Washington Wizards

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.”

Read more

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.

Read more