Deni Avdija is taking Israeli basketball to a whole new level.
Last year, the 20-year-old made history when he became the first player from the Middle Eastern nation to be drafted by a lottery team in the NBA.
The Washington Wizards’ No. 9 pick was labelled by some as the ‘steal of the draft’, and even the ‘new Luka Doncic’.
While comparisons with the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year are perhaps premature at this stage, Avdija’s 6-foot-9 frame and sublime passing game mean he has huge potential.
Simply making it to the NBA is a seismic achievement in itself, but to do it from a country of just nine million over 10,000 km away speaks volumes of his ability.
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youngest ever player
The small forward comes from strong sporting stock. His father, Zufer Avdija, is a Serbian Muslim who was a professional basketball player for Yugoslavia in the 1980s.
After being recruited by Israeli teams, he met and married Sharon Artzi, a Jewish Israeli athletics star.
Growing up near Tel Aviv, country’s national game of football was Avdija's first sporting love. But after growing six inches as a teenager, it became clear that the country’s second sport of basketball would give him a greater chance of success.
"My first sport was soccer. I played for two seasons," he recalled in conversation with Euro League. "I wasn't bad, but I had enough of soccer. I didn't want to play anymore and I stopped focusing in practice. That was about third grade and the basketball league only started in fourth."
A contract with the Maccabi Tel Aviv academy soon followed, and at the age of 16 and 320 days he became the team’s youngest senior debutant in history.
The prodigy was named MVP of the U-20 EuroLeague championship, and MVP of the Israeli premier league in one of his three table-topping seasons with Maccabi.
As a dual Israeli-Serbian citizen, Avdija was courted by both countries to play in their national set-up.
When he reached 15 years of age he had to make a decision, and it was one of the easiest of his career.
“I grew up here. I really love Israel,” Avdija said.
“For me, it was as simple as ABC to represent Israel." - Deni Avdija to Closeup360.
Soon after, Avdija starred at the 2017 FIBA U16 European Championship with the tournament-leading rebounds (12.6) and assists (5.3) per game.
But the best was yet to come.
Back-to-back FIBA U20 World Championships gold medals followed in 2018 and 2019, with the young star winning the tournament MVP award in 2019.
In 2019, Avdija made his debut for the Israeli senior national team in an 81–77 win over Germany in a 2019 World Cup qualifier.
Military conscription is mandatory in Israel for all citizens, aside from certain religious and health exemptions.
Avdija’s professional basketball contract enabled him to defer the normal entry age of 18, but in April 2020 he decided to begin his service due to the coronavirus-enforced suspension of sport.
‘Steal of the 2020 NBA Draft’
The most nerve-wracking moment of any young basketball player’s career is NBA Draft night.
In November 2020, Avdija made history for Israel when he was selected by the Washington Wizards at No. 9.
“That name definitely had some twitch to it,” Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said after his selection.
“I’ll just tell you this: Some guys, they just understand how to play basketball. And it doesn’t matter what age they are, they just kind of have a good feel. This was somebody that had that at that age.”
The Wizards are a team with a history of developing international talent. Avdija playing alongside Japanese star Rui Hachimura - as well as established local talent like Bradley Beal and John Wall - was enough for some to believe that the Wizards were playoff contenders.
But that expectation quickly turned was met with harsh reality, with the team struggling for form, and Wall being traded to Houston for Olympic gold medallist Russell Westbrook.
For Avdija, the chance to team up with Westbrook presents another opportunity to improve, and his priorities at this moment are to make the most of his game time, and continue to represent Israel on the biggest stage.
“I’m glad I come from Israel and the whole nation’s behind me and wants the best for me,” Avdija told Times of Israel after his first game - a 113-107 loss against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I love our country, and I love our fans, and I love that people support me and really care what I’m doing. I’m just going to represent the best I can and do the best I can.
"But people also have to be patient, and I need to be patient. It’s not all going to come in one day. I’m not going to score 40 in one day. It’s a process. But hopefully everybody’s going to enjoy the experience like I do.” - Avdija to the Times of Israel.
Israel in the NBA
While there are high hopes for Avdija in the NBA, he is not the first Israeli to play in the league.
Omri Caspi was the first to really make an impression in the States, when he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings with the 29th pick of the 2009 draft.
Following Capsi, there has been undrafted guard Gal Mekel, who played 35 games for the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Pelicans. Then there is former Indiana Pacers forward, T.J. Leaf, and Yam Madar, who was drafted by the Boston Celtics as the 47th pick of 2020 draft, but opted instead to continue his development in Israel.
If Avdija can deliver on his early promise and become a household name in the league, he may well have the same effect on basketball in Israel as Yao Ming famously had in China, gaining thousands of new fans for the NBA.
The Wizards are well aware of their player’s marketing power, and even launched a Hebrew Twitter account to accommodate their new Israeli fans.
Future Olympic appearance?
Seeing Avdija compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is out of the question for Israel, having not made it through the qualification rounds.
Instead, the focus is on harnessing the potential of their world-beating U20 talent, and ensuring that they are on the court at the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Games.
“Israel is a really small country. We haven’t provided a lot of players like other places. For me to put the flag wherever I go, it’s super important. I’m proud I can do that,” he told the LA Times.
“Me as an Israeli, coming from a small place, working hard, going through all those ups and downs. I didn’t think this would be possible at the beginning.”
The future is certainly bright for Israeli basketball, and Avdija is leading the way.