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NBA Draft brings league closer to a Jewish starting five

UCLA’s Amari Bailey was picked by the Charlotte Hornets in the second round

By the end of Thursday night’s NBA Draft in Brooklyn, the league added a new Jewish player: Amari Bailey, a former five-star recruit who declared for the draft after his freshman year at UCLA. Bailey was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in the second round, the 41st pick overall.

Bailey’s Jewish background was previously reported by the Forward, but whether he personally identified as Jewish was unclear. His agent, Bernie Lee, confirmed it Tuesday but did not provide additional detail.

“Amari is Jewish and does identify as Jewish,” Lee said in a message.

amari bailey jewish
Amari Bailey shot up NBA draft boards with a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Bailey, 19, has grown up in the public eye, both as the star of the highest-profile prep team in the country and as the son of Johanna Leia — real name Johanna Edelberg — a model and social media influencer whose relationship with Drake became tabloid fodder last year.

Leia’s side of the family is Jewish, an assistant coach at Sierra Canyon High School, Bailey’s alma mater, said in an email.

NBA Draft prognosticators anticipated the lefty 6-foot-4 guard to be picked from late in the first round to the second round, and Bailey was joined by his mother and his grandmother, Joan Edelberg, at the draft in New York.

Wearing a white dinner jacket and matching slacks but no shirt — and a low-hanging pearl necklace that caught ESPN anchor Malika Andrews’ attention — Bailey descended from the Barclays Center stands to shake NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum’s hand onstage.

It’s unclear whether or to what extent Bailey practices Judaism, but an article in the Forward last year — which reported that Bailey told a Jewish high schooler that his mom was Jewish — may provide a clue. At the time, Bailey was training at Shalhevet High School alongside a slew of NBA players who use the school’s gym in the offseason. 

“He told us his mom is Jewish,” Shalhevet student Aiden Bitran said at the time. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I got one of those kippahs that you guys are wearing at home, bruh.’ I’m like ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ It actually was really cool.”

Neither Lee nor Sierra Canyon elaborated or responded to follow up questions, and Bailey and Leia could not be reached for comment.

Joan Edelberg, Bailey’s grandmother, did not respond to a request for comment on Instagram.

Bailey’s dad, Aaron Bailey, is a retired NFL wide receiver who played five seasons for the Indianapolis Colts in the 1990s. He told the Colts website in 2013 he had seven children, but only one with Leia, who raised Amari and his sister, Savanna Smith, in Chicago on her own.

Bailey’s talent drew the attention of scouts as early as middle school. Articles about him appeared on NBADraft.net when he was in eighth grade — at which time he had already committed to DePaul University (though he never ended up playing there). He won a gold medal with the U.S. under-16 team in Brazil in 2019.

At Sierra Canyon, the elite private school in Chatsworth, California, Bailey shared the floor with future NBA players Brandon Boston and Ziaire Williams, as well as the sons of past stars LeBron James, Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin. James was a fixture at Sierra Canyon games during Bailey’s senior season, and celebrities including Drake and Michael B. Jordan made cameos. 

The Sierra Canyon team was the subject of a reality show, with Leia becoming one of its stars. A news helicopter later spotted her with Drake on a private dinner date at an empty Dodger Stadium, and TMZ reported that Drake had become a mentor to Bailey.

After committing to UCLA as the No. 3 guard prospect in the nation, Bailey had a mostly quiet freshman year with the team, averaging 11.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. But he made the Pac-12’s All-Freshman team and saved the best for last.

In six Pac-12 and NCAA tournament games, Bailey averaged 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists on 56% shooting, vaulting him up draft boards.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktoC6yMAYlw

With his name was called Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Bailey joins NBA ranks that have grown increasingly Jewish in recent years. In addition to Deni Avdija, the Israeli Washington Wizards forward entering his fourth pro season, the Sacramento Kings’ all-star big man Domantas Sabonis, who is married to a Jewish woman, announced earlier this year that he is converting.

And he seems likely to add to a legacy of UCLA alumni with Jewish backgrounds. Miami Heat forward Kevin Love married supermodel Kate Bock in a Jewish ceremony last year — signing a ketubah at the ceremony — though he is not known to be converting. And former UCLA guard Jordan Farmar played 10 years in the NBA, mostly with the Lakers.

On retired NBA player Iman Shumpert’s podcast earlier this month, Bailey described how being raised by a single mother shaped him.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bailey said. “My mom has been a superhero for me. I don’t know how she does it, but I’m forever grateful. I wouldn’t even be here, able to talk to you guys, articulate myself. The morals and how I move, a lot of that comes from somewhere, and my mom helped instill that in me.”

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