Deni Avdija navigating the learning curve

Israeli rookie exhibits positive perspective on highs and lows of 1st season with Washington Wizards

DENI AVDIJA is averaging 6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 23.5 minutes in 50 games played so far in his NBA rookie season with the Washington Wizards. (photo credit: TIM FULLER/USA TODAY SPORTS)
DENI AVDIJA is averaging 6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 23.5 minutes in 50 games played so far in his NBA rookie season with the Washington Wizards.
(photo credit: TIM FULLER/USA TODAY SPORTS)
Deni Avdija is getting a basketball education of the highest level this season, his first in the National Basketball Association with the Washington Wizards.

In an up-and-down year one, thing that has always stayed consistent with the Israeli sensation has been his positivity and desire to do the best he can, both on and off of the court, as he hones his skills with some of the best in the business, such as teammates Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook.

Avdija played a leading role on Yom Ha’atzmaut for the Wizards in their 123-111 road victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night as he scored 11 points and had the task of defending some of the most potent offensive players in the game. The Beit Zera native then discussed a myriad of topics about his debut season in the world’s best league as his club makes a late season push to slip into one of the postseason slots.

Although the Wizards have had a frustrating campaign, sporting a 21-33 overall record and going 7-13 since the All-Star break in mid-March, Scott Brooks’s squad has won four of its last five contests and is just one game out of a play-in spot, which could lead to a playoff position if the cards all fall right.

Avdija knows that if his team can continue on an upward trend with a veteran presence, the Wizards may be able to make some noise and sneak into the postseason.

“If we can get to the play-in tournament and playoffs then you never know what can happen. We can cause problems to other teams because we have some very experienced players who have been in that situation before. We’re trying to finish as high as we can in the standings and that is our goal right now.”

Being so far away from his family and friends during Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut was certainly challenging for the 20-year-old swingman, but he is a man on mission in his first year abroad.

“My heart is with Israel during these days and I stood still when the siren went off both times for Remembrance Day. It’s not easy for me and I miss it. But this is my work and I love it. To be able to represent Israel here [in the US] is a huge privilege and honor. It isn’t simple to stay in the hotel and watch my friends celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, but I’m thrilled to be in the NBA and I want to wish everyone back at home a Happy Israel Independence Day.”

Playing with the likes of Beal and Westbrook has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, it’s an education to play with two of the sport’s greatest players, but on the other hand a rookie’s time handling the ball is going to be limited with such high-usage teammates and Avdija has to make the most of his opportunities.

“Me and Russell have a very good connection and it’s not just with him it’s also with Bradley and the rest of the team. I understand where I need to be and what is expected of me and I hope that this will continue.

“At the beginning of the season I was kind of passive. I was telling myself to just be more active. Helping my teammates, being there to help Russ when he gets trapped, being there when Brad is penetrating and a lot of guys are on him. So for me to move without the ball helps also my teammates to alleviate pressure and make the defense worry about me. Just trying to stay active, get the ball, and be more efficient.”

For any first-year player in the NBA, learning the nuances of the professional game is going to be a challenge and even more so in a year that has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s hard and a lot of people don’t understand what it’s like in these COVID times. It’s not easy, sometimes your shots are falling more and sometimes less. I try to do the things I do well, whether it’s moving without the ball, preparing for my shot, keep working hard before and after games so the roller coaster doesn’t get into my head.”

Avdija has been working on improving many aspects of his game over the course of the condensed and compacted campaign, including his defense, which he described as being totally different than what he was used to when playing with Maccabi Tel Aviv either in the Israeli domestic league or in the Euroleague.

“I have a lot of coaches who have done a great job watching film with me and are explaining to me how to correct things, because how you defend in the NBA is way different than how you defend overseas. I had to readjust my defense, how I position myself, how I use my hands.”

Playing defense is an art in North America, especially for rookies whom the referees may have a quick whistle for, a whistle that Avdija has experienced in many games so far in his first season. But as one of the best defensive players on the Wizards, Avdija gets matched up with some of the opposition’s best offensive players, whether it has been Luka Doncic, LeBron James as well as De’Aaron Fox or fellow rookie Tyrese Haliburton.

“Russ and I spoke about it after I had some foul trouble in Utah and how to defend without fouling. Sometimes it’s frustrating. A lot of guys have been helping me and I enjoy taking the challenges [of facing the best players]. It’s not always easy to defend those guys but I take the challenge and do what I can.”

One person who has been guiding Avdija from thousands of miles away is the first Israeli in the NBA, Omri Casspi, who he played with last year with Maccabi. Casspi, who was drafted by the Sacramento Kings over a decade ago and played in the NBA for 10 seasons, knows full well what the latest Sabra in the NBA is experiencing.

“I don’t have to tell you how much I respect Omri Casspi, who knows exactly what I’m going through and who is someone that I can talk to. He’s helping me and it’s all good.”

The key for the Wizards to continue their fine form of late will be seeing positive no matter what, Avdija explained.

“We know each other better [than earlier in the season] and our chemistry is better. We share the ball and move the ball. I think everyone knows their role and guys are stepping up as there have been injuries here and there.

“I think we are in a good position right now. We have to keep fighting and we have been defending better the past few games. We have to continue the positivity no matter what, whether it’s a winning streak or losing streak, just keep our head in the game.”

As for the support he is getting back home, Avdija is thrilled with the millions of fans that are backing him in Israel and around the world. But patience is a virtue as he is just a rookie.
“On one hand, it’s great that there are people back at home who want me to succeed and it gives me a huge boost. But there is also that desire to have instant success, which doesn’t come with the snap of a finger. But I’m putting in my best effort and I try to always smile and do what I can.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at sportsrabbi9@gmail.com.