'We've Never Had a Talent Like Him'

Deni Avdija has it all: Pro basketball genes, the love of his Israeli countrymen and an NBA future. How the top-5 prospect copes with rising expectations and his own doubts will define his future.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistIN TEL AVIV, ISRAELNovember 15, 2019

Crammed behind the wheel of the gray 2009 Mercedes S-Class gifted to him by his father, Deni Avdija is trying to navigate the gauntlet that is evening rush hour in Tel Aviv. "People here drive crazy," he says as one car zips by. He glances into his rearview mirror; a "new driver" sign taped to the car's back window stares back.

It's been a long 24 hours. Game the night before, early morning practice, EuroLeague media day in the afternoon. Now it's evening. Avdija (pronounced Ahvdeeya, emphasis on the Ah) is off to Herzliya, an affluent beach city to the north of Tel Aviv, to stop by the apartment of an assistant coach. He has another game tomorrow, and there's more film to watch. He'd also like to squeeze in some meditation, which he's trying to make part of his regular training regimen. 

"I go through a lot of stress," Avdija says on this September evening. He's an 18-year-old playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the EuroLeague's premier basketball clubs and he knows that pressure is only going to grow. In June, he'll likely be one of the first 10 or so players taken in the NBA draft. Most 2020 mock drafts have him pegged at around No. 5; a few NBA front-office people say he could be as high as No. 3. "We've never had a talent like him," one Israeli basketball source says. Only two Israelis have ever been NBA first round picks (Omri Casspi, who was selected 23rd overall in 2009, and TJ Leaf, who was taken 18th overall in 2017 but whose family left Israel before he was three). 

At first, Avdija downplays the burden that comes with being the greatest prospect his country has ever produced. "I don't feel pressure off the court," he says. What the label means most, he adds, is that "I have to keep working." (Maccabi players and staff speak to each other in English; Avdija is basically fluent.) He believes all of it, everything in his life, is an "honor" and a "blessing," and he's just "so lucky." Standard athlete-speak. But every now and then he lets his guard down, just a bit; every now and then he allows himself to deviate from the script and now, while driving by Shlomo Group Arena, a multipurpose hall built on an industrial patch in northern Tel Aviv, he smiles.

"Seeing that place always makes me feel good," he says. He points out that it's where he won this past summer's FIBA U20 European Championship. That night—and all tournament—the 6'9" Avdija was relentless. Attacking the paint, effortlessly pulling up from 25 feet, flinging pinpoint passes across the court. "You could see the outlines of a player who could be special," one NBA scout said. He led Israel to a gold medal and was named tournament MVP. It was a special moment for him, as a basketball player and an Israeli citizen. But there's another reason the game meant so much to him: It represented everything he's trying to achieve.

"Do you know I couldn't sleep the night before?" he asks. Too much adrenaline, he adds. This happens to him sometimes. He uses different words to describe the emotions. Adrenaline. Nerves. Anxiety. Sitting behind the wheel, he's explaining what it is he feels and why and the conversation goes in all sorts of directions, but then he stops.

"It's not that good that I told you, is it?" he asks. I ask why. 

"If now I'm getting nervous, then what will I do next year?" he asks out loud.

A little less than 24 hours earlier, Avdija is on the court, warming up for a preseason road matchup against Hapoel Tel Aviv. Tipoff is not for another 20 minutes, but Shlomo Arena is already buzzing. Behind one basket, a sea of fans, all covered in Maccabi yellow, are chanting and waving logo-adorned flags. Hapoel's diehards, clad in red, have stationed themselves across the court. The noise and the compact gym—3,504 seats—brings to mind a battle between a couple of college rivals.

This is Deni's—he's Deni to everyone—third season with Maccabi. He joined the club's youth team when he was around 13. Soon after, he shot up six inches. The growth spurt introduced a new set of difficulties. "He was on his tiptoes when running, hands everywhere, shoulders tight," Perovic says. "Everything disconnected."

At the youth level, Deni, who could always pass and shoot, and who even as a boy had an uncanny ability to read the floor, could dominate even with the flapping limbs. But Veljko Perovic, who's coached and trainer Deni for about five years, encouraged him to chase loftier goals. "Do you want to be the best?" he'd ask Deni over and over and then again and again. Deni's answer was always "yes," so one day early on in their training—which usually took place around 7 a.m. before school—Perovic told him they were changing things up. The ball would be tossed to the side. Instead, Deni would spend the hour working on things like stability and posture. No dribbling. No shooting. They progressed to skips. Then came running. Then, finally, after about three months, Deni was permitted to pick up the ball again.

"He never complained," Perovic says.

In November 2017, about two months shy of his 17th birthday, Deni signed a four-year deal with Maccabi's senior team (according to his Israeli agent, Matan Siman-Tov). That summer he was named to the Under-20 Championship All-Tournament Team, and the following winter he earned MVP honors at the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Global Camp.

The performances, combined with his rare blend of size and skills, propelled him onto the radars of NBA scouts many of whom have traveled to Israel to watch him play, with Sam Presti of the Thunder and Dennis Lindsey of the Jazz being the two most recent executives to make the pilgrimage. It didn't matter that in his first full season with Maccabi he averaged just 6.4 minutes in eight EuroLeague contests. As Nikola Vujcic, Maccabi's 41-year-old general manager, points out: "It's impressive that he's at this level at all. Kids his age don't play in EuroLeague, especially not for teams competing for the top eight. … Here, if someone plays two bad games, everyone goes, 'What the fuck is this player shitty motherfucker?'"

Against Hapoel, Deni doesn't check in until the end of the first quarter. With his coiffed hair and baby face, he looks like an Abercrombie model. He struggles at first. He's passive. He tosses the ball away. His older and burlier opponents push around his thin, 215-pound frame. The concerns scouts have about his game—his strength, his struggles in man-to-man defense, his ability to get off his shot at the NBA level—are apparent. He picks up a couple of quick fouls and is pulled.

Halfway into the third quarter, with Maccabi leading by double digits, he's back in. He looks different. He drives to the basket. He hits a teammate cutting to the hoop. He inhales defensive rebounds. His shot isn't falling, but you can see that for him the game is slowing down. A Hapoel forward tries backing him down. Deni holds his ground. Maccabi holds on to the lead. Finally, in the game's final minutes, Deni buries a jumper. The buzzer sounds.

Watching it all from a corner seat in the arena's top row is Zufer Avdija, Deni's father. He spends the game alone and in silence. When Deni checks in, he leans forward and rests his chin in his left palm. He shows no reaction to any of his son's plays, good or bad. Afterward, he waits for Deni by the players' parking lot. He's the tallest one in sight, with unkempt hair and a warm smile. He introduces himself by his nickname, Zufi. A friend standing next to him puffs out cigar smoke. A middle-aged man comes over to Zufi and says something in Hebrew. They both laugh.

It has taken Deni Avdija time to develop into a regular in the EuroLeague. He has emerged, at the age of 18, as one of the most compelling prospects in the 2020 NBA draft class.
It has taken Deni Avdija time to develop into a regular in the EuroLeague. He has emerged, at the age of 18, as one of the most compelling prospects in the 2020 NBA draft class.Matanya Tausig

"Now that my son plays I have more pats on the shoulder than in years," Zufi says after the man walks away. He's funny and friendly, even in English, his third language, which he speaks methodically. He says he has a question for me. Earlier that day, ESPN's draft expert, Jonathan Givony, put out his latest mock draft. He had Avdija going at No. 5. "How does this kind of game, getting so low minutes, change how the NBA looks at him?" Zufi asks. "Will this affect that?'' 

The next morning, Deni is sitting shirtless on his family's living room couch and polishing off a plate of scrambled eggs. Zufi is standing over the kitchen stove. The refrigerator behind him is coated with pictures of Deni. A group of trophies is stashed above a cabinet, next to a bottle of Serbian plum brandy and a package of biscuits. The space, like the rest of the apartment, is somewhere past lived-in but just shy of cluttered. Or, as Deni puts it, "This house is all about memories." A giant poster of Zufi in his Yugoslavian uniform hangs on a nearby wall.

Born in Yugoslavia, Zufi was a star big man in his home country when, in the early 1990s, he signed with an Israeli basketball club. Zufi and his first wife divorced. He met an Israeli woman, Sharon Artzi—a champion runner from a kibbutz in Northern Israel. They moved to Herzliya, an affluent beach city to the north of Tel Aviv, and had Deni. It was there that Zufi became a youth coach for Bnei Herzliya, the city's professional team.

He worked closely with Deni for a while. Then one day, when Deni was around 14, Zufi says he pulled him aside. "I'm not going to coach you anymore," he recalls telling his son. "But if you want me to help you, I'm here." 

It was, Zufi believes, "maybe the best thing I did." The reason? "Deni didn't need me." These days, Zufi says, he and Deni barely talk basketball. "It's why as father and son, we're like this." He raises his right hand and crosses two of his fingers. 

Later I relay this story to Deni. He laughs. His father, he says, exaggerated a bit. Not about their relationship but about whose decision it was for Zufi to pull back. Deni says that when he was younger, the two would argue a lot, that maybe he'd miss four straight shots and Zufi would tell him that a real shooter doesn't miss four in a row and Deni would tell him that, yes, it does happen sometimes and Zufi would jab back that, no, it doesn't. Deni would then kick the ball out of the gym.

"That's how it always ended," Deni says. "So I stopped asking him for help."

Deni's moving slowly. It's a little after 9 in the morning, earlier than he'd prefer. He has practice in about an hour. He pulls himself off the couch, drops his dish into the sink and retreats to his room. "You see that," Zufi whispers, pointing to the plate and smiling. "He never does that. Only now because you're here." Deni emerges from a hallway, toothbrush in hand. "You want to see my room?" he asks.

Inside is everything you'd expect: a giant TV, a PS4, a mini hoop—with an NBA All-Star Weekend 2015 logo—suspended above a mirror, a couple of shelves full of medals and mementos. Resting on the night table between a pair of glasses and some remote controls—and proving Zufi's point—is a dish strewn with crumbs.

Deni plucks a shirt out of a drawer, grabs his car keys and says goodbye to Zufi. On the way down to the garage he stops outside of the apartment and flicks on the light. "You see this?" he asks. The space beneath the silver "6" on the front door is covered with hand-drawn orange basketballs and gold stars. One piece of paper says "Mazal Tov," another says "Kol Hakavod"—literally all the respect but colloquially closer to good job. "I came home from the Under-20 Championship, and they were on my door," Deni says. Some kids from his building had put them up after the game. 

On the drive to practice, he opens up a bit—about his childhood, his goals, his performance the night before. About what it's like to be him. He's friendly and funny, curious and engaging. Teammates describe him as the fun-loving, annoying yet lovable younger brother—he's constantly twisting the side-view mirrors on teammates' cars—a badge Avdija sports proudly. "He's just happy and very outgoing," Siman-Tov says over the phone. But that's just the side Deni allows most people to see. Spend some time with him, and you learn he's honest and introspective in a way you wouldn't expect an 18-year-old to be.

Born to a former basketball star, Deni has sometimes found it difficult to obtain the balance between taking his father's advice and finding the space to develop his game in his own way.
Born to a former basketball star, Deni has sometimes found it difficult to obtain the balance between taking his father's advice and finding the space to develop his game in his own way.Matanya Tausig

"Everyone has their own pace," Deni says. Unprompted, he mentions Luka Doncic, the wunderkind reigning NBA Rookie of the Year and former EuroLeague star he's often compared to. The two are similar heights with sort-of-similar skill sets, at least on the surface. "But Luka is a one-in-20-years-player," Deni says.

Evaluators inside the NBA largely agree. Doncic is recognized as a prodigy. Deni's ceiling, according to one NBA executive, is likely closer to Danilo Gallinari, both in style (a playmaking forward with the skills to overcome a lack of explosion) and substance (15.9 points per game over 10-plus NBA seasons). But the outside world is less discerning, and the Doncic comparisons have clearly reached Deni's ears.

"Luka matured faster; he grew up faster. His basketball and body were ready for those kinds of levels at such a young age," he says. "I think I'll need a little more time to progress, to learn my body and how to play at that level." He points out that Doncic was named EuroLeague MVP the year before he was drafted. Deni, on the other hand, is averaging just 2.0 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 0.5 blocks in less than 10 minutes a game. 

"People shouldn't go and say, 'He needs to be like Luka,'" Deni says. "It's a really complicated situation. Like, people see it as an easy situation. It's really not that simple."

This, he feels, is the part the public doesn't understand. How complicated chasing the NBA dream can be. "I missed a lot of things," Deni says. There were movies he could seen, parties he could have attended, girls he could have dated ("Before I had a girlfriend," he clarifies.) He'd spend nights scrolling through Instagram, looking at pictures of all his friends smiling. It was hard, he says, and they ragged him, but—and this part he points out matter-of-factly—"If you want to be a great player, you have to put in the work."

But there's more, too. Later that afternoon, on his way out of EuroLeague media day, Deni stops to talk with an Israeli reporter. They pick up on what sounds like an ongoing conversation. The reporter recommends a book to Deni—a history of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.

"Are you interested?" he asks.

"Betach!" Deni replies. Hebrew for "Of course!" He asks the reporter if he fought in that war.

"Yes," he says. "I had friends who died."

Most Israeli citizens are required to serve upon turning 18. Deni is an exception. He says he received a deferment over the summer, an allowance occasionally provided to Israeli athletes and entertainers. Meanwhile, many of his friends have already begun their conscriptions. He says he'll serve eventually, but he knows his version of service will be different. It's unlikely he ever has to worry about dodging bullets or firing a gun.

He has no regrets. He's clear about that. But, he adds: "Sometimes I wish I experienced different things, you know? Maybe doing different stuff. Maybe go and be a [soldier] in the army," where he could stand alongside his friends. He says he's watched documentaries on every Israeli war. But he knows that's about as close to the front lines as he'll ever get.

Maccabi's day is over. Deni's isn't. He's behind the wheel of his Mercedes, off to Perovic's apartment for film study. He toggles between Akon and Israeli pop music. A friend calls and asks if he wants to hang out the following night. "I can't," Deni says. "I have a game." The friend grumbles. They laugh and argue for a few minutes before Deni hangs up. Deni raises the music's volume. He sings along. Now he's passing Shlomo Arena and is telling the story about the night before the gold-medal game, how he and a teammate, Yam Madar, were up and talking until around 6 a.m.

From media responsibilities to practice to games to workouts with his trainer, Deni has found little time to live the life of a typical teenager.
From media responsibilities to practice to games to workouts with his trainer, Deni has found little time to live the life of a typical teenager.Matanya Tausig

"We went to sleep when the sunrise came," Deni says.

He scored 23 points that night. Dished out seven assists and grabbed five rebounds too. After the game, a throng of chanting fans greeted him outside of the arena. Draped in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, the group surrounded Deni and hoisted him into the air. He thinks about this moment a lot. It represents everything he wants, everything he's capable of. "The greatest moment of my life," he says. Not only did the nerves not hold him back, but he also believes they helped sharpen his focus.

"That was the best I've ever played."

Soon, he's in Perovic's apartment, squinting into a laptop perched atop a coffee table. Next to it sits a pile of meditation books. He tells Perovic that he only got a cappuccino after practice even though he was craving a chocolate croissant. He's proud of himself. The Tel Aviv sun is slipping into the horizon. Some kids kick around a soccer ball outside. Perovic cycles through film from Deni's performance the night before. He stops on a clip of him attacking the rim. "This is the mentality you need to have," he says. Deni nods his head, rubs his eyes and searches the screen for answers. 


Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman


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