Original Article published on The JNS

The 20-year-old scored four points, had three rebounds and one assist in only 16 minutes of play. Nevertheless, the Wizards lost to the Knicks 117-99.

Deni Avdija, the only Israeli player in the NBA, returned to action on Saturday night after a longer than expected recovery and rehabilitation from an ankle injury earlier this year. The Washington Wizards faced the New York Knicks in a preseason game; it was the second preseason game for the Wizards but the first for Avdija. He scored four points, had three rebounds and one assist in only 16 minutes of play. Nevertheless, the Wizards lost to the Knicks 117-99.

Despite the loss, Avdija, 20, was happy to be back in action, saying “it feels good to be back. It is a good first step to get it going, to get two baskets, to get in the rhythm.”

He made a layup on a fast break from teammate Raul Neto and made a second basket after a pass from team star Bradley Beal. “You need to start with something,” he said. “It felt good.”

Wizards Coach Wes Unseld was generally pleased with Avdija’s performance, though he pointed out some areas in need of improvement. “For the most part, he was good,” he said. “He had some missed assignments. And using his voice will be a constant theme for him. We have to prod him a little bit to do it.”

In the Oct. 9 game, Unseld worked to have Avdija play continuous minutes. “It was Deni’s first crack at it. We wanted to make sure he had extended runs and didn’t want to chop up his minutes too much.” Unseld has reported throughout the pre-season that Avdija is ready to play but wants to ease him in slowly. He will continue to monitor his minutes.

While Avdija is pleased with how hard he worked on his rehabilitation and conditioning, and how much his coaches and trainers have invested in him, he acknowledged that it has been difficult being away from the game—since April 21, when he got hurt—for so long. “I missed basketball. I missed being on the court. I don’t take anything for granted. I enjoy every moment of being with teammates, coaches and fans. Hopefully, we’re going to have fun this season.”

Avdija noted that he enjoyed playing in Washington in front of actual spectators. “The atmosphere changed; we have some fans now,” he said. “I can see people in the stands. Those things felt good.”

He also feels more relaxed not being a new player. “I wasn’t as ‘shocked’ as in my first year. Some players I came up against last year, it wasn’t easy. In the second year, you know where you are—you know the arena, you’ve seen all the teams and all the defenses in the league. I feel more experienced—mature, stronger and better.”

Yet there are challenges ahead as he eases back this season. Avdija is aware of what he needs to do to get ready for the 82-game regular season, which runs from October to April.

“The first thing I wanted to experience was the pace of the game. I have to get used to the pace and physicality and playing defense, and having energy running up and down and going through plays. I’m not going to lie—it wasn’t easy for me,” he acknowledged. “It’s not easy coming in after six months. My body needs to adjust.”

But, he said, “I’m getting there. It is a good first step for me.”

The Wizards have two more preseason games before starting their regular season on the road against the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 20.

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Original Article Published On The JNS

Washington Wizards’ general manager Tommy Sheppard says like the rest of the players, Avdija will have to prove himself in the pre-season and earn his playing time. He adds that the 20-year-old is a “very clever playmaker. I think he’ll be able to help us.”

Basketball player Deni Avdija was the talk of the town in Israeli and Jewish circles last season. The 19-year-old Israeli was drafted No. 9 in the first round of the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards and was off to a fairly impressive start until he fractured his right ankle on April 21 during a game against the Golden State Warriors.

Avdija, now 20, has been recovering and rehabilitating, and is cleared to return for his second year in the NBA. He will play on the same Wizards team, though there will be two significant changes. Coach Scott Brooks, with whom Avdija had good relationship, will not be returning; he will play under a new head coach, former Bullets star, Wes Unseld. And superstar teammate and mentor Russell Westbrook was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

In a recent press conference, team general manager Tommy Sheppard discussed Avdija’s recovery and plans for the upcoming season. Sheppard is taking a somewhat cautious approach with the young player and hopes to ease him back slowly. While Sheppard reports that “he’s doing everything full speed,” he adds that Avdija “hasn’t been jumping in the scrimmages quite yet. I think a lot of that is just being overly cautious to make sure there are no setbacks.”

Sheppard mentions that it has only been six months since Avdija’s injury. “When you start your training camp at the end of September, normally you think about an injury that happened last season; it seemed like it happened forever ago. We didn’t really have that full-time with Deni—we’ll ease him in and continue to monitor day-to-day.”

Sheppard alluded to other non-injury-related issues that have slowed Avdija’s return. “He wasn’t going to participate in summer league … and then we had some COVID protocols that he got washed up in,” with some team members testing positive and thus impacting the travel schedule.

“There were just a couple of opportunities that were taken away from him,” says Sheppard.

Avdija has thus far been kept from scrimmages with teammates in the lead-up to training camp, which opened on Sept. 28. Sheppard stressed that Avdija’s present restrictions are purely out of caution. He is expected to play in pre-season games, though his minutes will likely be limited at the start. “When you haven’t had a whole lot of playing time and a lot of 5-on-5 or anything, it’s not something you want to throw him into when everybody else is ahead. We’ll ease him in; I think that’s the wise thing.”

‘More to his game than he was able to show’

In a second media session, Unseld shared his impressions of and plans for Avdija this season, saying that “he has been great and he looks strong. He is moving well. He’s put in a ton of time.” While Unseld agrees with Sheppard’s cautious approach, he may move quickly to get Avdija on the court. “I don’t know who talked about bringing him along slowly and ramping him up cautiously, but he looks great. He is eager to go. I am excited to see how it translates.”

Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard. Source: Screenshot/Howard Blas.

Sheppard and Unseld offered their thoughts on what Avdija’s second year with the team may look like, with Unseld reporting that “I think the next iteration for him will be his being a playmaker, playing as a secondary ball-handler, and at times, the primary ball-handler.”

Unseld said he is pleased to have the flexibility and versatility to move such players as Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie around, “so now they don’t have to orchestrate the offense as much, they don’t have to be the focal point as much, with another guy who makes plays.”

Unseld says he remains impressed with many aspects of Avdija and his game. “His size will benefit us defensively, giving us the ability to switch a lot, plus his shot-making along with the other guys, so the shooting has been amplified. You cannot have enough shooting on the floor in an NBA game.”

Sheppard notes the difference between being a rookie and returning for a second season and offered thoughts on the 6-foot-9-inch forward’s role this season. “I think there is more to his game than he was able to show last year, but a lot of rookies don’t get to do a whole lot. You are lucky if you get out on the floor!”

He reminds us that Avdija “is just 20 years old. And I think some of that gets lost when in your rookie year—you are just out there trying to figure things out. The best thing sometimes about your rookie year is when it is over. You get to year two, and that is where he is at now.”

Sheppard did get to see Avdija in action last season. “Deni was able to play quite a few minutes before he got injured. We know he can rebound. We know he can defend. I think he’ll be able to show as a secondary playmaker. I think he is capable of getting 10 toes on the paint and scoring. I think he is a guy who is a very clever playmaker. I think he’ll be able to help us.”

Like the rest of the Wizards players, Avdija will have to prove himself in the pre-season and earn his playing time. Sheppard has not yet determined how many minutes he will play per game. “We are certainly never going to put a cap on his minutes or on what we think his role is going to be,” he explained. “He is going to show us that. He has to go out and earn it. That is the exciting part of training camp. He is going to be out on the floor plenty and having plenty of opportunities to continue to grow. I know our coaches are very excited to work with him and expand his game. There will be a ton of opportunities for him to show his coaching staff and teammates all the things he can bring.”

The Washington Wizards will begin their preseason action at Toyota Center in Houston, when they take on the Rockets on Oct. 5. The team will return to Capital One Arena in Washington to face the New York Knicks on Oct. 9 and the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 12. The Wizards will close out the preseason in New York with a matchup against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 15. Their first regular-season game is on the road on Oct. 20 versus Toronto, and their first home game is on Oct. 22 against the Indiana Pacers.

Washington Wizards Head Coach Wes Unseld. Source: Screenshot/Howard Blas.

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Original Article Published On The JNS

The 20-year-old got off to a fast start, only to get injured and have to sit out 18 games, as the Washington Wizards went to the playoffs, eventually ceding to the Philadelphia 76ers.

 A little more than six months ago, Israel and the basketball world had high hopes for 19-year-old Deni Avdija. The 6-foot-9-inch former Maccabi Tel Aviv small forward was No. 9 in the first round of November’s NBA draft by the Washington Wizards. He hit the ground running. He endured strict NBA coronavirus restriction protocols, a grueling travel schedule and being far from family, friends and country.

Avdija got off to a fast, fairly successful start. The young rookies started in 15 games, averaged 6.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists in the 54 games he played this season.

Almost five months to the day of his draft date—April 21—Avdija’s promising rookie season came to an abrupt end. He landed awkwardly on his right leg in a game against the Golden State Warriors on April 21. Avdija left the court in a wheelchair and was diagnosed with a right fibular hairline fracture.

While expected to make a full recovery following a 12-week rehabilitation process, he was deemed out for the season and would miss the team’s unexpected entry in the playoffs. Avdija has been seen from time to time in a walking boot. He was also observed putting up some shots in a seated position prior to the Wizards facing the Boston Celtics in the NBA play-in tournament. But he has not spoken to the media, and the Wizards haven’t shared much on his progress.

That changed on June 3.

Following the Wizards being eliminated in five playoff games by the No. 1 seeded Philadelphia 76ers, Wizards team general manager Tommy Sheppard and coach Scott Brooks spoke with the media for nearly 90 minutes. This final media session of the season addressed the season as a whole; star players Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook; their young players and frequently injured players; and the future of Brooks whose five-year contract is about to expire. They also spoke about Avdija.

Early in the press conference, Sheppard reported, “Deni is in week six of an injury. I think he will be cleared after 12 weeks. The most important thing to me is his therapy. He was with us on this last road trip; I watched his therapy, I watched him out on the floor. I am pleased with his progress. Our hope is to have him 100 percent healthy by the time summer league rolls around, but it is not imperative that he play in summer league. We’ll make that evaluation at the right time.”

He noted that Avdija missed the last 18 games of the season and was not able to join in the team’s short-lived playoff run.

‘We have a lot of hope in his future’

Brooks has been supportive of his young Israeli player throughout the season and has high hopes for him. He has also offered a realistic assessment of Deni after each game. “I like his potential. He played a good number of minutes this year,” he said.

“There were some really good moments and some when you could really tell he was 19 [he turned 20 during the season]. But we have a lot of hope in his future,” said Brooks. “It is unfortunate he got injured and is going to miss 10 to 12 weeks, and a chance to be in the playoffs. He is a big body. He is a pretty good athlete. He shows toughness. He is a good rebounder, and his shooting is developing itself.”

Brooks said he has enjoyed watching his star players Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook take Avdija and other rookies under their wing. “They like these young players,” he noted, and have served as mentors to Avdija and others.

Sheppard reported that “Deni is doing fine. He is out of the boot and able to do spot shooting.” He added that the team is having him avoid jumping during workouts to help assure a complete recovery and that he is also working on his cardio, which can be difficult while recovering from a lower-body injury.

Other than that, “he is doing fantastic,” reassured Sheppard. “I think Deni is on track to be an impact player in the future.”

It seems clear that Avdija will be back with the team next season, ready to continue growing and developing as a second-year player in the NBA. Sheppard stopped short of reassuring fans that Brooks would be back with the team next season.

It was an up and down season for the Wizards. They started 0-5, and along the way, dealt with COVID-19, had several weeks without games or practices and went on to 17-32 record. Avdija was one of several players to face injuries.

The Wizards battled back down the stretch and finished with the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference. They earned a play-in berth and then qualified for the playoffs. After going down 3-0 in the playoffs with the Sixers, the Wizards won game four with an exceptional 122-114 win. The Wizards’ season came to an end with a 129-112 loss to the Sixers on Wednesday night.

Avdija and his teammates will benefit from the much-needed rest, say the coach and manager. Added Sheppard: “Our goal is to have Deni at training camp and have him a big piece of what we are doing.”

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

American-Israeli basketball influencer making an impact on courts and screens all over the world.

NEW YORK – Mike Kaufman may be the most popular Israeli basketball player you never heard of.

The American-born 28-year-old Kaufman played professional basketball for two years in Israel, is a well-known basketball teacher, coach, sports journalist/videographer and social media influencer. He has accompanied NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to Greece, shot around with Dwyane Wade, taught literally millions of aspiring young players to make complex shots, and recently did a feature video story on Israel’s two recent NBA draftees – Deni Avdija and Yam Madar.

These days, Kaufman consistently outscores all Israeli basketball players on social media combined by a long shot. The very gregarious Kaufman described himself this week to The Jerusalem Post as a “late basketball bloomer.” He was born into a Jewish family in New York, moved to Florida at age seven, and eventually made his high school basketball team as a junior.

“I fell in love with Cambridge and Boston,” said Kaufman, who went on to play at Division III Lesley University, where he studied business management and psychology and served as captain for two years. Kaufman set two school records – most three-pointers made in a single game and best single season three-point percentage at 44.5%. He was also a semifinalist in the 2014 ESPN college dunk contest.

During his college years, Kaufman met Berdugo, who currently serves as head skill development coach for all of Israel’s national basketball teams.
Kaufman was impressive enough to catch the attention of recruiters from a number of colleges in the United States.

In considering his next basketball move, Kaufman consulted with Laine Selwyn, an old mentor and coach from his early days at what Kaufman refers to as “the Marv Kessler Basketball Camp.”

Kessler was a well-known coach and instructor throughout the basketball world; he was best known as an instructor from the mid-1960s to the 1990s at the prominent Five-Star Basketball Camp in Honesdale, PA.

“Laine knew me from when I was a little kid!” reported Kaufman.
She went on to be a basketball star at University of Pittsburgh, as well as in the WNBA, with several European teams and with Maccabi Ashdod. She played in Israel for 10 years and encouraged Kaufman to consider joining her there.

“[Laine] said ‘should think about aliyah and playing basketball in Israel.’ So, after graduation, I went for it!”
Berdugo was again a big help.

“Yogev introduced me to Israel,” noted Kaufman, who met various Israeli players and coaches through the basketball camp. “He introduced me to Matan Siman-Tov, who became my agent.”
Siman-Tov is currently Avdija’s Israel agent.

“He tried to get me a deal, but they said they needed to see me play in real life,” noted Kaufman.

In 2014, Kaufman participated in a Birthright Israel trip.
“I had a great Birthright experience.”

He decided to stay in Israel to shop around his basketball skills. He practiced with a team in Ramat Hasharon, caught the attention of several Israel team owners, and the then-22-year-old was offered a contract for the 2014/15 season by Maccabi Hod Hasharon of the Israel National League.

“I made aliyah and bought a one-way flight! I had to have the mentality that I was not coming back [to the US].”

In Israel, Kaufman lived with his childhood friend from Florida, Nicolas “Nico” Olsak, a midfielder for the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. Kaufman did not see much playing time that season which he notes “had its fair share of ups and downs.” The shooting guard acknowledges the style of play was different from what he was used to in the US and that he “needed time to adjust.”

Kaufman did not receive any offers at the end of the season to continue playing in Israel – “I didn’t want to go out like that,” – he recalls – and tried out with Elizur Ashkelon, where he received an offer to play for the 2015/16 season. However, the team experienced financial problems, and Kafuman’s playing career in Israel came to somewhat of an abrupt end.
Kaufman is very honest as he reflects on his Israel basketball careers.
“It was shaky. I did not have a lot of closure. It drove me to keep pursuing basketball somewhere else.”

Still, Kaufman loved the opportunity to play professional basketball and to play in Israel.

“Playing pro ball was a lifelong dream. Playing in Israel was super special. Tel Aviv is my favorite city in the world!”
While Kaufman hasn’t played professionally since then, he has creatively carved out an impressive niche and presence in every part of the basketball world – from the NBA to youth basketball.
At 23, he returned to Florida and began coaching a third-grade travel team. After five months in Boca Raton, he realized that coaching “wasn’t for me – I’ll coach my own kids one day!”

He moved to New York to work for Overtime, a startup described on its website as “a sports network for the next generation of fans. We bring you the content of the stars and personalities you want to see.”
Kaufman has worked his way up in four-and-a-half years with Overtime.
The work soon expanded from part time to full time and the company went from five workers to 100 workers with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Since the company started, it has raised $33 million dollars. NBA All-Stars, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony have invested in Overtime.
Kaufman currently serves as Senior Manager, Social Strategy and Distribution. He has media credentials for the New York Knicks, covers the NBA All Star Weekend, and regularly meets with such NBA stars as Zion Williamson, Wade, James Harden and Antetokounmpo.

Kaufman attended Williamson’s last high school game and the state championships, played basketball with Wade at Chelsea Piers in New York, hung out with Harden and was invited by Nike to accompany Antetokounmpo for the launch of his sneaker in his hometown in Greece.

“It was so cool. He is such a down-to-earth guy and I met his brothers, who also play in the NBA.”

While working with NBA stars is glamorous, Kaufman still feels a special connection to Israel.

“I went from playing in Israel and just five years later to working in sports media and doing a feature story on Deni and Yam Madar.
Everything really came full circle for me at that moment. The mini-documentaries I produced ended up getting picked up by Israeli News outlets like Sport5 on TV in Israel. This really brought exposure to them and helped them grow on social media before they got drafted to the NBA.”
The hard-working Kaufman has a “side gig,” known as Better Bounce, a concept he first envisioned while playing basketball in Israel.

“I always had teammates and other basketball players asking me how I increase my vert[ical leap] and what I do to become more athletic and jump higher. I finally decided to monetize this in an effective way. Having everything online has allowed me to scale my expertise around the world to help as many athletes as possible.”

Kaufman describes Better Bounce as “a basketball lifestyle brand that specializes in making workout programs to help athletes improve their vert, overall athleticism and give them what they need to be successful on the basketball court.”

His videos have a tremendous following. On some, NBA players perform complex moves as Kaufman breaks them down and narrates over them so young players can work on mastering the moves on their own. More playful videos feature Kaufman in the air himself, like the one where he is vaulting over a woman.

“My fiancée lets me jump over her. This is how we built trust!”
The incredible numbers of viewers show just how popular and influential Kaufman is. He has had four videos in the past six months with over a million views each. His “stats” include: 85,400 Instagram followers with 1.5 Million views in the past month; 358,700 followers on TikTok, with his videos having been “liked” 14.3 million times
(By comparison, other Israeli and Jewish basketball players – many with very successful careers – lag behind Kaufman in terms of Instagram followers: Gal Mekel: 23k, Jordan Farmar: 120k, Deni Avdija: 190k, Omri Casspi: 252k, Amar’e Stoudemire: 526k and Yam Madar: 37k.)
Kaufman is more than a basketball entrepreneur and influencer – he is a role model and a mensch, appreciated by both kids and adults. Kaufman personally replies to all questions submitted to him from kids.

“I want to be a resource so they can be better at basketball.”
He also cares about emotional well-being.

“I talk about mental health, post about how much sleep I get, nutrition, meditation and good habits.”
And colleagues value him.

Danny Herz, long time director of Six Points Sports Academy, notes, “Mike is a special human being. In addition to his massive talent and his unmatched work ethic and drive, he is a great human being that is kind to everyone, appreciative of others, and unselfish to his core. I was fortunate to coach Mike back in the day, and he always made every team he was on better because not only was he a good player, he was a great teammate.”

Herz uses Better Bounce at his camp and says that “one of my favorite days at Six Points Sports Academy was when Mike came to visit. He brought his energy, his enthusiasm, his infectious smile, and his ability to entertain that day when he performed a series of slam dunks for our campers. Hundreds and hundreds of Jewish athletes cheered for him as he put on a show – and then inspired every camper to be the best versions of themselves with hard work and making good decisions.”

Berdugo, his childhood friend who hired him to work at his sports camp and opened doors for Kaufman in Israel, agrees.
“Mike took a talent, honed and mastered it, and became a world known dunker. He followed his dream and helps others do the same!”
Kaufman takes this role very seriously.

“Growing up, I didn’t know too many Jewish athletes who became professional athletes. I’d love to inspire the young generation to work hard and chase their dreams.”

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