By Aaron Arnstein
NBA fans heard many familiar names called during the first round of last week’s draft. International sensation LaMelo Ball, freshman phenom James Wiseman and high-flying Obi Toppin, to name a few.
But one name caught the average fan off-guard: Deni Avdija.
In Israel, however, the 19-year-old is nothing short of a rockstar.
Selected as the ninth overall pick by the Washington Wizards, Avdija (pronounced “Ahv-deeya”) caught the attention of NBA scouts after leading Israel’s under-20 national team to consecutive European Championships in 2018 and 2019. While his peers spent their days inside the classroom, Avdija spent his time on the basketball court. At age 16, he joined Israel’s premier basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. Maccabi competes in the EuroLeague, widely known as the world’s premier professional league behind the NBA. The Israeli basketball powerhouse is composed of international stars and former NBA players, including Israel’s own Omri Casspi. More on him in a bit.
At the conclusion of Maccabi’s games, the 6’9” baby-faced forward is often mobbed by fans of all ages, from grade-level children looking for selfies to middle-aged autograph hunters. The NBA’s bright lights will be nothing new for Avdija.
Born Jan. 3, 2001, on a small kibbutz in northern Israel, Avdija comes from a family of athletes. His mother, an Israeli Jew, ran track-and-field and played basketball, while his father, Zufer, played professionally in Israel while competing for the Yugoslavian national team, according to Ben Pickman’s Sports Illustrated cover story.
Avdija grew up playing both Israel’s national sport, soccer, and basketball. In fourth grade he decided to turn his focus towards basketball and never looked back.
At 13, he joined Maccabi’s youth team and was promoted to its senior team two months shy of his 17th birthday, and then spent numerous seasons bouncing between the senior and junior-level teams. The following winter he was named MVP at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, which opened eyes among NBA scouts.
During the 2019-2020 season, the Israeli superstar became the youngest player in Israeli League history to win MVP honors. He averaged 12.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists during league play. Avdija also led his club to a third consecutive Israeli League championship.
Although some question his shooting ability (according to Basketball Reference, 27.7% from three-point range in 2019-2020 EuroLeague play), scouts rave about his size, versatility and outstanding work ethic. Projected as a top-five pick, one ESPN broadcaster called Avdija the “steal of the draft” while praising his basketball IQ (the ability to read the floor and pick up on small cues during play that will help elevate a player’s game).
With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, not only does Avdija have plenty of fans cheering him on back home in Israel, but also from Jews around the world. Avdija’s teammate, Casspi (arguably the greatest Israeli basketball player in the country’s history), regularly saw American fans draped in Israeli flags during his decade-long NBA career.
The Wizards lottery pick said he is proud of his Israeli heritage in a pre-draft interview with Cleveland’s Times-Gazette: “It’s always an honor to represent your country wherever you go. Israel is a really small country; we didn’t provide a lot of players like other places. For me to put the flag wherever I go, it’s important and I’m proud I can do that.”
Avdija understands the influence he has on Jewish youngsters around the world: “I’m just glad they have somebody to look at and learn (from) — and just be motivated to see that us being a small country doesn’t mean that we can’t do big things,” the teenager told reporters during a video conference before the draft.
Avdija’s influence is not limited to children. The NBA rookie deeply impacted the Jerusalem Post’s Joshua Halickman, also known as “The Sports Rabbi,” who has followed the teenager’s rise to stardom since he was 15.
“Deni looked at me and said, ‘You’re the Sports Rabbi. Do you pray every morning? Do you go to synagogue? I’m thinking about starting to do that,’” Halickman said. “He was 17 or 18 at the time. That’s the type of kid he is. I was blown away.”
Just like every Israeli-born citizen, Avdija is required to fulfill his mandatory military service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Last spring, with the basketball season on pause due to the pandemic, Avdija was drafted into the IDF. But don’t worry; he won’t be out on the front lines. Instead, Avdija plans to complete his service in the United States as an “Exceptional Athlete,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
While Avdija was the highest Israeli draft pick in NBA history, his good friend and teammate on the U-20 national team, Yam Madar, was later selected by the Boston Celtics with the 47th pick. It marked the first time two Israelis were chosen in the same draft, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Deemed “the greatest talent in Israeli basketball history” by Casspi, the Wizards rookie has big shoes to fill. But for now, the teenage phenom told Casspi he is just trying to take everything in before he begins his NBA journey: “…as an Israeli, coming from a small place, working hard, going through all the ups and downs through my career…I’m taking another step, another big step for my career. It’s a dream come true.”