Inside the Wizards’ war room on Wednesday evening, general manager Tommy Sheppard tried not to look at the draft board too often. The player he wanted was available after the sixth pick, and then the seventh. When the Wizards used their No. 9 overall pick to select 19-year-old Deni Avdija of Israel, a player that ESPN’s NBA draft analyst Mike Schmitz said could be the “steal of the draft,” Sheppard could no longer contain his excitement.
“I love Tommy’s enthusiasm,” head coach Scott Brooks told reporters after the pick. “I mean, he was so fired up. I thought he was going to be like Carl Lewis run a 100 [meters] in 9.3 [seconds] … He was so excited, as we all are.”
Sheppard has been scouting Avdija since he was 16 and playing for the Israeli youth team. A 6-foot-9 small forward, Avdija competed for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the EuroLeague and was named the MVP of the Israeli Basketball Premier League after leading the team to the Israeli League championship this past season.
His father, Zufer, was a former professional basketball player and a member of the Yugoslavia national team.
“He’s somebody that has great potential as a wing, secondary playmaker,” Sheppard said Wednesday. “We think he’s gonna just complement our talent, be able to play with every possible lineup that we throw out there. He’s a proven player playing in a highest level in Europe, in the EuroLeague, certainly, but [also] his national team experience.”
In a video conference call with reporters on Thursday, Avdija said that he knew the Wizards might select him, but that he didn’t know exactly where he would go in the draft.
Growing up in Israel, the time difference prevented him from watching many NBA games, but as a video game enthusiast, he would often play NBA2K. Players he regularly used? John Wall and Bradley Beal.
“I used to play 2K with those guys,” Avdija said. “And now to play with them on the court for real life, that’s crazy. They’re very talented and great players. And they seem very nice off the court too, so I’m just waiting to meet them and just get started and win games.”
This is the second straight year that the Wizards have used their first-round draft pick to select an international player. Rui Hachimura made history last year as the first Japan-born player to be drafted in the NBA.
“We don’t check passports when we draft players,” Sheppard said. “We look at talent. And certainly, this was an expectation for us again, we were a little bit surprised that he was going to be there at nine. We were very excited. But certainly, Israeli fans around the world are texting right now. We’re hearing from a lot of people we hadn’t connected with in a while, but pretty much you can expect the fandom that the following of Maccabi Tel Aviv is one of the largest in the world. And they’re pretty excited. I think we made some Wizards fans tonight. But again, that pick is purely for the talent potential for the Washington Wizards.”
Sheppard added that Avdija “checked all of our boxes” and called him a “blend player.”
The Wizards finished the pandemic-shortened season inside the NBA Bubble, but only won one of their eight games in Orlando. Once again, the team struggled with consistency and defense.
With the 2020-21 season starting next month, rookies like Avdija won’t be able to ease their way into the league with summer tournaments like in typical years.
Brooks views that as a positive development.
“The good thing about this draft being so late [is] we practice in a couple of weeks,” he said. “Normally, you have to wait three or four, three months or so after a summer league. But … I get to see him play. I get to see our growth from our young guys. I get to see John mixing with the group, Brad, his improvement, that he comes back every year as a better player.”
Avdija looks forward to the challenge of working his way into the rotation.
“I like it when it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s gonna make me a better player. I like challenges. I face a lot of challenges in Maccabi. And now I’m taking it to Washington. And I’m probably gonna face a lot of a lot of challenges also in Washington, but I need to overcome those. And I’m very … adjustable. And I’m just super excited to see what’s waiting for me.”