Washington Wizards’ Deni Avdija: exploring the legacy of Jews and sports

Deni Avdija
Deni Avdija (NBA)

Israeli basketball sensation Deni Avdija was selected by the Washington Wizards as the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The 19-year-old forward from Herzliya (a coastal city near Tel Aviv) made history as Israel’s highest-ever draft pick.

Many sports analysts predicted he would be chosen even higher in the draft, and, on air, Mike Schmitz of ESPN called Avdija the potential “steal of the draft.” Avdija said after being chosen: “Being the ninth pick and in the top 10 is amazing for our country, and I’m super excited to get going.”

Avdija — who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Israeli Basketball Premier League and competed in the EuroLeague — will be the third Israeli to play in the NBA, following in the footsteps of Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel.

Speaking to the media in a video conference after being selected, Avdija said: “For me just to represent my country and to make history, that’s a blessing. I have the whole nation behind me. I hope I’m going to represent well.”

In addition to Avdija, Israeli point guard Yam Madar, who is also 19, was also chosen in the draft by the Boston Celtics in the second round as the 47th pick.

Getting to Know Deni Avdija and Yam Madar

Avdija was born in Beit Zera, a tiny kibbutz in northern Israel, in 2001. Basketball talent runs in his family: His Muslim father, Zufer Avdija, was born in Yugoslavia (present-day Kosovo) and played professionally there and later in Israel. His Jewish mother, Sharon Artzi, was both a basketball player and track-and-field athlete.

Avdija joined Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth basketball team at age 12. Holding dual Israeli-Serbian citizenship, he had the option to play for Serbia’s junior national team. Unlike Israel, Serbia has produced countless NBA players, such as Denver Nuggets all-star Nikola Jokić and hall-of-famer Vlade Divac. But at 17, he decided to lead the Israeli junior national team instead for a simple reason: Israel was where his friends were.

It was the right call. Avdija led Israel to the gold at the FIBA 2018 Under 20 European Championship. But back at Maccabi Tel Aviv, playing against seasoned pros, he struggled to even get on the floor. In his first two seasons playing in Israel’s top league, he averaged less than 10 minutes played per game. However, his gold-winning performances at the 2018 and 2019 FIBA Under 20 European Championships put him squarely on the radar of NBA scouts.

In the Israeli Premier League, Avdija started to make strides this past season. He was named Player of the Month in January 2020, averaging 14.5 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. He also had his two best career Euroleague games in early February.

Although critics point out that Avdija needs to improve his outside shot, especially at the free-throw line (where he shot just under 59% last season), most analysts note his game is still developing and focus on his strengths, including his size (he is 6-foot-9), versatility and strong work ethic. For example, after their 2019 Under 20 European Championship quarterfinal win against Lithuania, Avdija stayed back to work on his free throws as his teammates were out celebrating.

After being selected by the Wizards, Avdija said: “I’m looking at what I can do to help the team win… I will do everything I can to win games.” With his overall skill set and this kind of attitude, many believe Avdija will reach his full potential and do well in the NBA.

As for Yam Madar, the 6’3’’ point guard currently plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv and is known for his quickness, agility and all-around game. Originally from Beit Dagan in central Israel, he was born to a family of Mizrahi Jewish (Yemenite Jewish) descent. He was part of Israel’s under-20 team that won the European Championships last year, and he is friends with Avdija. Although Madar was picked by the Celtics as 47th overall, he does not get a guaranteed contract and will likely continue playing in Israel for another year as the team watches him.

Sports and Judaism: From Max Nordau and Ze’ev Jabotinsky to the Maccabi Games and NBA

Although Avdija’s top-10 NBA draft pick is historic, it is also a continuation of a legacy of Jewish athletes and ideas that connected sports and Judaism. The early Zionist leader Max Nordau first proposed the idea of “muscle Judaism” at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1898. He believed that cultivating a “new Jew” who was physically and mentally capable would be necessary for reviving the Jewish people and regaining the physical prowess that earlier generations had demonstrated. He stated: “Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men… Our new muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas…”

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, another early Zionist leader, wanted to create what he called a “geza psychologi chadash shel Yehudi,” a “new psychological breed of Jews.” Like Nordau’s vision, this Jew would be physically strong and self-reliant. The mission of the Zionist youth movement he established in 1923, called Betar, was “to create a ‘normal,’ ‘healthy’ citizen for the Jewish nation.” Central to this was cultivating “hadar” (roughly translated in Hebrew as “majesty” or “splendor”). Jabotinsky wrote: “It combines various conceptions such as outward beauty, respect, self-esteem, politeness, faithfulness… Hadar Betar must be the daily goal of each one of us.”

Since Nordau and Jabotinsky’s day, the Jewish people have certainly regained that physical “heroism” that was lacking in the persecuted Jew throughout centuries. The first Maccabiah Games — the world’s largest Jewish sports competition, which takes place every four years in Israel — were held in 1934 in Tel Aviv. The Maccabiah Games are named for the Jewish warrior Judah Maccabee, who fought against the ancient Greeks. The mission of the games is to facilitate a worldwide gathering of Jewish athletes in Israel and promote fitness and athleticism among Jews. The North American JCC Maccabi Games — in which over 3,000 teens compete each summer during non-pandemic times — began in 1982 with a similar mission.

Since 1948, Israel has cultivated athletes and supported teams that compete nationally and internationally. In basketball, Omri Casspi made history in 2009 when he became the first Israeli to play in the NBA, joining the Sacramento Kings. In 2017, as the only Israeli playing in the NBA, he said: “I’m trying to be the best role model I can be for the young generation, and be the best ambassador for Israel and for Jewish people here in the US.” Casspi returned to Israel to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2019. In 2013, Gal Mekel became the second Israeli to play in the NBA when he joined the Dallas Mavericks; he left the NBA in 2014.

Although the American-Israeli basketball player Tal Brody was 12th in the NBA draft, he chose to pass up an NBA career and instead played basketball in Israel. When Brody helped Israel defeat the Soviet team in 1977, he proudly announced on live TV: “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map, not only in sports but in everything.”

In addition to Avdija and Madar, other world-class Israeli athletes include American-Israeli basketball player Sue Bird, who is considered one of the WNBA’s top players of all time; Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Leaf, who was born in Tel Aviv and holds Israeli citizenship; Alon Leviev, who won a gold medal at the Ju-jitsu World Championship in Abu Dhabi; judoka world champion Sagi Muki and retired world champion Yarden Gerbi; and retired tennis player Shahar Pe’er, who reached a ranking of number 11 in the world in women’s singles in 2011.

Being selected ninth overall by the Wizards, Israeli forward Deni Avdija made history as the highest-drafted Israeli player in NBA history, and will be the third Israeli ever to play in the league. Israeli point guard Yam Madar was also chosen in the second round as the 47th pick. Both players are part of a legacy of Jewish athletes and ideas that connected sports and Judaism. Early Zionist leaders such as Max Nordau and Ze’ev Jabotinsky saw the need for cultivating a “new Jew” who was physically and mentally strong. The Maccabiah Games in Israel — and the JCC Maccabi Games held in North America — continue to promote fitness and athleticism in the Jewish community today. Since Nordau and Jabotinsky’s day, the Jewish people have certainly regained that physical “heroism” that was lacking in the persecuted Jew throughout centuries.

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