The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deni Avdija is ‘the greatest talent in Israeli basketball history.’ But is he ready for the NBA?

Deni Avdija, the first-round draft pick of the Washington Wizards, stretches with the help of his coach Veljko Perovic during a recent training session in Tel Aviv. (Corinna Kern/Washington Post)

TEL AVIV — In the empty arena of this basketball-crazy city, Deni Avdija — swish — is saying goodbye — swish — to his home court. Swish, swish, swish.

Three days before flying with his mother and manager to his new life in Washington, the Wizards’ 19-year-old first-round draft pick is bidding farewell to the floor that made him famous by draining one three-pointer after another.

Five hundred of them.

“Five hundred makes, not tries,” Avdija clarifies Tuesday morning after reeling off 15 perfect splashes in a row.

The rare clang of a miscue echoes through silent, 10,000-seat Menora Arena, the seat of Israeli professional basketball and the place where the 6-foot-9 small forward has already played three professional seasons.

It was on these boards that he rose from teen sensation — as the youngest player, at 16, on the country’s dominant franchise, Maccabi Tel Aviv — to Israeli national team standout, MVP of the Israeli premier league, MVP of the under-20 EuroLeague championship and, finally, the vessel of his country’s long-deferred hopes for NBA greatness.

It has been five chaotic days since he was taken ninth overall in the NBA draft — the first Israeli picked in the top 10 and only the second to go in the first round. And it is less than a week before he begins workouts in downtown D.C. in that more athletic, pressurized and political league that he has seen only on TV.

How did Deni Avdija catch the eye of Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard? It started with his name.

So now, in the fleeting space between comfortable and crazy, he is in this happy place, alone on his coming-of-age court with Veljko Perovic, his personal coach since he was 12, signing out by sinking buckets.

“I want him to say goodbye from every position,” Perovic says, directing his protege to shoot from all points of the arc: right corner, top of key, left corner — 124, 125, 126.

Between shots, Avdija (pronounced Ahv-DEE-ah) asks a visiting reporter about Washington, a city he knows mostly as a backdrop in the Marvel Universe. He has heard that restaurants don’t stay open very late. He wonders about Capital One Arena, his soon-to-be basketball home with twice as many seats and a court 2.1 feet longer than the European-standard he is used to.

“It’s much bigger, right?” Avdija asks in the lightly accented English he honed through Call of Duty and Netflix. “And louder? I know it’s going to be very loud.”

It’s going to be very loud, yes. And very exposed. And very woke.

Which raises a question about the phenom whom Israel’s previous first-round draftee called “the greatest talent in Israeli basketball history.” Is this chipper prodigy — with the patchy goatee, a devotion to family game nights and an aversion to controversy — ready for today’s NBA?

The NBA lottery was actually Avdija’s second draft of the year. In April, in accordance with Israel’s universal conscription laws for most Jewish citizens, he went into the army.

His professional contract had allowed him to defer beyond the usual entry age of 18. But when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered sporting events, he drove with his parents to the Israel Defense Forces base at Tel HaShomer to be inducted.

By then, IDF basic training had been modified by coronavirus-related safety measures. In Avdija’s case, the Army scaled it back even further to protect joints and muscles worth potentially billions to sponsors and general managers.

“They let me have off of some of the obstacles and things,” he said. “But I shot guns. I slept with my gun. For me, serving my country in the IDF is super important.”

In Israel, Avdija’s experience is unremarkable. Tel Aviv sidewalks are filled with uniformed young Israelis carrying a latte in one hand and an assault weapon in the other. But he will surely be one of the few privates in the ranks of the NBA.

He was immediately given special status as a “prodigy athlete” that allowed him to put aside the IDF olive drab in favor of Maccabi blue and yellow and now Wizards red and blue.

The IDF said in a statement that officials will grant Avdija rolling deferrals as long as he is playing and could excuse the rest of his service altogether, as it has for other outstanding athletes.

“The IDF congratulates Deni Avdija for being picked in the NBA Draft and wishes him luck,” the statement said.

Avdija and Matan Siman-Tov, his Israeli agent, know he is moving from a political country to a political city and entering the most political of U.S. sports leagues. They are aware of how Black Lives Matter and other social justice causes spread across the NBA and its jerseys last year.

They have discussed it. They just hope to focus on the game.

“Listen, I come to the NBA to enjoy, to represent my country and to play basketball,” Avdija said. “I’m not a political guy. I support the players and I understand the situation, but I’m not getting into it. I don’t really have an opinion.”

Ido Gur, a basketball journalist for Israel’s Sport Five network, notes Israeli athletes are used to carrying the weight of their country’s Palestinian conflict with them around the world. He thinks Avdija, too, will be ready to take those questions, but not right away.

“He’s really still a kid,” Gur said. “But I do think he’s got the potential to talk about these things later in his career.”

When he’s ready, Avdija’s own family history is, in fact, a powerful example of Israel at its most ecumenical. His father, Zufer Avdija, is a Gorani Muslim from southern Serbia who was a pro basketball star in Belgrade and a power forward for the Yugoslav national teams of the 1980s. After coming to play for Israeli teams, he married Sharon Artzi, a Jewish Israeli track and field standout from a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee.

Deni was born in Herzliya, a beachfront suburb of Tel Aviv, where soccer was his first sports love. When Deni was 9, his father steered him increasingly toward basketball.

“I wasn’t tall,” he said of his youth league play. “But I was the fastest in my hometown.”

When puberty bestowed another six inches of altitude on him, he began to get national attention. Falling into the specialized track of a potential star, he joined the Maccabi youth team and began working with Perovic.

By 16 he was getting playing time with Maccabi’s senior five. This summer, he led the junior squad to its second consecutive European title and took home MVP honors.

“He was a monster,” Gur said of the player then maturing before Israel’s eyes. The reporter tweeted three years ago that Avdija was destined to be the country’s first NBA lottery pick.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Israel, but basketball is a close second and has produced more moments of national pride.

Only one Israeli men’s national team has made it to soccer’s World Cup, and it was eliminated in the first round in 1970. But in hoops, the country has made it to the European finals almost 30 times.

Maccabi alone has won six EuroLeague titles. Its 1977 victory, against a dominant Moscow team at the height of the Cold War, electrified Israel and solidified its love of basketball.

“We are on the map!” proclaimed team leader Tal Brody, an American NBA alum who became the dean of Israeli basketball. The phrase remains a common expression of upstart national pride.

But breakout success in the NBA has remained elusive, even as the league has grown in popularity among Israeli fans. Only four players have previously been drafted, most recently Omri Casspi, who was taken 23rd by the Sacramento Kings in 2009, Gur said. (He noted that Indiana Pacers power forward T.J. Leaf was born in Israel but didn’t grow up there.)

As Avdija’s skills have become more renowned, more of Israel’s boosters yearning to make a mark in the world’s most important league are clinging to him.

“Deni has the potential to be an all-star, and this is something we never had,” Gur said.

This past summer, Avdija left home for the first time, spending 10 weeks working with coaches in Atlanta to add the crossovers, different finishes and other American moves he will need for his new game.

He didn’t experience much of U.S. culture, spending most nights in his apartment playing Uno, PlayStation and the other outlets for his brimming competitiveness, said Siman-Tov, who played basketball with Avdija’s father and has known Deni since he was born.

One evening, his U.S. agent, Rockville-based Doug Neustadt, challenged him to a round of Madden NFL and beat him soundly.

“Deni threw down his controller, and that was the last time we saw him that night,” Siman-Tov said. “He hates to lose.”

Outside the practice gym, though, where youngsters waited to see Avdija as word of his presence spread through Atlanta’s Jewish community, he displayed the same friendliness that has made him a fan favorite in Tel Aviv.

Gur, who is already fielding calls from Israeli fans who want to purchase Avdija’s No. 9 Wizards jersey, predicts heavy traffic between Ben Gurion and Dulles International airports in coming years.

“The big bar mitzvah trip has been to go to Barcelona and see [Lionel] Messi play,” Gur said. “If he’s going to be a big part of the Wizards, you’re going to see hundreds, maybe thousands, going to Washington to see Deni.”

For his part, Avdija says he is ready for all that’s coming at him: the adulation, the pressure, the questions. It’s what he has been working toward most of his young life.

“I can’t wait,” he says, drinking water during a break from his goodbye practice.

But for another few shots at least, it’s good to linger under the old, not-so-glaring lights of home.


Shira Rubin contributed to this report.

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