There’s a lot you need to know about Deni Avdija, but the definitive numbers one and two on the list are:
- He’s Jewish.
- He can do this:
That’s Deni Avdija, the ninth overall pick in this year’s NBA draft, flying high for a rebound, running the break, crossing over former league-MVP Kevin Durant, and hitting an absolutely perfect runner at the buzzer.
The Israeli 20-year-old really might be the Great Jewish Hope.
Our focus today was born in Beit Zara, Israel, to a Jewish Israeli mother and a Yugoslavian Muslim father. Though his basketball rise came as a surprise to most of us in the Western hemisphere, we should note that he comes from an especially athletic home — his father played basketball for the Yugoslavian national team and his mother ran track and field and played basketball as well.
Deni joined the youth ranks of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s most elite basketball club, in 2013, culminating in three straight Israeli league championships between 2018 and 2020. In his final season with the club, Deni took the league by storm and won MVP.
From what I can tell, Deni has all the tools to be great. His shooting form is impeccable, he can effectively initiate an offense, he throws accurate and timely passes, and he seems like a genuinely smart basketball player — he cuts when he sees opportunities, he moves to get open, and he has an intangible feel for the game. While Deni’s defense is suspect at times, he’s got potential there. (The man is 6’9” and light on his feet with a decent wingspan. I think he’ll be okay in today’s NBA.)
Without getting too deep into the basketball technicalities of it all, let’s touch on what Deni’s potential means for the Jewish community. There’s a special relationship between Jews and basketball; it’s one that’s become more cultural in recent decades, with Jewish icons like Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and Ben Stiller basically living in Madison Square Garden, cheering on the ever-terrible Knicks. Similarly, out west, Jewish stars Billy Crystal and Adam Sandler have held down Clippers and Lakers games for years. While these big names draw bright lights, the origins of the Jewish affinity for basketball formed in the early 20th century, when Jews were heavily involved in pre-integration leagues, including the first decade of the NBA. Since then, an eruption of talent has entered the league, and pretty much every Jewish player was (rightfully) replaced by a better one.
That deep history means that Deni represents so much more than just his own rookie season. With the Wizards, he has a chance to become a great NBA player — the first great Jewish NBA player.
We should take a minute to pay our eternal respects to Jewish legend Sue Bird, whose 18-year WNBA career and four championships put Jewish athletes on the map in the 21st century. Her contributions to the Jewish community, and to the basketball community at-large, cannot be understated. In the all-male NBA, though, the path for Jewish athletes has been considerably rockier.
For young Jewish basketball players across the world, truly elite-level NBA players are hard to find. There was Omri Casspi, the Jewish legend who once hit nine threes in a game against Steph Curry’s Warriors in 2015. But besides Omri’s “full-court miracle” game, he was mostly a journeyman who rarely lived up to the hype. The Jewish world wanted him to be basketball’s Julian Edelman — a perennial all-star with MVP potential. He didn’t quite get there, but Omri put up a respectable career and inspired kids like me along the way. He deserves plenty of credit, even if he never became the player we desperately wanted him to become.
But Deni… well, he’s different.
The way Deni moves on the court exudes confidence. The more I watch him play, the more I’m convinced he’s going to be the GJOAT (Greatest Jew of All Time). Meeting his hype won’t be easy, but it would have an immeasurable impact on the global Jewish community.
There’s an old saying that when a Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he realizes he’s not gonna make the NBA — but he can still be an owner. Deni makes us ask: What if it doesn’t have to be that way?
That is exactly what’s so exciting about Deni Avdija. It’s not the flashy passes, the smart plays, or the tight ball handling. It’s the idea of who comes next. It’s the Jewish kid in the middle of nowhere, working on his game in an empty gym, facing seemingly insurmountable odds. He doesn’t think he can make the league, and he’s probably better off if he quits and does something else, like student government. But there’s Deni, on NBA TV, crossing over Kevin fucking Durant! There’s Deni, proving that great Jewish NBA players exist! And if Deni can do it, why can’t he? So, he’ll pick his head up, keep shooting, and work until he reaches his ultimate goal.
Deni hasn’t even played a full season yet, but I’m so excited to see how his career turns out. He has an opportunity to impact generations of Jewish athletes and show them that the mold can not only be broken, but shattered. If all goes well, Deni will be a Jewish NBA All-Star — from my research, he would be the first Jewish NBA All-Star in the modern basketball era (post-Magic and Larry). (Or, the first since Amar’e Stoudamire, whose most recent all-star appearance came seven years before his conversion to Judaism.) Deni truly has the chance to finish the job that Omri started. He has the potential to rise to the top of the men’s basketball world, or pretty damn close to it.
Of course, as much as I can hype him up, Deni also has critics. They say he’s not athletic enough, he’s not strong enough, and he doesn’t have that “it” factor required of NBA stardom. They’re low on his potential. And maybe they’re right. Maybe we’ll look back at Deni as a Jewish bust — the second coming of Jewish basketball player Gal Mekel, who averaged 2.3 points on 31% shooting across his 35-game NBA career in 2013 and 2014.
Or maybe they’re dead wrong. Maybe they’re actually underestimating Deni — his work ethic, his skills, and his drive. Maybe, just maybe, we’re going to look back on Deni Avdija as not only the greatest Jewish athlete of all time, but as the beginning of the great Jewish breakthrough in the NBA.