ATLANTA — Deni Avdija is a household name in Israel and considered a rockstar in the basketball world.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of young fans would wait after games for a selfie or autograph from the 19-year-old forward. His Maccabi Tel Aviv teammate Omri Casspi even jokingly said, “He’s Jesus over here.” Avdija never refused a picture and tried to sign as many autographs as he could.
“I’m always going to take selfies, because those kids see me as something special,” Avdija told Ben Pickman of Sports Illustrated back in May.
Special is right.
In 2017, Avdija signed a professional contract with Maccabi at just 16 years old — becoming the youngest player to ever play for the senior team. He led the Israel junior national team to back-to-back European Championships in 2018 and 2019 where he averaged 18.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.4 blocks and 2.1 steals per game and was named the tournament MVP.
Avdija is one of the only draft prospects to play competitive basketball after COVID-19 hit. He joined Maccabi for the Winner League tournament in June where he scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first game and walked away with league MVP honors.
“There was a choice to either rest before the draft and just workout or play,” Avdija told Yahoo Sports. “Me, I’m competitive. I couldn’t leave my teammates and my coaches so I thought I needed to fight, and I wanted to win this championship to go off in a good and positive way.”
Avdija has the potential to be a top-5 pick in this year’s draft, making him the highest-picked player to ever come out of Israel. There have been a few players before him like Casspi who was drafted to the Sacramento Kings in 2009 with the 23rd pick. Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Leaf (drafted No. 18 in 2017) was born in Israel but moved to the U.S. when he was a baby.
“We don’t have a lot of players that went to the draft, so for me to do it and make history for my country and represent my country, it’s amazing,” Avdija said. The spotlight of an entire nation of nine million people watching comes with some added pressure but Avdija shakes it off with a smile saying, “At the end of the day, I’m playing basketball. I’m representing my country, and everyone is behind me and supporting me. So I’m just having fun, I don’t have any pressure on me.”
The 6-foot-9 forward has been in Atlanta since August working out twice a day, six days a week alongside fellow European draft prospect Théo Maledon. This is only the fourth time Avdija has been to the U.S. — the other short trips were for two Basketball Without Borders camps and the NBPA Top 100 Camp.
Avdija moves around Atlanta unnoticed and unbothered as he walks freely through Target and avoids second looks at Starbucks and Chipotle. A freedom that will surely go away once he hits the NBA scene. There are the occasional die-hard fans who will wait for Avdija after a workout but it pales in comparison to the attention he gets in Israel.
While working out in a small gym at a community center, members walk by without even noticing as Avdija goes through his 45-minute intense workout with trainer Eftim Bogoev that starts with extensive ball-handling drills and flows from mid-range jumper moves, reads off the screen and ends with 3-point shooting.
“Deni has great potential. And I can tell you that he’s just 50 percent maximized right now,” Bogoev told Yahoo Sports. “So you can imagine how good he’ll be in the next two to three years if he continues to work like he’s working now.”
The next Luka Doncic
The early Luka Doncic comps are there because of their similar size and ability to play multiple positions. Every NBA scout is looking for “the next Luka” but Avdija is quick to dismiss any comparisons.
“Luka is one of a kind. What he did the last two years is unbelievable,” Avdija told Yahoo Sports. “It made a statement to the NBA that basketball is a global game. I just want to have my own legacy and showcase my own abilities.”
NBA teams are finally allowed to watch draft prospects work out in person. Each team is allowed two visits per player with no more than 10 total visits. Teams at the top of the draft like the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers will undoubtedly make the trip to Atlanta to watch Avdija work out. Each team has taken the last seven months to deep dive on film but will get a chance to see Avdija’s progress in person for the next few weeks.
“I hope to show teams how big of a competitor I am. How I love to win and how I’ll always challenge myself,” Avdija said. “I just want to show them it’s just me being me, playing my game, practicing as hard as I can, shooting the ball, rebounding, playmaking, things I usually do well and we’ll see how it goes.”
Because of his size and versatility, Avdija can fit a lot of different systems. He runs the floor extremely well and plays above the rim. He has one of the quickest shot releases out of any player in the lottery and is getting more consistent from the 3-point line.
A different kind of NBA draft night
There is no clear-cut No. 1 overall pick this year. Some think it’s LaMelo Ball, while others have Anthony Edwards going first to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The uncertainty continues from picks 2-10 with the Warriors having a plethora of options.
Draft night will be anything but normal. There won’t be a green room or fans filling the Barclays Center in Brooklyn waiting to see who their team picks. Avdija won’t get to walk across the stage and shake Adam Silver’s hand after he hears his name called.
“We all worked so hard to hear our name called and be in the green room and have the whole experience,” Avdija said, shaking his head. “But the draft is a draft and you’re getting drafted to play in the best league in the world so you can be as excited as anybody.”
If this were a normal year, Avdija would already be on a team. He would have already gone through Summer League, team camp and would be preparing for his rookie season. It’s been a long process for all the players in this draft class, but Avdija continues to work day in and day out and keep a positive attitude.
“I’m excited. I’m living the dream and I’m here in the United States working and doing the thing I love,” Avdija said. “I hope the team that’s drafting me is going to believe in me and give me an opportunity, and I’ll keep working hard and keep grinding to maximize my potential. I think everything is going to be just fine.”
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