Deni Avdija poised to take big step up

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 18-year-old phenom set for larger role due to club’s injuries, and NBA is watching

MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Deni Avdija (with ball) has shown glimpses of his immense talent this season, and the 18-year-old swingman is set to start playing more of a key role for the team with a spike of injuries to the roster. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Deni Avdija (with ball) has shown glimpses of his immense talent this season, and the 18-year-old swingman is set to start playing more of a key role for the team with a spike of injuries to the roster.
(photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
Since the start of the Euroleague and Israeli basketball league season began in October, there have been numerous NBA general managers and scouts who have who have attended games both in Israel and abroad. Why you ask? Easy, they’ve all come to see Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Deni Avdija live and in person.
What makes Avdija so attractive is that he slated to be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft that will take place this coming June. The youngster, who will turn 19 on January 3, has been the apple of the basketball world’s eye for a few years already, even earning comparisons to Slovenia’s Luka Doncic, who is tearing up the NBA as the leader of the Dallas Mavericks.
However, make no mistake; Avdija is no Doncic, he’s simply Deni Avdija.
Born in Israel to a Serbian father, Zufer, who played basketball in the Holy Land in the 90’s, and Sharon Artzi, a Kibbutznik and an athlete in her own right, Avdija has certainly been raised to succeed both on and off of the court.
This season, the 6-foot-9 (2.05m) protégé is averaging a little over nine points, six rebounds and two assists per game in domestic Winner League play, while in the Euroleague Avdija’s numbers are less impressive, playing only six minutes and averaging four points a contest. But that isn’t something that concerns the NBA brass as Avdija will continue his development in North America.
Over the summer, Avdija played absolutely fabulous ball in earning MVP honors while leading the Israel Under-20 team to the European Championship in Tel Aviv. Against players his own age or a bit older, Avdija can dominate both sides of the floor as the game runs through him. Playing all five positions in that tournament in front of at least 15 NBA scouts definitely raised his already high stock through the roof.
NBA Draft experts have followed Avdija for  a number of years throughout Europe while he played for the Under-16-through-20 Israel national teams. In 2017, Avdija led the Under-16 squad with 12.3 points per tournament game to go along with 5.3 assists, and in 2018 he jumped to the U-20 side, where he scored close to 13 points per game and helped the blue-and-white capture the championship while earning a place on the all-tournament team as well.
So far, Sam Presti, the GM of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Cleveland Cavaliers GM Koby Altman have watched Avdija live this season as well as legendary San Antonio Spurs Director of International Scouting Claudio Crippa. Add to that Trey Platt, who is the Director of Pro Player Personnel of the Cavs, and scouts from the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls and many others, and the pressure to perform has increased substantially for Avdija.
However, that hasn’t stopped him one bit when playing against Israeli league competition, in which he has excelled. Just this week, Avdija dominated play for Maccabi Tel Aviv versus Hapoel Holon, clocking in with over 30 minutes played, 14 points, seven boards, three assists and three blocked shots. Not a bad day’s work for an 18-year old playing with men up to 10-plus years his senior.
Certainly, the Israeli league isn’t the NBA, but it’s surely a terrific litmus test for an up-and-coming player. Indeed, if Avdija could produce the same numbers in the Euroleague he would be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, but the reality is that there are many other considerations that come into play in continental competition, where Maccabi Tel Aviv sits with an 8-4 record after 12 games.
Doncic was dominating play at the Euroleague level as well as the Spanish ACB League before being drafted, but one cannot make a comparison between the situations. Doncic also led Slovenia to the Eurobasket championship in 2017, but again he was brought up in a Real Madrid system from an early age and signed a contract with the Spanish powerhouse in 2012 when he was just 13 years old.
Avdija will now be taking on an even larger role with Maccabi as the injury bug has ravaged the yellow-and-blue.
With point guard John Dibartolomeo out for six months, effectively for the balance of the season, Nate Wolters on the shelf for six weeks, plus Omri Casspi out for at least another two weeks in a best case scenario, Avdija will be given every chance to shine both at home in domestic play as well as in Europe.
With the ability to play multiple positions in an ever-changing game, Avdija is already being counted on by his teammates and management alike.
Veteran center Othello Hunter made it abundantly clear after the Holon game that he believes in all of the players who are on the team and doesn’t think Maccabi needs to bring anyone else in. All-Star guard Scottie Wilbekin also said that he has complete faith that the current personnel can step up, while coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos said that with the players on the roster, his team can battle it out in the Euroleague.
Reading between the lines, that’s a lot of faith being put into Avdija and he knows it.
As he left the arena the other night, Avdija stopped to talk to reporters and stated that he will give his best. This will be his biggest challenge to date and he knows it, as do all of the NBA scouts, general managers, teammates and fans. If the game against Holon is any indication, then one does not need to worry – Avdija is poised to thrive under the pressure, this season and beyond. 
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]