small forward for the Wizards.

Avdija averaged 12.9 points per game, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 52.6 percent shooting from the field and 35.3 percent from 3-point range in the Israeli league last season for Maccabi Tel Aviv. His stats were slightly less impressive in the more competitive Euroleague.

Yam Madar, a 6’3” point guard and fellow Israeli, is likely to be taken later in the NBA draft. Madar, who played for Hapoel Tel Aviv, is a skilled playmaker and strong shooter.

Israeli NBA prospect Deni Avdija shoots a free throw for Israel at the Albert Schweitzer Tournament in April 2018. Credit: Sven Mandel via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Show his stuff on the highest stage’

Israelis haven’t been this pumped about the NBA since fellow Maccabi Tel Aviv player Casspi was drafted  No. 23 by the Sacramento Kings in the 2009 draft. He played for several teams during his 10-year NBA career.

Aliza Haas, who lives in Jerusalem, is the mother of two boys who grew up playing in the Hapoel Youth League. “People here are so excited and proud that there are two outstanding Israeli players in the 2020 NBA draft. Sports has always been a place where people can bring hope and show that anything is possible if a person works hard enough and believes in themselves. I can’t wait to see Avdija or Madar wearing an NBA team jersey!”

David Wiseman, originally from Australia and who now lives in Israel, maintains the Facebook Group “Follow Team Israel.” While he didn’t stay up to watch the draft, he and his group have been following Avdija for a long time. “ ‘Follow Team Israel’ has been sharing his exploits for a while and can’t wait for the rest of the world to get to know him. As much as a champion he is on the court, he is off it as well. Given his obvious talent from a very young age, people have been waiting for this day for a long time. We are excited to see Deni show his stuff on the highest stage and also to see where he will end up.”

Yariv Amiram, 26, grew up playing at Maccabi Tel Aviv youth club and has been playing basketball professionally for the past nine years. He currently plays for Hapoel Hevel Modi’in. Amiram feels that Avdija’s basketball IQ is high and thinks he will “automatically become someone who will represent Israel.”

He adds, “I’m sure he will do it great!”

Amiram said he is delighted that Avdija will help “make kids believe more that they can make it so high and go far. And in the future, it will open more doors for everyone.”

The sports news brought a dose of optimism to the two countries amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And when travel finally resumes, Israelis will no doubt be off to Washington, D.C., to see their young up-and-coming superstar in action.

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