Washington Wizards

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

Israeli rookie scores 14 points in first performance at iconic New York arena, but fouls out

NEW YORK – It has been a season of many firsts for Washington Wizards Israeli rookie Deni Avdija.

The highlights have included playing against NBA legend LeBron James and playing side-by-side with teammates Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, and on Tuesday night Avdija experienced another new experience – his first trip to Manhattan’s legendary Madison Square Garden arena, sort of. It was technically his second time in the famous New York sports and concert venue, which first opened its doors in 1879, but his first official NBA contest there.

In anticipation of the Wizards’ current road trip to the Big Apple, which included a 113-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, and features games versus the Knicks Tuesday and Thursday, Avdija playfully said: “I watched a game at Madison Square Garden when I was in eighth grade, when I was with Maccabi [Tel Aviv] on a trip to the United States. We were in New York and at the Garden, but I wasn’t playing at the Garden. I never played on the floor. So it is going to be like a closed circle, you can say. It is cool and exciting. Every new gym that I see, I adore. It’s nice. It is a dream come true!

”Washington coach Scott Brooks was hopeful that the 20-year-old would have more luck at the Garden this week than he has had in the past 23 games. He has been in a three-point slump, shooting only 23 percent from deep, and hasn’t been seeing much playing time in recent games. Brooks likes Avdija and understands his frustration, and offers constant support and guidance.“

The hardest thing for a young player in this league to understand is that you will go through some tough times, but you’ve got to stay confident as best you can and when you do, you will get out on the other side and be a much better player,” noted Brooks. “He hasn’t shot the ball well in the last 23 games. He knows that, we all know that. I still want him to shoot open shots. He doesn’t have to force anything. I told him, I met with him yesterday, I told him run, use your speed, use your ability to get up the court, and try to get yourself an easy one and make a couple of layups and transition, maybe you get yourself fouled and get to the free-throw line, and all of the sudden, the basket doesn’t seem as small as it does when you don’t make any.”

The Knicks entered Tuesday’s contest with a 21-22 record; the Wizards were 15-26. Avdija saw action for the first time with 4:44 remaining in the first quarter with the Wizards leading 22-21. He remained on court for the remainder of the quarter, pulling down one rebound, and missing his only shot. He committed two fouls in the remainder of the quarter and a third foul in the early minutes of the second quarter. He was benched for the remainder of the half to stay out of foul trouble. The Wizards trailed 69-49 at halftime.

Avdija returned to action in the third quarter, scoring five points (one three-pointer), securing a second rebound and committing his fourth personal foul. The Knicks led by as much as 31 points in the quarter.

Avdija had a strong fourth period, scoring eight points (including two free-throws), while committing his fifth personal foul. Avdija’s physical style makes him no stranger to fouling; he averages 4.2 fouls per 36 minutes of play.

“I like being physical on defense. That was my kind of name [while playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv],” Avdija has said. “Since I got here, I’m getting a lot of calls because of that. I’m not going to say I’m less physical, I’m going to be smarter with my physicality.”Avdija ended his Garden debut with another first. He committed his sixth personal foul and fouled out for the first time. The Knicks held on to win 131-113 in front of a small but spirited home-town crowd.

Avdija finished with 14 points and four rebounds in just under 22 minutes of action before fouling out, recording a -5 plus/minus while on the floor.

“I played hard,” said Avdija of his performance. “I tried my best even though I fouled out. We will prepare the best we can and come back different for our next game against the Knicks. Losing three games [in New York] is not acceptable.

“I believe we are getting there. The season is not over yet. Everyone hates losing; hopefully we will lose as little as possible.

”The Garden, with a usual capacity of 20,789, is only operating at 10% capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions. According to the MSG website, new guidelines make it easier for fans to attend as they can now enter with proof of a negative antibody test or full coronavirus vaccination. Members of the media were required to arrive four hours prior to 7:30 p.m. tip off for a health screening and COVID test (I was required to sit in a designated seat for two hours until my results came back negative). Journalists were escorted to media seating and not permitted to leave their designated area during the game. All media sessions pre- and post-game were on Zoom.

From the media section on “the bridge,” located near large banners of retired Knicks and Rangers players, championship pennants, and special banners marking such milestones as “Phish The Bakers Dozen” (12 consecutive nights at the Garden, Summer 2017) and “Billy Joel 119” – most lifetime performances by any artist, reporters look down on thousands of empty seats and scattered fans. Among the small crowd was a mini section of Israeli flag-waving Avdija fans.

Israeli-American Matan Karudo, a 21-year-old Wizards super-fan, was seeing Deni play in person for the second night in three days.

“On Sunday at Barclays Center, I managed to get the closest seats I could to the Wizards!” In contrast to the relatively small Israeli presence at Madison Square Garden, Karudo noted, “There was a massive Israeli and Jewish presence in the section and arena. There were lots of Hebrew speakers I spoke to! We were all excited to see him play! I brought my flag and waved it the whole time.”Karudo was determined to get Avdija’s autograph, but was too far away. Instead, Karudo said, “he tossed me his wristband! That was really exciting! I hope to frame it with my anticipated signed jersey that I’m trying to get this week.

”At the Garden, Karudo sat close to the court with his Israeli-born uncle, Kobi Avgi, who exclaimed, “I want our Israelis to succeed in the NBA. I am a lifelong Knicks fan, but today I am cheering for the Wizards!

”On this night, cheers were not enough.

Coach Brooks was not impressed with his team’s performance.

“They outplayed us from the start. If you don’t compete with some physicality, it will be a long night. We didn’t play well – starters or the bench. It needs to be better going into the next game.

”The Wizards and Avdija have one more chance to beat the Knicks at MSG this week. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday.

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