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The Deni Diary: A star is born

This is the second installment of Deni Diary, a new weekly report about the rookie season of Deni Avdija, the Israeli basketball phenom who plays for the NBA’s Washington Wizards.

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Deni Avdija, Washington Wizards

Deni Avdija, Washington Wizards

December 25, 2020: The cedar of Lebanon

The Washington Wizards have seven foreign-born players — leading the NBA — which means that Deni Avdija does not have the hardest name to pronounce on the team. That challenge falls to Latvian seven-footer Anžejs Pasečņiks (Ahn-zhays Pa-setch-neeks), whom the team usefully refers to as “A.P.”

We know this because of a benign bit of rookie hazing. Last week, three days before the NBA season started, Deni was called on to serenade the fourth-year center with “Happy Birthday” when A.P. turned 25. In a delightful scene posted on the Wizards’ Instagram, Deni croons out “HaYom Yom Huledet Le-A.P.” as his teammates clap and dance along.

A post shared by Washington Wizards (@washwizards)

Deni Avdija Courtesy of Washington Wizards

Even the famously stone-faced Russell Westbrook was getting into it.

Even the famously stone-faced Russell Westbrook was getting into it.

After practice the next day, I asked Deni if he was beginning to feel like an ambassador of Israeli culture. 100%, he said. But, he emphasized that what he’s shared so far barely scratches the surface.

At the time, Deni was on his way to a charity event, which he was dragged to after practice by star teammate Russell Westbrook, who seems to have taken a liking to the 6-foot-9 Israeli, and is making a concerted effort to show the rookies — Avdija and Cassius Winston — the ropes. Coach Scott Brooks said that Avdija was hoping to get some extra shots up, but Westbrook isn’t really the kind of guy you can say no to. So Deni did his scheduled media availability from the road.

Speaking of which, Deni says he’s working on getting his driver’s license out here. He sort of blanched when a reporter said to keep his hands at “10 and 2” on the steering wheel. But when I said “Hey, If you can drive in Israel, you can drive anywhere,” he grinned. “You’re damn right,” he said. “You’re damn right.”

If his NBA debut on Wednesday night was any indication, Deni might not need any more shooting practice. Against the Philadelphia 76ers — a perennial contender in the Eastern Conference — Deni swished both shots he took, a three-pointer from the corner and another one from the top of the arc. He finished with 7 points and 4 rebounds.

Those numbers may not jump off the page, so here’s another one — the Wizards outscored their opponent by 14 points in Deni’s 28 minutes on the floor. That +14 was a team-high and stands out when the team lost by just two. Maybe he needs more shots! But hey, I’m not the coach. (Or his teammates, who should probably get him the ball more.)

At least the first matter seems to be settled, which is that Avdija debuted alongside the starters. As Mike Prada said in our preview Q&A on Wednesday morning, he’s already one of the Wizards’ best players, and if what he showed in the preseason is what he can do when the games count, Brooks will find a way to get him in the lineup.

His most impressive stretch on Wednesday came early in the third quarter with the teams separated by just a few points. The 76ers’ Joel Embiid, a 7-foot, 280-pound giant and arguably the best center in the NBA, got the ball in the post and faced up against Avdija. He took two dribbles toward the basket — but the rookie walled him off, forcing Embiid to pass. When the Wizards brought the ball up the floor on the ensuing possession, Deni spotted up behind the arc, caught a pass from Westbrook and drilled his second triple of the game — right in Embiid’s grill.

That was just the beginning of the sequence.

On the next 76ers possession, Avdija cut off a dribble-drive by 6-foot-9 Tobias Harris, and came up with a steal a few seconds later. Without hesitation, the Israeli took off on a fast break, shoveled the ball underhand to a streaking Westbrook — who somehow missed an easy dunk! The 76ers sped ahead and missed a quick jump shot; this time, Avdija grabbed the rebound…which turned into another Wizards miss.

Here’s the best part. In transition, the Wizards defense didn’t have time to get set, forcing Avdija to guard more than one player. As Danny Green launched a three-pointer, Avdija was at the free-throw line, marking Ben Simmons — leaving Embiid open for an easy offensive rebound. But as the ball was bouncing on the rim, Avdija slid over to get underneath Embiid and box him out.

The space Avdija cleared out is exactly where the ball went. Deni secured the rebound and started another break.

When Green (14) launches the shot, Avdija is near Simmons the free throw line, which leaves Embiid open under the basket.

When Green (14) launches the shot, Avdija is near Simmons the free throw line, which leaves Embiid open under the basket.

By the time the ball is off the rim, Avdija has Embiid boxed out completely, and catches the high bounce on his way up the floor.

By the time the ball is off the rim, Avdija has Embiid boxed out completely, and catches the high bounce on his way up the floor.

I can’t really express how hard it is to box out Joel Embiid, mostly because I’ve never tried to keep a basketball from a hungry Goliath. But one thing I’ve noticed with Deni is that he is not like the rangy teenagers who fill out over their first few seasons in the league. Deni came in built like a cedar of Lebanon. He’s claiming territory from Joel Embiid in his first game.

There’s lots more to come from this kid. If you’ve enjoyed this, subscribe to the Deni Diary newsletter to get updates when new posts come out. And if you know someone else who would enjoy this, please share it!

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December 14, 2020: “He’s ready.”

It only took five quarters of preseason action for Drew Gooden — who once played alongside a young LeBron James and now does color commentary on Washington Wizards broadcasts — to reach a verdict on Deni Avdija.

“He’s ready,” Gooden gushed after Avdija delivered a neat bounce pass for an assist Thursday night. “He doesn’t need any more reps. That’s a pro right there. I’ve seen enough!”

It took almost as long for the young Israeli to miss a shot. In his dazzling preseason debut Monday, 19-year-old Avdija connected on all five field goal attempts, including three from behind the arc and a running floater to beat the halftime buzzer. “Happy Hanukkah!” the announcers tittered after Deni swished a jumper from the right wing.

And while his shot wasn’t falling last night, he continued to attack the basket; his forays into the paint were usually successful, including a driving layup late in the fourth quarter that he made despite getting fouled. Meanwhile, the rest of the package that made Deni the ninth pick in November’s draft — his unselfishness, creativity in transition, and high basketball I.Q. — continued to shine through. (He finished with 7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals.)

“What I love the most about him is his competitive spirit, and his nature that he doesn’t back down from anybody,” Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ top scorer and longest-tenured player, said after the game.

It’s only been two games, preseason games at that, but Deni doesn’t just look promising. He looks good. Washington’s coach, Scott Brooks,said Deni might start at small forward on opening night.

If he were merely a good Israeli basketball player, dayenu. Omri Casspi wasn’t bad, though the Holon native never got much better after a positive rookie season for the Sacramento Kings. Deni already appears a more complete player, and certainly comes more highly touted. He would probably not be worth a newsletter, though, if he were merely a solid pro out of Beit Zera.

What’s more surprising, and frankly, exciting, is that Avdija seems genuinely, uh, Jewish! The son of a Serbian Muslim (who played in the Israeli basketball league) and an Israeli Jewish mother (a track-and-field athlete), there really was no guarantee that Avdija would have any affinity for Jewish tradition. Indeed, Jewish fans often get invested in Jewish professional athletes who don’t really care to be identified as such, let alone serve as some representative of the faith. Omri Casspi didn’t have a bar mitzvah. I’m guessing the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson doesn’t know the Hanukkah blessings.

Deni does! And he was happy to volunteer it.

“Hanukkah means a lot for me,” he says before launching into the blessings. “It’s a holiday I did my whole childhood in Israel, and…I love it.” (We won’t begrudge him a “vetzivanu.”)

To recap: There is an Israeli Jew who might start as a rookie in the NBA, a 6-foot-9 Sabra whose jump shot looks like Klay Thompson’s, with the size and skill set and most importantly the panache to have a long career in the NBA.

He’s also candid and interesting — so far. (Let’s hope the grind of media availability doesn’t beat that out of him.) And he’s a fluent English speaker. Dayenu! “It’s all new to me,” he said of the adjustment period. “The whole environment, playing [power forward], it will take some time for me to adjust, I’ll be honest with you. I’m also new to the United States.”

The top prospect in Israeli basketball history, Deni has played alongside ex-NBA stars at Maccabi Tel Aviv since he was 16, which partly explains his professional temperament. But there’s something innate, too, in his hashkafa, an optimism and savoir faire that runs through his game. And hence, this newsletter — a format where we can discover a little more about Deni each week.

I hope you’ll join us as we follow along with Deni during his first year in the States. But for now, let’s celebrate his blissful beginning, even if it was only the preseason. This time next week, his wizardry will count.

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