Deni Avdija, Israeli Teenage Sensation, Set to Make History at 2020 NBA Draft

With parents who both played the game, basketball is in Deni Avdija’s DNA. The 19-year-old is expected to become only the third Israeli to land an NBA deal on Wednesday

Jerry Mittleman
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Maccabi Tel Aviv's Deni Avdija controlling the ball during the EuroLeague basketball match between Maccabi and Olimpia Milan, November 19, 2019.
Maccabi Tel Aviv's Deni Avdija controlling the ball during the EuroLeague basketball match between Maccabi and Olimpia Milan, November 19, 2019.Credit: Antonio Calanni/AP
Jerry Mittleman

The average American response to this week’s NBA Draft has seemingly been one of furrowed brows, questions and a decided lack of enthusiasm owing to the absence of a surefire superstar prospect.

Things could hardly be more different in Israel, though, with a native son poised to become the country’s highest-profile prospect to be selected for the world’s most prestigious basketball league.

The NBA has a rabid fan base in Israel, and many hard-core sports junkies will be tuning in at 2 A.M. on Thursday morning (7 P.M. ET Wednesday) to watch the ESPN broadcast live.

Deni Avdija, 19 years old and 6 feet, 9 inches (2.06 meters) tall, has a realistic chance of being among the top five players picked this week. If so, he’ll be by far the highest selected Israeli in NBA Draft history.

According to Simi Rieger, an American-Israeli NBA analyst on Israel’s Sports Channel, “Cleveland [Cavaliers], Chicago [Bulls] and Golden State [Warriors] are all extremely impressed with Avdija, and any of them could possibly draft him.”

Omri Casspi playing for the Sacramento Kings against the New Orleans Pelicans, November 25, 2014.
Omri Casspi playing for the Sacramento Kings against the New Orleans Pelicans, November 25, 2014.Credit: AP

Avdija has basketball in his DNA. His Kosovo-born father, Zufer Avdija, was a professional basketball player who represented Yugoslavia in international competition and finished his playing career in Israel. Deni’s mother was also a basketball player, and he was born in the family home on Kibbutz Beit Zera, northern Israel.

Deni began his professional career with Maccabi Tel Aviv at the tender age of 16. He was the dominant force who led Israel to two consecutive gold medals in the Under-20 European Championships, being named MVP at the 2019 tourney. He has consistently impressed NBA scouts over the past three years in events organized to evaluate overseas prospects, and is widely predicted to be the first foreign player to be picked in this year’s draft.

He got off to a slow start at Maccabi last season, but by season’s end was an important member of the starting five and acquitted himself respectively in EuroLeague competition. At the season’s conclusion, he was named as the Israeli league’s MVP.

David Blatt, the highly successful international basketball coach and former coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (and LeBron James), knows something about a player’s suitability for the NBA. He told Haaretz: “Deni has good all-round skills that easily translate to the NBA. He’s willing to work hard, and his toughness and good basketball IQ will help him become a good NBA player.”

University of Connecticut's Nadav Henefeld looks up court during game action, January 1990.
University of Connecticut's Nadav Henefeld looks up court during game action, January 1990.Credit: Getty Images

Blatt adds that the experience of competing against grown men in the EuroLeague will also help him adjust to the toughest league on the planet.

An Israeli quest

Avdija is poised to become only the third Israeli to appear in the NBA, after Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel. For many years, the race to become the first Israeli to represent the homeland in the NBA was a local version of “The Quest of the Holy Grail.” From 1989 to 1996, the focus of that quest was the university town of Storrs, Connecticut.

UConn had one of America’s top college basketball programs during those years (and for many more to come). During the 1989-90 season, Nadav Henefeld starred for the Connecticut Huskies and was named the Big East Conference’s rookie of the year. Despite drawing interest from NBA scouts and being touted as a possible late first-round draft choice, Henefeld decided to return to Israel and signed a contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Dallas Mavericks guard Gal Mekel, right, pushing his way around Indiana Pacers guard George Hill in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, October 18, 2014.
Dallas Mavericks guard Gal Mekel, right, pushing his way around Indiana Pacers guard George Hill in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, October 18, 2014. Credit: AP

Doron Sheffer followed in Henefeld’s footsteps in 1993. He played at UConn for three seasons, with the stated aim of preparing himself for the NBA. Like Henefeld, he was also chosen as the Big East Conference’s rookie of the year. He had a successful college career and was selected, almost as an afterthought, by the Los Angeles Clippers in round two of the 1996 draft. He was never offered a contract, though, and Clippers then-general manager Elgin Baylor told this journalist that they had no special interest in him, especially as Sheffer was asking for a two-year deal.

The Israeli quest to reach the NBA came closer to fruition in 1998 when Oded Katash signed a two-year contract with the New York Knicks. Until Avdija’s arrival, Katash was thought by many to be the greatest basketball talent Israel had ever produced. As luck would have it, though, he signed with the Knicks during a months-long labor dispute. Tired of waiting for the league to resume, he returned to Israel to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were both selected toward the end of the 2006 draft – Eliyahu by the Orlando Magic, Halperin by the Seattle SuperSonics – but neither drew serious interest from the NBA and returned to Israel.

In 2009, Casspi finally made the breakthrough after being drafted in the first round by the Sacramento Kings and becoming the first Israeli to appear in an NBA game. Through hard work, determination and perseverance, Casspi – playing a complementary role on a number of teams – had a respectable 10-year career and averaged 8 points per game. Mekel, meanwhile, appeared in a smattering of games between 2013-14 for the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Pelicans.

NAMES TO WATCH: Deni Avdija and Yam Madar during Israel's triumph at the under-20s European Championships in 2019.
NAMES TO WATCH: Deni Avdija and Yam Madar during Israel's triumph at the under-20s European Championships in 2019.Credit: Nir Keidar

Now it’s Avdija’s turn to take up the challenge, and Rieger believes he’s capable of enjoying a bright NBA future – provided, of course, he stays fit and is selected by a team whose style of play fits his skill set.

“Deni has the potential to be the third scoring option for the right team and to average 15 to 20 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists a game,” he says. Rieger adds that Yam Madar, who starred alongside Avdija on the under-20 European championship-winning teams, has also caught the eye of NBA scouts. He has a chance of being drafted in the second round, so we might see two Israelis entering the league next season.

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