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Deni Avdija, ‘the greatest talent in Israeli basketball history’ joins the NBA

This story was updated to reflect breaking news.

Deni Avdija, a 6’9” forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv, was selected ninth overall by the Washington Wizards at NBA Draft 2020, becoming the highest-drafted Israeli player ever and just the second Israeli player to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Avdija told a press in a Zoom scrum before the draft he was looking forward to hearing his name called.

“It’s always an honor to represent your country,” he said. “You know, Israel is a really small country – we didn’t provide a lot of players like other places. And for me to put the flag wherever I go and support it, I’m proud I can do that.”

According to his profile on the Maccabi Tel Aviv team website, Avdija (pronounced “Ahv-deeya”) was born in Beit Zera, a kibbutz just south of the Sea of Galilee, to Zufer Avdija, a Serbian Gorani-Muslim who played basketball in the Israeli league, and Sharon Artzi, an Israeli Jew who ran track-and-field.

Deni Avdija dribbles

Deni Avdija dribbles during Israel vs Argentinia game at GBG Halle, Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, Germany on April 2,2018. Image by Sven Mandel

Speaking from his home in Israel, wearing a hat and sporting a goatee, Avdija told the assembled press that had developed friendships with both Casspi and former NBA star Amare Stoudemire, both of whom were his teammates last season at Maccabi. Stoudemire is now an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets, who control the nineteenth pick.

Casspi, who interviewed the prospect at length on his podcast in May, introduced him to listeners as “the greatest talent in Israeli basketball history.”

Avdija’s rapid ascent through the competitive ranks in Israel, a country with a passionate basketball following, was unprecedented.

At 16, he became the youngest player to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv, a European basketball powerhouse that frequently signs former NBA players. And last summer, as a 19-year-old, he led Israel’s under-20 team to the country’s second consecutive FIBA U20 European Championship and took home the tournament’s most valuable player honors.

Deni Avdija

Deni Avdija Image by Wikimedia Commons/Getty Images

After securing a one-year deferment to play in the tournament, Avdija enlisted in the IDF this April and fulfilled his mandatory service with a few weeks of basic training, he told Casspi.

In the same podcast, he admitted it was hard to think about leaving home. “I grew up here,” he said, speaking in Hebrew. “I speak the language, I enjoy it here, my friends and family are here, I know the land, and suddenly to move to a foreign country — it’s very hard to adjust.” The only child said his parents will move with him to the states.

But, Avdija added that his experiences playing professionally had prepared him well for the competitive intensity of the NBA. “I’ve played with professionals, players who come to practice and fight for their salary, for their food, and I’ve benefited from that experience,” he said.

Avdija is the third Israeli to be drafted. The only other Israeli to have been drafted in the first round is Omri Casspi, who the Sacramento Kings selected 23rd in 2009. Lior Eliyahu was a second-round pick in 2006 but never played in the league. Gal Mekel, an Israeli who went undrafted, played briefly for Dallas and New Orleans from 2013-15.

“What’s the chances of any basketball player in the world to get drafted to the league?” Avdija said. “It’s not a high percentage. So me as an Israeli, coming from a small place, working hard, going through all the ups and downs through my career…I’m taking another step, another big step for my career. It’s a dream come true.”

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