Israeli teen Deni Avdija goes to Washington Wizards with 9th pick of NBA Draft, making history

Marc Brodsky

(JTA) — Deni Avdija, the 19-year-old Israeli basketball phenom, was taken by the Washington Wizards with the ninth overall pick of the NBA Draft on Wednesday night – the earliest an Israeli has been picked in league history.

Avdija, a lanky 6-9 forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel’s top professional league, becomes the second player from the Jewish state to go in the first round. Omri Casspi, also a standout forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv, went 23rd to the Sacramento Kings in the 2009 draft and played 10 years in the NBA for several teams.

“Israel is a small country, to represent the country and be in the highest spot is amazing,” Avdija told ESPN. “I’m super excited to take my game to the next level.”

Asked what message the so-called “Prince of Tel Aviv” would send to family, friends and fans at home in Israel, he said, “I love them and I’m  gonna make you proud.”

One ESPN broadcaster called Avdija, considered the top international prospect, maybe the “steal of the draft” while lauding his basketball IQ.

The draft was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ESPN has described Avdija as a future “big playmaker” — tall enough to play power forward, but also with the  “ballhandling, creativity and playmaking skill” of a point guard. Its scouting report adds that he brings “toughness, competitiveness and swagger.”

Avdija, a native of northern Israel who lives in Herzliya, holds dual Israeli and Serbian citizenship. His father, Zufer, a Muslim Serbian-Israeli citizen, played for his native Yugoslavia’s national basketball team as well as several Israeli pro teams in the 1990s. His mother, Sharon Artzi, is a Jewish Israeli and former track and field athlete.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who guided the U.S. team to the Maccabiah Games gold medal in 2009, made an appearance on the ESPN broadcast praising his player Isaac Okoro, who went fifth in the draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Character counts,” Pearl said of Okoro. “He’s a winner.”

Pearl took some ribbing from ESPN’s Rece Davis over his gray beard.