Deni Avdija Hopes to Be Israel's First NBA Star

Basketball has given Israelis several memorable moments of national import. But it’s never given them an NBA star they can call their own. Deni Avdija, a 19-year-old wing averaging four points per game in Euroleague, would like to change that.
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An early evening practice at Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Menora Mivtachim Arena is ending and 100 fans, mostly kids celebrating their birthdays or b’nai mitzvahs, shuffle down from the lower bowl to one of the baselines. As Maccabi’s roster begins to clear the floor, Deni Avdija is one of the few instructed to stay behind. Just six weeks from celebrating his 19th birthday, he’s not much older than many of the fans he’s about to greet. His dark hair is tapered and combed over to one side of his head. Patches of scruff populate the sides of his face and under his chin. “It doesn’t grow,” he says of his beard.

“I hate shaving. I’m always cutting myself.”

Despite his youth, the 6' 9", 215-pound Avdija (pronounced Ahv-DEE-yah) is already one of the most famous athletes in his hoops-crazed homeland. He’s far from the best player on what Maccabi forward Quincy Acy, an NBA veteran, calls “the Yankees” of Israeli sports, but he’s the most sought-after player among autograph hunters.

NBA teams are on the lookout for the next Luka Doncic, making comparisons between the two similarly sized international wings inevitable. Both the Israeli and last season’s Rookie of the Year can also score in transition and play multiple positions. While Avdija doesn’t have the professional bona fides that Doncic, the 2018 EuroLeague MVP, brought to the league, the Israeli is still likely to go in the lottery of the NBA draft—potentially the top five—and become the highest pick ever from a country of nine million people.

Avdija settles onto a short stool just off the baseline. Omri Casspi, a fellow Israeli and 10-year veteran NBA forward who rejoined the club last summer, sits just a few feet away. Dozens of kids flock to them both, taking selfie after selfie, requesting that the two sign anything from sweatshirts and hats to an arm cast.

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After 15 minutes Casspi is escorted off the floor. “He’s Jesus over here,” Acy says. But Avdija remains, posing with seemingly everyone. “I’m always going to take selfies, because those kids see me as something special,” Avdija explains later.

He continues to smile and make conversation. “I need to all the time do the same greetings. ‘Happy birthday,’ ‘happy bar mitzvah,’ ‘health,’ and this and that,” he says. “I want to be random, but I can’t.” By random he means more varied. Avdija speaks fluent English—he started learning by playing Call of Duty and other video games online as a child—but every now and then he still mixes up his words.

More than 30 minutes after practice has ended, Avdija starts to relax, finally unlacing his gray Nike Zoom Freak I sneakers. He faces conflicting pressures: the need to fit in on a high-profile team and the desire to stand out for NBA executives and scouts who travel to see him play. He’s still learning to deal with his celebrity. A few of Avdija’s teammates describe him as being a big kid or a little brother—one who is fond of surreptitiously adjusting his teammates’ car mirrors—but he knows he’s maturing in the public eye. “I think any Israeli athlete that can play [in the NBA] is carrying the whole nation on his shoulders,” says Tal Brody, 76, the godfather of Israeli basketball, who has known Avdija for years.

Just before 8 p.m., 45 minutes after his on-court work concluded, with the arena’s lower bowl almost empty, Avdija begins walking off the court. “I’m always last,” he says.

Herzliya is an affluent city of about 100,000 people 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, with beachfront houses and a private research college. It’s where Israel’s potential breakthrough basketball star grew up and where he lives today, with his parents, removed from the chaos of the city he plays in.

Avdija enjoys his mom’s cooking, and he relishes their talks after practices. He struggles not to make conversation, serious or lighthearted. Before this season Avdija asked to have a roommate for EuroLeague road trips. “It’s more fun,” he says. “You can joke around or can talk after a game.”

His dad, Zufer—Zufi, as people call him—knows some of what his son is going through. Born in Yugoslavia, the 6' 8" Zufi starred for the Serbian powerhouse Red Star throughout the 1980s, winning bronze with Yugoslavia in the ’82 World Championship. When Michael Jordan was at North Carolina, Zufi captained the Red Star team that played the future Bulls legend. “His dream is NBA,” Zufi says of his son. “My dream is to meet [Jordan] again.”

By the early 1990s, Zufi moved to Israel, where he continued his career. He divorced his first wife and met Sharon Artzi, Deni’s mom, who was from a kibbutz in northern Israel. (Deni has two half-brothers from his dad’s first marriage.) And while Zufi is still coaching youth basketball in Herzliya, he is relatively hands-off with Deni’s on-court development. During home games, he sits alone in the top row of the arena. The two are close, but he has learned not to coach his son about every missed shot or bad pass.

Veljko Perovic, a current Maccabi assistant, has instead worked with Avdija for years. The two first met when Avdija was a raw 12-year-old member of the Maccabi youth team and Perovic was brought in to work with prospects deemed to have the most potential. Soon after, Perovic moved to Herzliya so that he could be closer to Avdija. Every morning, Perovic would pick him up at his house and bring him to practice; Avdija still refers to him as “my coach.”

Early on, the two went months without touching a basketball, working solely on balance and stability. Avdija was so gangly that his shorts often rode up to his stomach, and Perovic says the lanky teen didn’t know how to walk, let alone run. Practices would usually begin before 7 a.m., and while other kids were stretching, Avdija would sometimes just lie down on his mat, frustrated that he was just doing push-ups and sit-ups.

The gym time, however, never diminished, and slowly Avdija bloomed. Following a growth spurt, he improved his flexibility and strength. “Nature in him woke up,” Perovic says. “And from there it started.”

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Avdija continued to develop within the club’s system. At 16, he became the youngest player ever to make an appearance with Maccabi’s senior team. In EuroLeague—the second-best league in the world—he has yet to make much of a mark. As recently as last year, Avdija alternated between playing at the club’s junior level and top level. He made just eight EuroLeague appearances in 2018–19, playing more than half of his 51 total EuroLeague minutes in the club’s final two games. “He was in and out and that was really hard for him,” coach Giannis Sfairopoulos says.

But for his country, against players his own age, Avdija has displayed talent that sets him apart. At last summer’s under-20 European Championship, Avdija had his international coming-out party. Tel Aviv hosted the tournament, and his passion was evident throughout. After Israel took down France in the semifinals, hundreds of fans waited for him as he walked to the bus. He draped his country’s flag around his neck and was hoisted into the air. In the final against Spain a day later he made the tournament-clinching and-one, capping a 23-point, seven-assist, three-block performance and earning tournament MVP honors.

As the final buzzer sounded, he fell to his knees, hands on top of his head. He thought about his father’s mother, who had died weeks earlier of Alzheimer’s, how she always supported him and kept an eye on him. “She gave me this trophy. She gave me the opportunity to win this trophy,” he told himself. The emotions were palpable. And so, too, was his potential.

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Reminders of Maccabi’s expectations lay down a flight of stairs from the arena floor, in the team’s museum, where the club’s EuroLeague, Israeli league and Israeli Cup trophies fill various displays. Photographs and newspaper clippings line glass cases. More than a dozen retired jerseys hang on two walls. Before every home EuroLeague game, the club eats lunch in the space. Basketball, Brody notes, is often “the face of the Israel”—wedding sport and politics for decades.

Few sporting events are more important to Maccabi—and, more broadly, to the country—than the 1976–77 EuroCup title. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Soviet Union had provided massive airlifts of weapons to Syria and Egypt in their fight against Israel. Tensions between the Soviets and the Israelis still remained high when, in the semifinal, CSKA Moscow refused either to play Maccabi in Tel Aviv or to grant visas to Israeli players and host the game themselves.

Instead, on Feb. 17, the clubs met in the small Belgian town of Virton. Some 650 people attended the matchup dubbed by the Israeli press as a “battle between the East and the West” and “the fight between David and Goliath.”

Israeli newspapers claimed that most of the nation’s populace watched the game on Channel 1, at the time the country’s lone network. The eventual 91–79 victory led the 6' 1" Brody to voice Israeli’s version of Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man” quotation: “We’re on the map, we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything.”

Two months later, Maccabi beat Mobilgirgi Varese of Italy to claim its first European title. The game was played at a neutral site, in Belgrade, in front of thousands of Maccabi fans who were allowed to make the trip despite the fact that Israel and Yugoslavia did not have diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin delayed his resignation announcement so it didn’t interrupt the broadcast of Israel’s one-point win. “The achievement of the Israeli champion played a major role not just on the sport stage, but in the political arena as well,” said a Haaretz newspaper editorial.

Yet while the club drew more global recognition to the country, for decades no Israeli could crack the NBA. Mickey Berkowitz could have joined the league in the late 1970s but he lost a civil case that would have forced Maccabi to release him. Other Israelis like Nadav Henefeld and Doron Sheffer, both of whom starred at UConn, couldn’t break through. Oded Kattash agreed to a deal with the Knicks in the summer of 1998, but the NBA lockout delayed his debut and he returned to Israel instead.

It wasn’t until the Kings drafted Casspi with the 23rd pick in 2009 that an Israeli appeared in the NBA. More than a decade later, others have followed suit, including undrafted guard Gal Mekel, who played 35 games for the Mavs and the Pelicans and now plays in Spain, and Pacers forward T.J. Leaf, who was born in Israel but moved to the U.S. before his third birthday.

But no prospect from the country has been as highly regarded as Avdija. When he walks downstairs into the team’s museum, he is struck by the history. “I’m serving my country for basketball,” he says. “It’s something that every kid dreams of.”

Maccabi Tel Aviv is readying to host ASVEL Basket, the French EuroLeague team owned in part by Spurs legend Tony Parker. A handful of NBA personnel are in attendance—a standard occurrence at Maccabi games. But they are there not just to see Avdija, but also Théo Maledon, a heralded 18-year-old point guard who is among Europe’s top NBA prospects.

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The EuroLeague often humbles top international prospects. Few perform as Doncic did when he was 18, winning league MVP with Real Madrid. Far more have the experience that Avdija is going through: playing a sizable role domestic games, then getting limited run in the second-best league in the world.

Scouts take note of Avdija’s versatility—that it’s already evident he can fit into various lineups both because of his size and his skill. Acy says Avdija’s instincts are strong on both ends and that he moves fluidly when acting on them. But he is also still improving his fundamentals.

During a practice not long before the ASVEL game, assistant coach Tim Fanning was running the young Israeli through a variety of seemingly basic drills while some of the team’s more veteran players shoot around on the other side of the floor. On this evening, Fanning worked with Avdija on his footwork, how he curls off screens from the corner to the wing and how he fires passes with his off-arm. “He plays good with the ball in his hands,” the former G League assistant says. “Off the ball, I think he’s gonna shoot good enough.”

Avdija’s feel for the game is also apparent on the defensive end, where Fanning says that he is “smart enough and talented enough to see where the game’s going” and lock up defensively. This season he has also provided Maccabi with some additional rim protection, which is a rarity for wing players in Israeli basketball.

A number of Avdija’s teammates who previously played in the NBA say his biggest challenge will be getting acclimated athletically next year. But Acy says that Avdija’s exposure to a culture that values the game’s details and uses skill as opposed to pure talent and athleticism will help ease Avdija’s transition. “He has a lot of intangibles that will really play out,” Acy says. “He rebounds the ball well, he competes and he has a great feel for the game.”

Still, there is room for growth. He currently does most of his scoring from inside the arc, and while he was shooting 37.5% from three in the Israeli domestic league before play was suspended, that number was just 27.7% in EuroLeague. But as one NBA scout says, “He’s obviously one of the types of players that the game is trending to.”

Avdija starts the ASVEL Basket game, and during Maccabi’s second defensive possession, forces a tough jumper as the shot clock expires. He plays eight minutes in the first quarter, guarding a variety of players while showing impressive vision with the ball in his hands. But his impact in the eventual 31-point win is minimal. Avdija plays only the last defensive possession of the second quarter, and checks in for only four minutes of garbage time in the fourth. He entered after Maccabi had built a 27-point lead.

Throughout the night the team’s rowdiest section, known as the Gate—Hashaar in Hebrew—leads the 10,000-plus fans in chants. On the bench Avdija volleys questions at the teammates who cycle through the seats next to him. He leans into huddles during timeouts. For the entire second half, he doesn’t wear a warm-up top, as if to say, I’m ready. “He’s figuring out his place, he’s figuring out his rhythm,” Tarik Black, a Maccabi center and NBA veteran, says in the locker room afterward.

Before EuroLeague play was suspended in March, Avdija was averaging 4.0 points and 14.3 minutes in 26 games. If his minutes are limited in consecutive games, he’ll practice twice in one day, putting in the extra work. “That’s how I recover,” he says.

Fanning notes that Avdija’s mindset is consistent. Acy adds that Avdija is “working all the time.” The results are starting to pay off. In the Israeli league—where the competition isn’t as stout as EuroLeague—he was named Player of the Month for January. (He was averaging 12.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 26.6 minutes per game.) And he had his two best career EuroLeague games in early February, including a posterizing dunk over ex-NBA player Luigi Datome.

Despite his playing only 12 minutes against ASVEL Basket, supporters still wait for Avdija on the concourse after the rout. Wearing a white T-shirt with an open, olive overshirt; light-blue, cuffed skinny jeans; and cream-colored sneakers, he already has an NBA fashion sense. He obliges to every autograph and photo request.

One day later, Avdija folds into a yellow plastic chair at a café in Herzliya Park. It’s 70°, and the faintest of white strokes are sprinkled throughout the sky. To his right, about 100 yards away, is a multipurpose sports field with a track surrounding it. Avdija’s basketball career has meant making choices about what he can and can’t do.

He doesn’t play competitive soccer with his friends anymore, and he’s missed parties and birthdays. Over the last few years, he has never had a full summer off. Many of his peers are about to make sacrifices of their own. In the conflict-riddled nation where Avdija has grown up, military service is mandatory for citizens over 18. While almost all of his friends will go off to the Israeli Defense Forces, he has been granted an exemption. He says he’ll still have to serve one day, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever be on the front line.

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As Avdija eats a bowl of Israeli pasta and a caprese panini, he discusses his impressions of U.S. culture. When asked about what U.S. celebrity he’d want to meet, he pauses for a second before naming Justin Bieber, who is from Canada. “But he’s hanging around in the States,” Avdija says. The thought of meeting some of the celebrities he follows seems far away. He says he’s trying not to think about the draft. He’s visited the U.S. just three times, all for basketball purposes, but he has never attended an NBA game.

A few minutes later, a molten brownie topped with a pretzel, drizzled with hot fudge and accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream arrives on the table. “I used to stay away from this, but when it’s like this on the table . . .” he says, grabbing a fork. “I lose it in one practice.” Avdija climbs into his gray Mercedes S-Class, a car that was once his dad’s. It’s a Friday afternoon, a few hours before Shabbat, so the roads will be less crowded, shortening what is usually a 50-minute drive. He still has a rim of chocolate underneath his lower lip. When a tune by Israeli singer-songwriter Yuval Dayan comes on, Avdija shares another way he deals with the expectations he faces. Before games, instead of getting hyped by rap or hip-hop, he listens to more reflective, acoustic music to calm his mind down.

As he drives through Tel Aviv traffic—which despite the looming Sabbath still persists—he starts to muse about a variety of topics. He gives his TV recommendations (Fauda, about an Israeli army unit hunting terrorists) and explains what he knows about the NFL (his preferred Madden team was the Legion of Boom Seahawks).

By the time Avdija pulls up to Menora Mivtachim Arena, just a single car is parked. “Professionalism,” he says. “I’m the only one here. Me and my coach.” He arrives before his teammates because he knows he has to. He understands that one day, in the near future, fans will arise during—or stay awake until—the early-morning hours to see him play.

He reaches into the backseat of his car, grabs two pairs of sneakers, locks his doors and walks into the arena. For now, he is at home, but soon Avdija will be carrying the hopes of his nation, the countless photos he’ll appear in along the way documenting his journey.