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Israeli NBA forward Deni Avdija suffers injury, ending promising rookie season

Israeli NBA rookie Deni Avdija suffered a hairline fracture in his right ankle during a game Wednesday, cutting short his rookie season for the Washington Wizards.

Avdija, the ninth overall draft pick in 2020, was coming down from a layup attempt when he awkwardly twisted his ankle. He was wheel-chaired off the floor to an ovation from Washington’s first crowd of home fans this season, some of whom had brought Israeli flags to the occasion.

The injury, which came with 15 games remaining in the Wizards’ regular season, ends a rookie campaign marked by ups and downs for Avdija – but also one that demonstrated his unique, perhaps surprising, willingness to represent the Jewish people. During Chanukah, he blessed the candles in a team video and threw in a rendition of Maoz Tzur for good measure. On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, he wrote the Hebrew word “Yizkor” on his sneakers.

While the ankle will not require surgery, it will force Avdija to miss the remainder of the season as well as the postseason, if the Wizards make it there. The team currently holds a half-game lead on the tenth seed, which would qualify them for a single-elimination play-in game. The injury also foreclosed the possibility of Avdija regaining his form, which lacked consistency as he adjusted from playing in Israel to playing in the NBA. He finished the season averaging 6.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 54 games.

A tumultuous pandemic season

Born on Kibbutz Beit Zera to two former athletes — his father was a Serbian basketball pro and his mother an Israeli track-and-field star, Avdija became the youngest player to suit up for Maccabi Tel Aviv when he turned 16. By the time the Wizards made him the highest NBA draft pick in Israeli history, he had already led the Israeli national team to consecutive European under-23 championships, won an Israeli league MVP, and played three professional seasons. His NBA readiness was touted as an asset on par with his creativity and rebounding.

Avdija wasted no time making a name for himself in the league. In his preseason debut, he scored 16 points without missing a shot, and showcased the passing and aggressiveness that made him a top pick. He was named to the starting lineup heading into the season, rare for a rookie – a 20-year-old, no less, who had opted to skip the experience of playing college basketball. Amid his early flashes of talent — and his rabid following in his home country — the Wizards doubled down on his potential, becoming the first NBA franchise to launch a Hebrew language team website, social media pages and podcast.

He also earned the raves of his coach, Scott Brooks, who said Deni’s “give-a-crap level is high.”

Then a COVID-19 outbreak hit the Wizards, sidelining six of their players in the league’s quarantine protocols in January. The team had several games postponed, and Avdija, one of the affected players, was the last to return to action following a three-game absence. He struggled to find his jump shot after that, and lost his starting job to Wizards veteran forward Davis Bertans.

Brooks offered reassurance following the demotion, saying Avdija had 10 to 15 years ahead of him in the league.

But the “Wizraeli” stayed optimistic in his regular media scrums on Zoom — 15-minute dual sessions for the American and Israeli press. (Deni said he learned English playing video games and watching “Spongebob Squarepants,” and speaks fluently.)

Once, during the English portion of the news conference, he groused at the notion that rookies get officiated more harshly in the NBA. By the Hebrew portion, he was looking on the bright side. “It’s funny for me,” Avdija said in Hebrew, “because the whistles I get against myself today, I hope I get when I’m a veteran. In the future, when I play against the rookie me, I will get those whistles.”

Eventually, he regained his job as a starter, and the Wizards had won five straight games with him in the lineup heading into Wednesday night.

Louis Keene is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and the creator of Deni Diary, a newsletter about Deni Avdija’s rookie season. Email him or follow him on Twitter.

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