Avdija’s hoops evolution through the years - Commentary

As Israeli teenage star begins life as Washington Wizards rookie, Sports Rabbi reflects on relationship.

DENI AVDIJA (left) defends against Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons in his NBA debut for the Washington Wizards late Wednesday night in a game the Sixers won 113-107. (photo credit: REUTERS)
DENI AVDIJA (left) defends against Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons in his NBA debut for the Washington Wizards late Wednesday night in a game the Sixers won 113-107.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When I received the news on a pre-game Zoom call with Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday morning that the Israeli sensation Deni Avdija would be in the starting lineup against the Philadelphia 76ers for his first official NBA game, I wasn’t surprised one iota.
As Brooks said about Avdija when he made the announcement – “I thought Deni has done a great job throughout the camp. He’s really shown us a lot. I know he’s only 19 years old but plays with a passion and plays with a determination that I Iike. I like his toughness. It wasn't a given, he earned it. He really earned it,”
In fact, that has been Deni’s modus operandi throughout his young career as I’ve watched him grow from a youngster into a full-fledged adult about to play a child’s game in the “World’s Greatest League,” the National Basketball Association.
Avdija didn’t let anyone down as he looked comfortable out on the court with his new teammates, former league MVP and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook and budding superstar Bradley Beal as he nailed a catch-and-shoot triple to get on the stat sheet right off the bat in the first quarter.
As Avdija’s NBA career got under way, I reflected on the privileged relationship I was able to build with Deni over the past number of years here in Israel before he headed to greener basketball pastures in North America.
I first laid eyes on the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft almost five years ago, when he was 15 years old and coming up through the youth ranks. Although many said he was going to be a star one day, it was very hard to imagine that would be the case when one looked at a skinny, very raw looking then-6-foot-5 hoopster.
At 16, Avdija began training and practicing with the senior Maccabi Tel Aviv team that featured Norris Cole, a two-time NBA Champion with the Miami Heat, Deshaun Thomas, Pierre Jackson, DeAndre Kane and Alex Tyus, among others.
There wasn’t too much fanfare at that point in September 2017 when I traveled down south to Eilat with my trusty photographer (and son) Dov to watch what we beloved was going to be Avdija’s professional debut with Maccabi Tel Aviv in an exhibition game against Hapoel Eilat.
Not much happened that evening for Deni, but he made his way onto the court, becoming the youngest player to ever appear for the yellow-and-blue.
Despite not playing very much with the team during the 2017/18 season, Avdija traveled to select Euroleague road games to get a taste of what life was like as a pro. One of those games was against Red Star in Belgrade as Dov and I flew with the team to see Maccabi play on the road.
Maccabi’s coach at the time was Neven Spahija and due to our relationship, he allowed us to stay for the entire practice the day before the game. As we waited for the session to begin, Deni sat down with us on a bench and we just schmoozed as Dov helped him set up his mobile phone for use outside of Israel. In November of that year, I witnessed Deni finally playing his first minutes in a regular season game against Ness Ziona, which was his only time on the court until the playoffs.
During the summer of 2018, Avdija helped the Under-20 Israel National Team win the European Championships in Germany and was also named to the team of the tournament. No one would have been upset had he gone home and prepared for the upcoming season, but instead he decided to go and play with a younger age National Team in order to help it move up a division. For Deni it was, and still is, the more basketball the merrier.
The 2018/19 season saw Deni begin to play significant minutes in the Israeli league while playing in only eight Euroleague contests as he showed what he could do in the final two games of the season when he scored 10 points in each.
Right around the end of the season, a press conference was held ahead of the 2019 U-20 continental championship that was being played in Tel Aviv and I sat with Deni and Yam Madar, who was also selected in this year’s NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics in the second round, 47th overall.
As we hung out, Deni asked, “Sports Rabbi, do you pray every morning with Tefillin?” I told him that I do and he sat for a moment contemplating and said that maybe at some point he would too.
(It should be noted that Omri Casspi, who was the first Israeli in the NBA, became closer to Judaism during his time in the NBA between 2009-2019.)
Once again, Deni’s maturity continued to come out and showed how well he was raised at home by his father and mother, Zufer and Sharon, who were both former basketball players.
After capturing the European Championship for a second time in as many years and also being named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament where he dominated his age group and many players who were up to two years older than him, Avdija readied for the 2019/20 campaign, which would be his last in Israel.
To begin this past season, Avdija made a pact with me. He said that he would only answer my questions if I introduced him the same way as Yad Eliyahu’s PA Announcer Shai Sidi does – with an elongated “DENI AAAVVVDDIIJJAAAAAA”.
I thought he was joking and that he would forget about it, but that wasn’t the case. The first time I went over to him in the locker-room after a game, I tried to get away with not doing the intro. He gave me that stare, the one that says ‘I am not answering your question until you say my name.’ And, yes, that’s exactly what I then did in front of fellow journalists and players. Of course, all in good fun.
If you think the shtick wouldn’t continue into the NBA, well you’d be mistaken. On a media availability this week, I was about to get a question in and what wouldn’t you know, Avdija reminded me that I hadn’t used his intro the last few times and if I wanted to continue my query I would need to do so in front of roughly 50 journalists from around the DC area.
All season long, Avdija knew what the goal would be and continued to work on his game as he ended the Israeli campaign with a well-deserved MVP award. In the Euroleague, Deni started some games and played significant minutes in others as he started to come into his own in the second half of the shortened season that came to an end in March.
But before the campaign came to a sudden coronavirus-induced stop, Avdija made two specific plays that sent shockwaves through the basketball world. The first was a posterizing dunk on Gigi Datome of Fenerbahce and the second was his last-second defensive stop on Shane Larkin to preserve a nerve-wracking win over title contender Anadolu EFES.
With Avdija’s NBA debut now behind him, Deni can now begin to focus on his long-term goal which is to become the greatest player that Israel has ever produced. He’ll be learning from some of the best and is in a perfect situation to succeed without having to be the main man every game as he absorbs knowledge in practice, during games and just by hanging out with his new teammates.
Avdija put it succinctly as he signed off after his first game, “For me to go out there and play with my team and compete, it's a dream come true. I don’t have any words to explain how much I worked hard for this. I want to thank all of the people of Israel who took part in my first game and I know that you are supporting me. I love you all and I hope that we will succeed together.”
Deni, you may not have any words, but from someone who has seen you day-in and day-out compete, evolve and become the fine person you are today, I know how hard you worked and that work has begun to pay off. You don’t have to worry – we will all be there to support you and have your back through the inevitable ups and downs. We love you as much as you love us. And yes, let’s succeed together as one.
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 [email protected]