Deni Avdija’s Close Circle of Basketball Luminaries from Serbia to Israel Guided Him to Stardom

TEL AVIV -- The newest wonder-kid of European basketball enjoys a status never before held by a 19-year-old Israeli. Deni Avdija, who played until August for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the EuroLeague and Israeli Premier League, is seen by most mock drafts as a top-5 prospect, and has soared as high as No. 2 in The Ringer's mock draft in September.

There is essentially no NBA team picking in the lottery that has not sent its general manager, scouts or both all the way to Israel to see Deni play. In fact, even some non-lottery teams have; Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors’ president of basketball operations, spent a few days in Israel to size Deni up close.

Back home in Israel, Deni appears regularly in radio ads and TV promotions, and is already a household name.

“I haven't done really anything yet,” Deni tells CloseUp360. “It's hard for me to grasp the hype in Israel.”

He humbly looks a bit down, before continuing, “There is always something I can do better. The future is bright and I hope I will live up to my dream."

Oren Aharoni coached Deni on Maccabi's various youth teams since he was 12 years old.

“In each age group I have coached him, Deni was always two levels above the game,” Oren says. “When he turned 16, we had no choice but to have him join the pros."

The trend continued from there. At 19, Deni became the youngest MVP in the history of the Israeli Premier League after leading his club to the 2019-20 championship.

“Deni, already as a 16-year old who joined the U20 team, a rare feat by itself in Israel, was extremely ready,” says Ariel Beit-Halahmi, coach of the Israel U20 national team from 2017 to 2019. “His mastery of transition game, his ability to read plays and his quickness were just extraordinary. When he joined our first practice in 2017, I told him, ‘Don't worry that you don't know any of our set plays,' and he meshed right in. It was special to watch."

Deni's ability to adapt is special, by all accounts. Rather than antagonize or cause jealousy among his U18 teammates by the fact that he was simultaneously playing in the U20 team and with Maccabi, he earned their respect and love.

“Ultimately, he is humble and a genuinely good kid," Oren attests. “Deni is a natural-born leader that carries away his teammates with his excitement and example. His character is fundamentally positive. It sounds cliche, but everyone really loves him.

“While he was already playing in the senior team in 2018-19, he still had close friends in the youth team and he made a Herculean effort to keep playing with them, and ultimately win the Israeli U18 championship that year. That involved a lot of back-to-back games and scheduling headaches."

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - OCTOBER 24: Deni Avdija, #8 of Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in action during the 2019/2020 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season Round 4 match between Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv and Valencia Basket at Menora Mivtachim Arena on October 24, 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Seffi Magriso/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

Deni Avdija drives to the hoop for Maccabi Tel Aviv against Valencia Basket during the 2019-20 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season. (Seffi Magriso/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

Deni's family background confronted him with a life-changing decision early on in his career.

As a dual Israeli-Serbian citizen, Deni was heavily courted by both basketball organizations to join their national teams. Due to FIBA rules, once he joined a U16 team of one country, he would be banned from switching. So as a 15-year-old kid, he faced a major choice.

“I grew up here. I really love Israel,” Deni says. “For me, it was as simple as ABC to represent Israel."

Just months after Deni’s decision, Israel faced Serbia in the 2017 U16 European Championship. Serbia, a regional powerhouse, was the clear favorite. Israel had not beaten Serbia on the international stage in decades.

Deni helped to turn that tide in Israel’s favor. He scored 17 points and posted a game-best player efficiency rating of plus-29 to lead Israel to a historic 79-71 win over Serbia.

“Deni showed up to that match with a special motivation,” Oren recalls. “He really elevated his game that day.”

“I love these kind of games. I just love them,” Deni says. “They give me a special drive to prove myself, and to prove that my decision to represent Israel was right. So far, it brings only good things.”

Deni's multi-ethnic background is unique and a fascinating story in itself. His father, Zufer, is a well-known former Serbian player who was part of the legendary Yugoslavian national team in the 1980s. Zufer won a bronze medal at the 1982 FIBA World Championship alongside Aleksandar Petrovic, the older brother of NBA legend Drazen Petrovic, and was part of the generation that preceded the golden era of Yugoslavian basketball that included Hall of Famers like Drazen, Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc. Had Zufer been a couple of years younger, he might have joined those luminaries in becoming the first Yugoslavian players to leave the country and compete abroad.

Zufer was already in his 30s when Cold War-era restrictions finally eased in the late 1980s. But he was still playing forward and managed to leave Yugoslavia for a higher salary abroad. In 1990, he ended up with A.S. Ramat HaSharon of the Israeli Premier League, and bounced between several teams until his retirement in 1998.

Ronen Ginzburg, presently the head coach of the Czech Republic national team, shared the court with Zufer as a player in the early 1990s, when both played for A.S. Ramat HaSharon.

“Zufer was the complete package on offense, a phenomenal scorer,” Ronen says. “He work ethic was unusual and his love for the game was immense; he continued playing until his late 30s and then continued as a coach until this day.

“Considering that he was part of the legendary Yugoslavian national team—whose modern-day equivalent is probably the Spanish team of the past decade—it would have been a real possibility for him to play in the NBA if the times were different."

As the Kosovo War of the late 1990s devastated Zufer’s native Serbia, he chose to stay in Israel, where he met his future wife, Sharon Artzi. Sharon hailed from Beit Zera, a small kibbutz in northern Israel, a few miles from the Israel-Syria-Jordan border. That area had seen years of wars and bombings especially in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but has been peaceful since, thanks in part to the 1994 Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan.

Sharon was no stranger to sports and winning herself.

“My mom was an extraordinary athlete, runner, Israeli record holder—runs until this very day,” Deni says. “During her obligatory military service, she was the first woman trainer of brigadiers. At the end of the day, I grew up in a house of athletes. She and my dad always wanted me to be involved in sports."

Yet, as competitive as his parents were, Deni grew up in an extremely warm environment. He spent a good chunk of his childhood in the kibbutz up north, in a communal setting that nourished his sense of community and fraternity.

“I'm very attached to my grandparents in the kibbutz. I still visit them often,” Deni says. “Family means a lot to me. I was also very attached to my Serbian grandmother who passed away two years ago, and she used to visit Israel often."

Deni Avdija

Deni's father, Zufer, is from Serbia, and his mother, Sharon Artzi, is from Israel. (Courtesy of Maccabi Tel Aviv)

When Deni was 12, Maccabi Tel Aviv identified him as a future mega-talent, thanks to his size and skill. That began a long and arduous journey to emerge from the pack at one of the EuroLeague's most prestigious clubs—with 54 domestic league championships in the last 65 years as well as six EuroLeague trophies since 1977.

Deni enrolled in Maccabi's prestigious Youth Development Academy. There, he would work with a designated trainer, alongside other promising prospects, in a fully immersive, live-in setting, returning home only on weekends.

Deni, however, preferred to remain with his family.

“It was a good decision to stay home,” he says. “My relationship with my mom is special. I'm the only child. She texts me, calls me a lot. ‘Where are you? With whom are you?' I preferred to be in a warm environment. I love my mom's food. Be surrounded with people that understand me like mom and dad, and have my privacy."

To make this exception to the Maccabi rule possible, assistant coach Veljko Perovic decided to relocate to a small apartment nearby Deni's hometown of Herzliya, a wealthy suburb about half an hour north of Tel Aviv.

Veljko, a Serbian himself, had just recently moved to Israel in 2014, and was used to change. Compared to growing up during the Kosovo War, this adjustment “was like nothing to me,” he says. “I just did it.

“I remember my first time in the Maccabi office, there was actually a missile alert as the situation escalated with rockets from Gaza. I felt at home!"

“It really touched me that Veljko did that,” Deni says. “He really made a lot of sacrifices for me."

Deni and Veljko have since spent hours upon hours together on a daily basis. Their usual routine starts with Veljko picking Deni up at 6:30 am for a pre-school practice, dropping him off at school and picking him up from school for an afternoon training. It is no surprise, then, that Deni refers to Veljko as “my coach.”

There have also been tough moments. Veljko recalls a particular turning point when Deni was 15.

“Deni was on the rise, he was the star of the U16 team, but I didn't want him to get comfortable with that idea,” Veljko says. “In our workout, I sensed some slack. I stopped everything abruptly and asked him, ‘Do you want to be the best?' I told him I want his firm commitment, so that I know the countless hours we are going to spend day in and day out are not wasted.

“And he has given his unwavering commitment."

“Veljko gets me to practice on another level,” Deni says with a smile. “He manages to push me on and on and on."

Deni Avdija Veljko Perovic

Deni has worked closely with Maccabi Tel Aviv assistant coach Veljko Perovic. (Courtesy of Maccabi Tel Aviv)

By Israeli standards, Deni's trajectory since that moment has been spectacular. Two months before his 17th birthday, he became the youngest player to ever suit up for Maccabi Tel Aviv. At 18, he recorded his first start in the EuroLeague. At 19, he was named the youngest MVP in the history of the Israeli Premier League after leading Maccabi to a domestic championship.

“Deni has already proven he can adapt to any situation,” Ariel says. “And remember Maccabi this year was essentially a top-heavy team, and still the game went through him to a large degree."

Veljko adds, “Deni knows how to peak in the right moments. It's as simple as that."

From his leadership with Israel’s various national teams and his steady development in Maccabi's in-house talent pipeline, all the way to his latest achievements as an MVP and domestic champion, Deni’s successes have shaped his approach to pro hoops.

“A lot of players think it's a business, but for me it's more,” he says. “I'm used to playing in Europe. In Europe, it's less a business and more play for the badge. I think playing for the badge means more to me. To rep my own team and win a championship, it gives me more drive to play than making more money, winning."

Come November 18, Deni will look to continue his run of success in the NBA—hallowed ground once stalked by one of his biggest basketball idols, the late Kobe Bryant.

“Kobe, it was clear, sought perfection,” Deni says. “I'm not perfect, far from it, and I try to live with what I have. This is what I got. This is what God gave me. I am trying to improve so many things simultaneously.

“I hope the good things will outweigh the bad ones eventually. At the end of the day, everything comes from the emotions of the game and the competitive nature of things."

Deni Avdija

Deni won three Israeli Premier League championships and a league MVP in three seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv. (Courtesy of Maccabi Tel Aviv)

It’s the end of a busy day in Tel Aviv for Deni. He’s already been to practice and interviewed for a TV special in anticipation of the NBA draft lottery. Between those tasks, he’s found time to grab lunch, record a birthday greeting for a cousin and ordered a frame for a signed jersey as a gift for a friend.

All this, mere hours before boarding a plane to attend pre-draft workouts in America, some 7,000 miles away.

“Ask whatever you want," he says.

Deni smiles with his patented boyish charm.

The question for Deni: "If you were playing in the NBA bubble this year, what would have been printed on the back of your jersey?"

He stares straight and, without hesitation, he shoots.

“All Men All Equal."

 

Yanir A. Rubinstein is the Washington D.C. correspondent for Israeli NBA magazine Hoops.co.il and a writer for Bullets Forever.