Wes Unseld

“He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni,” says Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.

Original Article Published in the JNS

The Zamir family came to Madison Square Garden from Woodmere, N.Y., hoping to see their beloved Deni Avdija and the Washington Wizards play against the New York Knicks. Elad Levi and his son came all the way from Tel Aviv — part of a 24-person tour group hoping to see their fellow countryman Avdija, the only Israeli in the NBA, play in several games.

Yet their luck was running out after the Washington Wizards’ game against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 21 was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Nets’ roster. They came with their signs and Israeli flags and jerseys, and prayed the Wizards’ Dec. 23 game versus the Knicks would go on.

Four hours before tipoff, Wizards star Bradley Beal entered the league’s health and safety protocols. It is unclear whether he had received a positive test result or whether it was a matter of contract tracing. He joined fellow starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was already in the protocols.

Ultimately, the Zamir and Levi families fished got their wish. But just barely. Avdija scored in double digits for the fourth game in a row, with 14 points, as well as five rebounds and a career-high three blocks. It was his fifth multi-block game this season. The Wizards defeated the Knicks, 124-117.

“I like that [Avdija] is a really good shooter and his defense is pretty amazing too,” reports Matisyahu Zamir, a student at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in Woodmere. “He is the pride of the Jewish people. We always come out to support Deni.”

The Zamirs, all clad in custom-made red number 9 Avdija jerseys, enjoyed their view from the first row, close to center court. Like other Jewish and Israeli fans, they enjoy following 20-year-old Avdija’s continued growth in his second year in the NBA. Very few fans saw Avdija play in person last season.  He made his first appearance at the Knicks’ home of Madison Square Garden on March 23, 2021, and scored 14 points before fouling out in a Wizards loss. Due to COVID-19 rules at the time, the arena was at 10% capacity. One month later, on April 21, 2021, Avdija suffered a season-ending right fibular hairline fracture, followed by a long period of rehabilitation.

This season, Avdija is thriving on and off the court, though he could do without the day-to-day uncertainty of the pandemic. “To be in question is a bummer,” he says. “It is not fun, but we have to keep being safe. We have to just keep working ourselves.”

Avdija worked hard to return this season and he feels it is paying off. “I see progress every day and hope I will maximize my potential until I retire,” he says. “I learn new things every day and get better every day as I become a more complete player.” For instance, Avdija describes that he is “more mature” and “knows what spots to shoot from,” and is learning to “trust my shot and not think too much.”

Wizards Head Coach Wes Unseld Jr. likes what he sees and has been giving Avdija more playing time. “He has progressed well,” he says. “We are putting him in different situations. I am learning to trust him more. His teammates are learning to trust him more. He is stepping up and making big plays —facilitating, scoring, and we have seen the defensive side of it. So, I think he is starting to put together a nice run here. If he can play this way night in and night out, this is going to be great for us.”

Unseld also admires Avdija’s energy and attitude. “His energy is always good. He is a very positive guy, doing things for his teammates,” he says.

Despite the many precautions in place due to COVID-19, Advija has had some opportunities to get to know the local Washington, D.C., Jewish community — and he enjoys speaking with Israeli media. Avdija recently lit Hanukkah candles, signed autographs and answered questions from fans at the Rockville Town Center in Montgomery County, Md., 20 miles north of the team’s Capital One Arena.

When asked what was his best moment of the year, Advija enthusiastically reports that it was being back in Israel for the first time and seeing friends, family and all of the support he has been receiving.

And Avdija’s New Year’s resolution? “That by the end of 2022 I will be better than I was at the end of 2021. That’s all I’m asking for. Just to be a better person, learn more, know more, and be a better player and to be healthy. That’s really important.”

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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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