‘Israeli fans are the best,’ says Deni Avdija on verge of first NBA season

“I just love playing basketball,” said 19-year-old Israeli phenom Deni Avdija.

By Joseph Wolkin

It’s pretty difficult to miss the 6′ 9″ Deni Avdija. The 19-year-old Israeli basketball sensation officially signed a contract with the NBA’s Washington Wizards after being selected ninth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Avdija, who is a forward, is considered to be a major steal in the draft due to his speed and ability to attack on both offense and defense. Now that his contract is signed, he’s ready to make history as the highest first-round NBA draft pick in the Jewish state’s history.

“Israeli fans are the best,” Avdija told World Israel News during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday afternoon. “The whole country is behind you. Everybody is going to support you. There are a lot of Israelis in the United States, so I’m getting a lot of support from Israel and close by in the states.

“I’m going to represent [Israel] the best I can. In the end, I’m going to have my ups and downs. The Israeli fans will be behind me all of the time. I’m going to do the best I can.”

Avdija averaged an impressive 21.9 points per game with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the EuroLeague during eight games in the 2018-19 season. He followed it up with 26 games played in 2019-20, with 10.2 points per game while averaging 6.6 rebounds.

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“I’m going to be the best Deni I can be,” he said.

The transition to America in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been an easy one. His mother, coach and manager are the only people who came with him to the nation’s capital, helping him settle in.

“I grew up in an environment that was comfortable,” Avdija said. “Since the plane took off, I left everybody at home. I’m starting a new career and I don’t know people. It’s like starting over. But I’m comfortable with this. I’m a tough kid.”

Avdija is also the first half-Israeli, half-Serbian player in NBA history. He holds dual citizenship in both nations.

His competitive nature comes from his parents, both of whom are award-winning athletes. His father Zufer, a Gorani Muslim, is a basketball legend in Serbia. His mother, Sharon Artzi, is a championship-winning Jewish Israeli track and field competitor.

“I just love playing basketball,” Avdija said. “I’m very emotional on the court and I like when all of my teammates come together to win games. I like to win. It’s all I do.”

The only other Israeli basketball player to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft is Omri Casspi, who went 23rd overall in the 2009 draft. He went on to play through the 2018-19 season, averaging 7.9 points per game in 588 contests with the Sacramento Kings, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies.

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Fellow Israeli player Yam Madar was also drafted this year, selected by the Boston Celtics as the 47th overall pick in the second round. This is the first time two Israelis were selected in the same draft.

Gal Mekel notably played for the Dallas Mavericks after signing a three-year deal in 2013, but didn’t last long with the team. By 2014, he was sent down to the G-League, the NBA’s minor league division, before being waived by the team. He then signed with the New Orleans Pelicans, but met the same fate.