Deni Avdija impressive in first NBA game

Israeli teenage rookie scores 15 points in 24 minutes, while not missing a shot, in Washington Wizards' preseason opener

DENI AVDIJA (number 9) is on the court in the Washington Wizards starting line-up for the tip-off of Sunday's night preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets. The Israeli rookie finished with 15 points in his NBA debut (photo credit: REUTERS)
DENI AVDIJA (number 9) is on the court in the Washington Wizards starting line-up for the tip-off of Sunday's night preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets. The Israeli rookie finished with 15 points in his NBA debut
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Deni Avdija got his first real taste of NBA action on Sunday night, and the early returns were quite sweet.
The 19-year-old Israeli featured in the Washington Wizards’ starting line-up in the team’s first preseason contest against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center in New York. The 9th overall draft pack looked right at home, finishing with 15 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting performance from the field – including 3-for-3 from three-point range – as the Nets edged the visiting Wizards 119-114.
“The dream is starting to come true,” said Avdija after the game. “I was tense at first, I thought to myself ‘wow, I’m at Barclays Center playing against players I grew up watching.’ But after a few minutes I started feeling comfortable and focused.”
Fellow rookie Rui Hachimura also shined, finishing with a team-high 18 points as he and Avdija helped Washington come back from a 26-point deficit to tie the game in the third quarter and even take a narrow lead in the fourth.
The Nets had Kevin Durant in the lineup, marking the superstar’s first action with the team after signing as a free agent last summer and recovering from a ruptured Achilles. Like Avdija, Durant played 24 minutes and scored 15 points, while fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving added 18 points in the Nets’ conquest.
“I was anxious, nervous,” Durant said afterward. “I visualized this moment for so long – nine, 10 months of thinking about how it would be, this next phase of my career. I felt like I was chomping at the bit, especially once COVID hit because I didn't see a future – when the season was going to start in the future…So to go through this felt solid.”
The Nets’ bench also included former Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv player Amar’e Stoudemire, who made his debut as an assistant coach on Brooklyn’s staff led by rookie head coach Steve Nash.
"Amar’e was a big part of me, a big part of my game," said Avdija before his reunion with the 38-year-old after the two were teammates with Maccabi last season. "He was a professional. He always came first to the gym. We were always talking about things. I was always asking about the NBA and he always answered me, no matter what the time or no matter how tired he was or angry he was, he always sat with me and answered my questions."
"It will be a little bit weird [to face him as an opposing coach] but Amar’e is Amar’e and I will always love to see him."
In the relatively meaningless game, the stellar debuts of Avdija and Hachimura were an extremely bright sign for the Wizards, who were playing without veterans Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook, David Bertans and Ish Smith. Avdija also added four rebounds and two assists and was a +6 in his 24 minutes on the floor.
“[I liked] that he competed, that he took the challenge,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said of Avdija postgame. “He was playing against some high-level players, players that have a lot of success in this league that have experience. From day one, I knew Deni had it. He scored well and he's just getting better with time.”
The Nets began the game red-hot and scored 38 points in the first quarter, led by 23 combined from Durant and Irving, and held an 18-point lead at the half. However, Avdija and Hachimura helped keep things close enough for Washington to climb back and take a 111-110 advantage with under five minutes left, before Brooklyn rallied for the five-point win.
Still, for Avdija the experience was all positive.
“I went on a long journey to get here,” noted Avdija. “Four years ago, I played with the senior team in Israel and scored one point. Since then, I kept working every day while my friends went out and had fun, now it's starting to pay off. I have already played at the professional level with Maccabi Tel Aviv and I know what is required of me. I learned what it means to fit into a rotation and how to read a game. I always keep my head up when I play. I always see the friends around me, I know how to play the game.”
Indeed, the Israeli teen sensation displayed a great handle, deft court vision, strong defensive presence and a silky shooting touch in his first encounter against real NBA competition.
“It was a dream come true,” Avdija said of the experience. “I have no fear. I'm not afraid of anything and always put up shots with confidence, but don't expect me to be 100 percent from the field in every game," he joked.
Wizards point guard Raul Neto was extremely impressed with his new teammate.
"Deni is very talented,” said Neto. “Everyone sitting on the bench was impressed with his confidence and skills. He is a very good player. We talked before the game and he seemed a bit tense, but that's normal. I'm sure he will gain more and more confidence over time and will turn into a big contributor for us."
NBC Washington was also full of praise for Avdija after his opening outing.
“Washington has found its small forward,” wrote the media platform. “Avdija should clearly be developed by the team into its 3, and that could be seen after one preseason game. He is tough, has good size and offensive diversity. He is only 19 years old, but his start is very impressive.”