Basketball fans in Israel have been a bit spoiled over the past week. The Auburn Men’s Basketball Team wrapped up their pre-season tour of the Holy Land, while the Israel National Team along with Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija just began their preparations in earnest for the upcoming Eurobasket tournament and World Cup Qualifiers.
The two came to ahead as they tipped off against one another in Tel Aviv and treated the fans in attendance and back on ESPN in America to an entertaining game with plenty of oohs and ahhs as Avdija with 25 points ruled the roost in the blue-and-white’s 95-86 win.
Israel, which was playing with a veteran-laden team together with an NBA Lottery draft pick was tested by Bruce Pearl’s squad which didn’t back off one iota and were also arguably the most athletic opponent that Guy Goodes’s crew will face over the next month of games.
However, most importantly as Avidja said was the fact that everyone had a good time, “First thing which is most important is that we had fun. I believe everyone had fun.”
For the 21-year old, it was an opportunity to return home for the first time as a conquering hero as the third ever Sabra in the NBA and show his “hometown” fans what type of player he has become since leaving on the top of the Israeli basketball world with a league Championship in 2020 with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It was also a chance for Avdija to reconnect with some of his old National Team teammates as well as others whom he had played with at Maccabi. Be it with current Partizan Belgrade guard Yam Madar who scored 24 points in Israel’s victory and who was selected in the second round of the same 2020 NBA Draft as Avdija, or Jake Cohen who he shared the Yad Eliyahu court with since he was a youngster.
The way that Avdija was able to step on the court once again with Madar and turn back the clock to the Under-20 European Championship in 2019 was a sight to behold.
“Yam and I have something special together. We support each other in difficult situations ever since the European championship and also from our time in the National team youth system. Yam is always my roommate and I always talk to him. There are a lot of good people on this national team that are people before players and that’s not just me and Yam, this fact is about everyone here. We love playing with each other.”
Another player who arguably had his best game in blue-and-white in some time was Jake Cohen who had a season with Maccabi last year that he would probably like to put in the rearview window. Without Cohen’s fourth-quarter performance in which he scored 11 of his 17 points, Goodes’s squad may not have walked away with the win.
“I’ve been playing with Jake since I was 16 years old, when I was a kid and I looked at him and said ‘WOW’. He is the head of the team. He is smart and knows what to do. He always says the correct things and he is a great friend. He brings us together along with Guy (Pnini), and they are the veterans who help us all out. There is nothing like him.”
Goodes also reflected on Cohen’s quality showing which is something that he will be looking to see more often in the upcoming month, “Jake is not a youngster. He’s played lots of basketball and he understands the game. He has things that just Jake has and we need to get the most out of him. Whether it be on offense or with decision making and other elements that we need to improve upon.”
There will be some critics that will look at this game and say that Israel with pros should have pounded Auburn as they are just a college team. Others will want to write off Avdija’s phenomenal showing that included not only 25 points but also 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 11 drawn fouls, as this was expected from an NBA player.
However, this was the first time out as a team for Israel which has not had an NBA forward for quite some time and it was also an opportunity for Avdija to lead and not be the role player that he has been up until now for the Wizards. His play and teams should not be taken for granted as Goodes works him into the team picture as best as he can to aim towards the ultimate goal.
“We saw some NBA showtime moments with flashy passes and dunks as well a very quick tempo. Deni is a player with the quickness and pace of that of an NBA player which is something that we are not used to seeing. The most important for us is to get Deni into our rhythm.”
“The national team is not just Deni Avdija as we have lots of excellent players on the team. Avdija played great with Madar because they have been friends for a while and have played together as they make the most of their great relationship.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl also spoke about the game having been one that Israel benefitted from as much as his college players did as well, “They were extremely well coached and what they run is hard to guard. We are built to guard it but they have great counters to everything. They have an outstanding coach and an outstanding system of play with really good players and they disrupted us. I am glad we gave them a run and I’m glad that this was a good contest for them and that they got exposed in some ways and I know that we did as well.”
Avdija was able to also pass on some of his thoughts about the NBA to the Auburn players who rarely if ever get a chance to play as a team against a player in “the League”.
“The players spoke to me about how I’m a pro and they were excited to play somebody who is in the league and how they all want to be there too. They asked me a bunch of questions, they are really great guys, so I hope it works out for them. My main message to them was be humble which is the most important thing.”
Auburn point guard Wendell Green Jr. was one of those players who had the chance to play against Avdija and expressed what that meant to him, “It was amazing to be matched up with him and he guarded me most of the game. I think I got his respect. But it was just fun to match up against a pro, someone who is in the league which is a dream as I want to make the NBA one day.”
Avdija, who didn’t take the college route and became a professional right from Maccabi Tel Aviv felt that for himself this was the better route despite having the opportunity to play in the NCAA, “I don’t regret not going to college. I believe in my path and decisions as everything has a reason. I chose my way for a reason and it brought results - I was selected in a good spot in the draft and I’m in the greatest league in the world. I think this path was better for me instead of going to play in college.”
While Avdija is one of Israel’s greatest ambassadors to America just by being an Israeli who plays in the NBA, Auburn’s coach Bruce Pearl, whose Hebrew name is Mordechai wears his pride Jewish pride for Israel all over his being as he commented about his “Birthright For College Basketball” endeavor.
“You can do it in Jerusalem, you can do it in Tel Aviv and you can do it in the middle of a war. We’re still here, we’re not going anywhere. We’re still going to live, we’re still going to play basketball and I’m still going to yell at the referees.”
“For Jews back in America, we read about, we see it on social media and we pray. Just like God is protecting his children, his people, everybody, so is the Iron Dome, protecting us and you here. With what have taken place with the Abraham Accords it should give everyone hope. If you turn the clock back you might not have thought it possible, but look at what has happened.”
Pearl also took time right after the game to talk to a group of youth in the stands, “God has blessed us, he has chosen us and with that comes a responsibility. Just like I tell my players, you got to represent the name on the front of the jersey which is Auburn. You got to represent the name on the back which is your family. But you also got to represent God’s Children, the Jewish people. With how you act, with how you study, with how you love each and what kind of neighbor you’re going to be Let the light continue to shine upon you and all of the people. I can’t tell you how much it means to me and how proud we are of you, Am Yisrael Chai!”
All in all, it was a fun game of basketball and perhaps even more than that. A game that makes one thirst for more as Avdija, who gave a taste to all as to what he can do and who will certainly be one of Israel’s leaders with his heart and soul just being thrilled to be at home once again.
“It’s always exciting to come back here, back home. I grew up here, my family and friends were in the stands and there is no way to describe that feeling. It’s fun, I’m happy.”