Deni Avidj

Israel’s Deni Avdija dribbles the ball in a game against Argentina. Avdija was drafted ninth overall by the Washington Wizards. Photo: Sven Mandel/Wikimedia Commons

 

The Washington Wizards are scheduled to begin their NBA season Dec. 23. The season opener is always an exciting time for fans, but this year an entire country is likely to be cheering for the Wizards.

On Nov. 18, Maccabi Tel Aviv star Deni Avdija was drafted by the Wizards with the ninth pick. A pick that high in the draft holds a lot of value, but Avdija was still seen as a steal.

“We were surprised to get him with the ninth overall pick because he was expected to go higher, according to many sources,” said Dave Johnson, the longtime radio voice of the Wizards. “I did not expect him to be available at our pick, and he’s considered by many draft experts to be one of the best steals of the draft.” 

Avdija’s biggest asset is his ability to play all over the court. At 6 feet 9 inches tall, Avdija is considered an elite shooter and ball handler, a plus in today’s changing game. 

“If you’re going to survive in the NBA, you need to be good at a lot of things,” Johnson said. “It’s a borderless game and a positionless game, where players are asked to perform multiple positions. Even though [Avdija’s] a 6-foot-9-inch player who is, by definition, a small forward, he can play power forward and has point guard skills. We’re living in an age where 7-foot players shoot three-pointers.”

As the NBA continues to shift to being a positionless game, it’s also becoming a more international game. At the start of the 2019 season, the NBA had 108 international players representing 38 countries. It was the sixth consecutive year in which at least 100 international players were on NBA rosters.

“[Avdija] brings more publicity to Israel and points out that basketball players can come from anywhere, not just America,” said Tal Recht, a sophomore at Parkway Central High School and a member of United Hebrew Congregation.

With basketball spreading across the globe, NBA franchises are drafting more players from overseas after seeing the stunning success of many foreign players such as Nikola Jokic of Serbia, Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and Luka Doncic of Slovenia.

Johnson said players from other countries have become common in the NBA. 

“We have a long list of players from different countries, Dirk Nowitzki from Germany and Tony Parker from France, that have not only made it to the NBA but also have had exceptional careers,” he said. “When you look at the list of players from Israel, it’s not as long [because] Israel’s a small country. It’s significant that [Avdija] was drafted as high as he was because it speaks to the tremendous passion for basketball in Israel.”

Even though some Israelis have made it to the NBA, none have achieved lasting stardom. Avdija would be the first.

T.J. Leaf is the only other player from Israel on an NBA roster. Leaf is beginning his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder after three with the Indiana Pacers. RealGM.com also lists three other Israeli NBA players, each of whom played in the 1980s.

Yoav Galer, who was born in Israel and is a junior at Parkway North High School and a member of Bais Abraham Congregation, said he would enjoy seeing Avdija succeed. 

“Seeing someone from the same background as me would be really cool,” Galer said. “I also think his success would put Israel on the map and bring more attention to the problems that are in Israel.” 

Even though Avdija had unparalleled success in Israel and was drafted highly, he is still a rookie, and chances are he won’t make an immediate impact on the court. Partially due to his international background, many experts view him as a raw talent and a project who won’t immediately be successful.

“I think he’ll contribute,” Johnson said. “It’s a short list of players that come right in and dominate. It’s a big jump [to the NBA], and I think it’ll be a big jump for [Avdija] but, much like our ninth pick overall last year, Rui Hachimura, he will be a part of the rotation and grow. As he jokingly said, the easiest part will be the flight from Israel, and after that will be a challenge. For all the success he’s had, he knows that the next step is going to be the biggest step.”

Despite the high odds against success that come with most rookies, Avdija, because of his work ethic, is expected to eventually become at least a successful starter in the NBA.

“It’s impossible to predict who [will be great], but I have great expectations for him, knowing what he’s achieved and his skill set,” Johnson said. “Even just talking to him, he has a tremendous maturity. It’s hard to believe he’s 19 years old. You can’t predict who’s going to be a franchise player, but I think he’ll have a long NBA career.”

Another point Avdija’s favor is his off-the-court character. In the lead-up to the draft, he gained new NBA fans by crediting the video game Call of Duty for helping him learn English. And his work ethic is what grabbed NBA teams’ attention.

“[Hard work is] embedded in the religion itself,” Galer, the Parkway North student, said. “We have 613 mitzvot, and it teaches us how to treat people, and I think that definitely has played a big role in how [Avdija’s] work ethic brought him to this point.”

With the rise of social media, basketball players have become much more than just athletes. As seen in the players’ strike in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 23, the great players, such as LeBron James and Chris Paul, are the ones who are activists off the court.

Recht, the Parkway Central student, said: “I think he should speak out [about being Israeli and Jewish] because he’s been given this great platform to be an influencer. In his position, a wide range of people will hear and pay attention to his opinion on anti-Semitism and other things.”

Regardless of Avdija turning into a cornerstone for the Wizards or a face of the NBA, the Jewish community is likely to show its support for Avdija.

“You can feel the pride and love of the Jewish people that a member of their community has achieved such a high honor in terms of being drafted so highly in the world’s best professional basketball league,” Johnson said. “I have no doubt that as we travel around the country, we’re going to have Jewish groups celebrate with Avdija and hold Israeli flags at his games.”