“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.”