Washington Wizards

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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Original Article Published On The JNS

Cheering on the now 20-year-old: the Israeli embassy, former NBA player Omri Casspi, players from the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club and National Team, and fans of Israel everywhere.

As Deni Avdija and the Washington Wizards mark the halfway point of the season and celebrate his selection to the 2020-21 NBA Rising Stars World Team roster, 21-year-old Wizards super-fan Matan Karudo could not be happier. For Karudo, Avdija is a source of Jewish and Israeli pride; more than that, Avdija has even helped created special family bonding time in the Karudo household.

The resident of Long Island, N.Y., first learned about the 20-year-old Israeli basketball standout about a year ago. “It all really started when I was looking at Tankathon: The Draft Lotto Website and I saw ‘Israel’ on the board. This excited me, and I have been watching and learning anything I can about him.”

Karudo’s excitement continued when he learned there was a decent chance that Avdija would be drafted to an NBA team during Nov. 18 NBA draft.

“Fast-forward to draft night: I am sweating at the screen seeing the picks get close to Deni. I am sure you remember we all thought Deni was going to go early—early enough for the Knicks to miss the chance to get him—but as a New Yorker, I was gripping onto the slight chance that he will get to the Knicks. As we saw, we had a shocking draft where Deni dropped, and my excitement went up and up.

“When the Knicks were up,’ he continued, “I was pacing the room. This could be it! Deni in my home!! The Knicks foolishly chose Obi Toppin, but we were blessed to get picked by the Washington Wizards. Being relieved that he didn’t go to the Cavs, my whole Israeli and Jewish friends and family went and ordered the first jersey we could. That’s it; we made aliyah to the Washington Wizards!”

Karudo celebrated the three-and-a-half-month anniversary of his “aliyah” to Washington by wearing his Avdija jersey and cheering on the Wizards as they defeated the Los Angeles Clipper 119-117 in dramatic fashion on March 4 at Capital One Arena in the team’s first-half finale—an evening that just happened to coincide with Jewish Heritage Night.

Washington won the contest 119-117.

The virtual Jewish Heritage Night hosted by the Washington Wizards. Source: Screenshot.

The back-and-forth affair came down to the final seconds. With seven seconds in the game, Rui Hachimura, who joins Avdija on the Rising Stars World Team, put the Wizards up by two after making the first of two free throws. After missing the second shot, Paul Westbrook shot in from the baseline to deflect the ball toward Bradley Beal, who sealed the win the for the Wizards. Beal scored a game-high 33 points while Russell Westbrook totaled 27 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists. Avdija saw 25 minutes of playing time, scored four points, one block, one steal and seven rebounds.

Kawhi Leonard scored 22 points for the Clippers, while All-Star teammate Paul George did not play due to dizziness. The Wizards are now 1 and 1 versus the Clippers this season and snapped a two-game losing streak.

While fans are still not permitted in person in the arena, excitement for Deni and the Wizards was palpable and pervasive. More than 17,000 tuned in to the game on Wizards Virtual Gameday, presented by NBCSW. One fan featured prominently on-screen throughout the game dancing and cheering was … Karudo!

Prior to the game, Avdija addressed fans in both Hebrew and in perfect English, as video messages from the Israeli embassy, former NBA player Omri Casspi and players from the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club and National Team were displayed throughout the game.

Then, on the March 7 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, Team LeBron cruised to a 170-150 victory over Team Durant. Avdija’s Wizards teammate, Bradley Beal, led Team Durant in scoring with 26 points. The NBA schedule will resume on March 10 after the All-Star break.

‘Teamwork always wins’

Prior to the game, Israeli artist Kobi Aflalo sang the National Anthem of the United States, and fans were treated to video tributes to Avdija by such Israeli basketball players as Yam Madar and Omri Casspi. Madar, who plays for the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball club of the Israeli Basketball Premier League, was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the 2020 NBA draft and is affectionately referred to as a “draft-and-stash prospect.” He will likely be a guard with the Celtics next season.

Throughout the game, fans were treated to Avdija sharing “Get to Know Deni” facts (he enjoys soccer and golf, and plays piano, as well as enjoys the Netflix show “Fauda”).

Avdija says he is excited to play against all of the players he watched growing up and isn’t modeling his game after any one player. “I just want to be Deni, have my own game. I am going to work hard, and hopefully, one day a kid who is growing up will say, ‘I want to be like Deni!’ ”

Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan spoke to the crowd about “being united and working together.” He noted that “teamwork always wins” and said to Avdija that “seeing you on court representing Israel is heartwarming.”

The Washington Wizards, and the Jewish and Israeli community, continue to take great pride in Avdija. And the team is expanding its footprint in Israel. In addition to the NBA’s first Israeli Instagram account, the Wizards have a team website in Hebrew and were the first to launch an Israeli Twitter account.

As for Karudo, he’s all smiles.

“Being a Deni fan is something amazing. First, the Washington Wizards Organization is so supportive and truly makes Deni one of their own … watching the NBA for a while now, the players have always felt distant. Deni, however, feels personal; he’s one of us,” he Karudo.

“For the first time, my Israeli parents want to watch games with me. Deni is a twinkle in Israel’s eyes. The whole country is cheering him on overseas. This also extends to Jews. I am so proud of him. In Hebrew, there’s a word that sums it up perfectly. זה מרגש. Deni makes me so proud!”

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Original Article published on the Jewish News Syndicate

Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks started Wednesday’s pre-game media session with great news for Israel’s Deni Avdija. The 6-foot-9-inch Israeli forward, drafted No. 9 by the Wizards in the recent NBA draft, would be in the starting lineup in the Wizards’ first regular-season game against the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Deni has done a great job throughout camp. He has shown us a lot,” said Brooks. “I know he is only 19, but he plays with a passion and determination that I like. I like his toughness. It wasn’t a given. He really earned it.”

Avdija was likely a mix of energy and excitement before the game, telling his coach that “it doesn’t seem like a regular game with no fans.” Unlike last season, which took place in the NBA bubble in Florida, teams will play this season in arenas across the country, mostly without a live audience.

Avdija saw a lot of action in his NBA debut. He played 28 minutes and hit two three-point shots for a total of seven points and four rebounds, and made many passes to teammates in his NBA debut. The Wizards held on to a narrow lead throughout most of the game, but the nail-biter turned sour for them. The game was tied at 103 with 1:28 left. Even three-point-shot master Avdija couldn’t turn the game around when he entered for the final time with 42 seconds left on the clock. The Sixers closed out the season opener 113-107.

Brooks was disappointed with the loss though thrilled with Avdija’s performance. “We slipped up in the fourth quarter and gave up 40 points. We turned the ball over so many times—20 turnovers are a lot.” But he’s quick to point out about his rookie, “I thought he was fantastic,” despite some nervousness. “There were some butterflies. He cares, he is passionate, and he wants to do good. I think he played well. He makes winning plays and he cares about winning.”

Avdija denied the butterflies, reporting he “didn’t have any nerves. It is great playing in my first NBA game, regardless of the loss. To complete is a dream come true.”

He told media in a post-game press conference: “I am glad I came from Israel and the whole country is behind me.” He also thanked Israeli fans for staying up until the middle of the night to watch the game, and in Hebrew said, “Thank you, I love you!”

Avdija is already beloved by his teammates; stars Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal have taken him under their wings. Brooks reports, “Brad and Russell coach him a lot.”

And they certainly seem happy with what they see. Westbrook told reporters that “Deni’s going to be good. My job is to constantly stay on him and challenge him to be great!” Beal has reassured Avdija that he will have “good, bad and in-between games,” before adding, “I like his competitive spirit. He doesn’t back down.”

Avdija on the court, December 2020. Credit: Courtesy of the Washington Wizards.

‘Opportunity to give back to the community’

Westbrook is also looking after Avdija’s education off the court. Avdija, who has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, spent this past Monday after team practice delivering Christmas presents in the local community. Brooks playfully told reporters how Westbrook told Avdija and fellow rookie Cassius Winston: “Take a shower, and let’s go! You guys are coming with me.”

Westbrook notes that “when you get in this league, you need to understand how the community supports the team and how important it is to be able to give back in the difficult times we are in. They are rookies, so it is their first round of community events. I wanted to make sure they had an opportunity to do something and give back to the community.”

Coach Scott Brooks during a Washington Wizards game versus the Charlotte Hornets, Dec. 14, 2016. Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.

Avdija spoke with reporters in a car while en route to deliver Christmas presents. He spoke candidly about his time in D.C., as well as his teammates. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, coupled with his personality, has made it difficult to experience his new hometown.

“I am not a party guy and am not going out a lot, but I enjoy having fun,” he relates. “I’m not experiencing it much right now because of COVID. The city is kind of closed. Hopefully, things will go back to normal.”

Still, Avdija is finding ways to experience American culture nonetheless. His first meal in the United States was at Chipotle, and in a playful series of Tweets, the Wizards acknowledged, “Yes, Deni was on Chick-fil-A duty,” purchasing food for his teammates. He is also getting practice driving, though he admits to not yet feeling confident behind the wheel.

And he’s enjoying getting to know his teammates. “Everybody’s good with me,” he says, a bit reluctant to name players he is closest to. When pressed, he added, “I can say two guys came from the same situation as me, Cassius Winston and Anthony Gill. Cassius came from college, and Anthony came from Europe. We need to be there for each other and support each other. I think we’re going to be great friends throughout the season.”

Avdija has so far sung “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew to a teammate and publicly lit Hanukkah candles. He acknowledges “talking a lot about the great things about Israel,” though feels he hasn’t yet “brought my culture” to the fore. He says he hopes to share “food, songs and habits” of Israel with his teammates soon.

For now, the hardworking player will return to practice. As he told Brooks and Westbrook before the recent Christmas event, “I have things to do. I want to do more shooting!”

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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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