Israeli basketball player Deni Avdija was selected by Washington Wizards in ninth place in Thursday's draft, making him the first Israeli in NBA history to be drafted in the top ten in the highest-profile selection for the world’s most prestigious basketball league.
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 was 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.”
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 set 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.
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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.