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Athlete interview'It’s fun when you have a whole country on your back'

‘Dream come true’ as Israeli Deni Avdija makes NBA debut with Wizards

The 9th draft pick’s first game with the Washington Wizards ends in 113-107 loss to the 76ers in which he scores 7 points, pulls down 4 rebounds, and has 1 steal and 1 assist

  • Deni Avdija, number 9, makes his NBA debut with the Washington Wizards, December 23, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
    Deni Avdija, number 9, makes his NBA debut with the Washington Wizards, December 23, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
  • Israeli Ambassador to the Unites States Ron Dermer, center left, meets the Israeli Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija, center right, December 11, 2020. (Courtesy WashingtonWizards.com)
    Israeli Ambassador to the Unites States Ron Dermer, center left, meets the Israeli Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija, center right, December 11, 2020. (Courtesy WashingtonWizards.com)
  • Washignton Wizards forward Deni Avdija particapates in a virtual Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony organized by the Israeli embassy in Washington on December 10, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)
    Washignton Wizards forward Deni Avdija particapates in a virtual Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony organized by the Israeli embassy in Washington on December 10, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)
  • Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija (L) drives toward during the second quarter of a preseason NBA basketball game in New York, December 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
    Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija (L) drives toward during the second quarter of a preseason NBA basketball game in New York, December 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Maccabi Tel Aviv's Deni Avdija controls the ball during the Euro League basketball match between Olimpia Milan and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, in Milan, Italy, November 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
    Maccabi Tel Aviv's Deni Avdija controls the ball during the Euro League basketball match between Olimpia Milan and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, in Milan, Italy, November 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
  • Deni Avdija speaks to the media after NBA's Washington Wizards picked him in the NBA draft 2020 in Tel Aviv on November 19, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
    Deni Avdija speaks to the media after NBA's Washington Wizards picked him in the NBA draft 2020 in Tel Aviv on November 19, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deni Avdija after the Israel youth basketball team's victory at the FIBA European Championships, at the Prime Minister's Office on July 24, 2019 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deni Avdija after the Israel youth basketball team's victory at the FIBA European Championships, at the Prime Minister's Office on July 24, 2019 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — Die-hard Israeli fans who sat wide awake in front of their televisions in the wee hours of last night saw some glorious basketball as home-grown hoopster Deni Avdija made his NBA debut with Washington Wizards against the Philadelphia 76ers in the City of Brotherly Love.

“My first NBA game was great,” Avdija told reporters post-game, answering questions from The Times of Israel and other journalists. “I’m a little frustrated we lost, but for me to be there and play with my team is a dream come true. I don’t have words to explain it. I worked hard for this and prepared for this moment and now I did it.”

The Sabras who managed to stay awake for the occasion, which didn’t tip off until 2:00 a.m. Jerusalem time — and Avdija said he expected many folks back home to be doing exactly that — got an idea of what could eventually be in store for him as the pride of Herzliya, the highest Israeli draft pick in NBA history at number nine, get the starting nod. He would make his only two shots — both 3-pointers — while scoring seven points in 28 minutes for the Washington Wizards in their 113-107 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Israeli-born Deni Avdija protects the ball from Ben Simmons at his opening game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia, December 23, 2020. (Jon Marks for The Times of Israel)

Advija pulled down four rebounds, handed out an assist, and had a steal during a night in which his defensive assignments ranged from 6’7″  (200 cm) Philadelphia small forward Tobias Harris, to 6’10” (208 cm) point guard Ben Simmons, to 7’1″ (216 cm) center Joel Embiid.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions in the US, Avdija made his debut in a virtually empty arena. Team employees tired to make as much noise as possible to simulate a crowd, but other than a handful of media scattered throughout the building, no one was permitted inside. That will also be the case when he plays his first home game Saturday against the Orlando Magic.

While the 6’9″ (205 cm) Avdija insisted there weren’t any nerves leading up to the moment, his coach seemed skeptical.

“I asked him and he said no,” said Scott Brooks, who as a player also made his NBA debut in Philadephia back in 1988. “But I know deep down there are some butterflies.”

“That’s good,” Brooks told The Times of Israel. “The guys who don’t have butterflies are probably the guys who just go through the motions because they’re so talented. But he cares. He’s passionate.”

“I thought he played well,” Brooks said. “We’re going to have to learn what he can do better as the season goes on and he’s got to learn what we do. But he makes winning basketball plays and right now that’s all I care about. You make winning plays and the game will reward you — and he makes winning plays.”

Indeed, the most telling statistic for the night showed that during the time Avdija was on the court the Wizards outscored the 76ers by 14 points. That was four points better than any of his teammates.

Israeli-born Deni Avdija guards Tobias Harris at his opening game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia, December 23, 2020. (Jon Marks for The Times of Israel)

As for shooting, that will come in time.

“I shot when I had the chance and I was open,” said Avdija, who drained his first shot from the corner 4:53 into the game, but didn’t pull the trigger again until the third quarter, giving the Wizards a 66-58 lead. He also went 1-for-2 at the foul line. “It’s my first game and everyone’s excited, but I’m not forcing anything.”

“I’m going to be patient,” he said. “Hopefully throughout the season I’m going to get better and maybe sometimes take more shots.”

Well, Jerusalem wasn’t built in a day and neither will be Avdija’s career. While the offense may take some time — especially on a team like the Wizards, where all-star guards Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal control the ball, each taking 22 shots in this game — Avdija’s other skills are what earned him the starting job.

“I enjoy passing; it’s part of my game,” said Avdija, whose lone assist came when he threw a behind-the-back bounce pass to a streaking Beal for a dunk. “I trust my teammates and if I can make plays for them and get them going in the game, I’ll do that.”

“If somebody’s open I’ll hit him,” he said. “And since I got to the senior level of Maccabi [Tel Aviv], my coach was really tough on me about playing defense. If I didn’t do that I wasn’t going to play. So I’m all about team defense.”

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Deni Avdija controls the ball during the Euro League basketball match between Olimpia Milan and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv, in Milan, Italy, November 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Speaking of Maccabi, Avdija’s Washington-based agent, Doug Neustadt, says that experience in the Israeli pros will pay dividends now that he’s reached the NBA.

“Being a professional with Maccabi has really benefited him,” said Neustadt, who also represented such international players as Boris Diaw, Dragan Bender, and Sarunas Jasikevičius when they went to the NBA. “It really helps that he’s played with pro teammates and against pros, as opposed to the college route.”

“I think the physicality, the intensity, the pressure of playing for Maccabi has helped prepare him,” Neustadt told The Times of Israel. “And so has talking to pros like Amare Stoudemire, Quincy Acy, and Omri Casspi for a whole year — not just about basketball, but about America.”

But while he may be living in the United States, make no mistake — Avdija’s heart remains back home.

Israeli Ambassador to the Unites States Ron Dermer, left, meets the Israeli Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija, December 11, 2020. (Courtesy WashingtonWizards.com)

“I’m glad I come from Israel and the whole nation’s behind me and wants the best for me,” said Avdija, who’s discovered that living in a strange country during a pandemic has made the adjustment even more difficult. “It’s fun to play when you have a whole country on your back. It warms my heart. What can be better for a basketball player than to have that support? It gives you motivation and forces you to work hard.”

I’m glad I come from Israel and the whole nation’s behind me and wants the best for me

“I love our country, and I love our fans, and I love that people support me and really care what I’m doing. I’m just going to represent best I can and do the best I can,” Avdija said. “But people also to be patient, and I need to be patient. It’s not all going to come in one day. I’m not going to score 40 in one day. It’s a process. But hopefully everybody’s going to enjoy the experience like I do.”

Even if it means some Israelis might not be getting much sleep.

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