Has Israel found its best NBA prospect ever?

#50 - Our man in the NBA: Deni Avdija

Deni Avdija, 18, has all the tools to become the next Israeli basketball player to play in the NBA (photo credit: REUTERS)
Deni Avdija, 18, has all the tools to become the next Israeli basketball player to play in the NBA
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The sport of basketball has given Israelis many illustrious moments throughout the years. But it’s never given them a bona fide National Basketball Association superstar. Deni Avdija has a good chance of altering that narrative.
The 19-year-old Avdija (pronounced Av-DEE-ya) is currently in North America as he prepares for the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft, where he is widely expected to be selected in one of the top five or 10 picks. The 6-foot-9 (2.06-meter) son of former Serbian pro hoopster Zufer Avdija, Deni is slated to be the highest-chosen Israeli ever.
The first Sabra to play in the NBA was Omri Casspi, selected by the Sacramento Kings with the 23rd pick of the 2009 draft. The Holon native spent a decade in the NBA and featured in close to 600 games, but never played in the postseason.

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The second Israeli to play in the NBA was Gal Mekel, who was not drafted but signed as a free agent and played for the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Pelicans between 2013 and 2015.
Back in 2006 Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were both picked in the second round of the NBA draft. However, neither played in the NBA.
The first Israeli ever to be picked in the draft was Doron Sheffer, who was chosen by the Los Angeles Clippers with the 36th pick after having starred with the University of Connecticut.
Another Israeli who was close to having played in the NBA was Oded Katash, who is now the head coach of Hapoel Jerusalem. Katash had come to terms to join the New York Knicks in the summer of 1998, but the NBA lockout forced Katash to return to play with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and he never ended up appearing at Madison Square Garden.
But here comes Avdija, who recently helped Maccabi Tel Aviv capture its 54th Israeli championship and was voted as the league’s youngest-ever Most Valuable Player. The versatile wingman was consistent throughout the season, averaging 13.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists in over 27 minutes per game, providing on- and off-court leadership in both local play and the Euroleague.
Last summer, Avdija propelled the Israel Under-20 National Team to the European Championship and earned the MVP award as the tournament’s outstanding player.
This spring when Avdija declared his intention to join the NBA in 2020, he said: “Despite the difficult times that we are in during these days, dreams and hopes can still be attained. It’s my privilege to tell you that I am planning on reaching one of my dreams.” Avdija’s coaches and teammates have also reflected with pride on the growth and maturity of his game.
“I love playing with Deni,” said Amar’e Stoudemire. “I love seeing and playing with a young guy with high expectations. It makes me work harder and want to work with him.” Tel Aviv coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos calls Avdija a “multifaceted weapon,” and that is what has attracted NBA scouts. While he displays typical European fundamentals on both ends of the floor, he also plays with an American swagger and finesse that are rare in international prospects.
At the beginning of April, Avdija was inducted into the Israel Defense Forces and will complete his service in North America with the designation of an “Exceptional Athlete.” As he takes the next big leap in his sporting career, Israel is also very much at the forefront of his mind, and Avdija knows that he will be viewed as a symbol of the Holy Land and of blue-and-white basketball.
“I am about to embark on a new mission where I hope to represent the State of Israel, my family and myself with honor and pride.... I also want to thank all of the Israeli basketball fans who believed in me and supported me throughout the years; all of this couldn’t have happened without you.”