Deni Avdija, Maccabi's teenage talisman
Spend a few minutes with Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv's rising star Deni Avdija and a few things become abundantly clear. Among them is that he is at once a fun-loving 18-year-old, and at the same time, a confident and hard-working professional who has barely scratched the surface of his abilities.
Ask Avdija about himself and you get the type of answer you might expect from your next-door neighbor's teenage kid. "I like to hang out with my friends. I love to go to the beach. I have a girlfriend who is in the army. I like PlayStation," he rattled off when asked to talk about life off the court.
"I can just tell he's a year older, he's grown up as a player, and it's exciting to me because he has so much potential." – Scottie Wilbekin
Ask him about basketball, though, and suddenly his answers are longer and more detailed. There are many reasons for that. Among them, his father, Zufer Advdja, who enjoyed a great basketball career, has prepared his son for these moments. Plus, Maccabi, which first brought Deni into its program when he was in eighth grade, has had him working with its senior squad for more than two years already. And the current Maccabi coaching staff specializes in taking young talent and working to maximize their potential.
"I am not only a coach, but I am also like a teacher," Maccabi head coach Ioannis Sfairolpoulos said, reflecting on his role with the young players on the team. "I need to teach [Deni] and talk to him a lot to avoid these bad influences and not let the outside interfere with his job inside."
The combination of Avdija's hard work and dedication, and the guidance of older players and patient coaches has created a young jewel that Maccabi hopes will unleash his talent on the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague soon. He is already a key part of Coach Sfairolpoulos's rotation and a player who the rest of the Maccabi squad knows can contribute much more soon.
"I can see a lot of improvement just from last year," Maccabi's leading scorer, Scottie Wilbekin, said. "I can just tell he's a year older, he's grown up as a player and it's exciting to me because he has so much potential as a .... [2.06-meter] player who can play the 'four', can play the 'three', can dribble the ball, can shoot the three, and he's starting to get more of a feel for the game and how to do little things here to get open, be in the right spot for a cut. I've been really impressed with him so far this year."
Some might say that Deni was destined for basketball greatness. Zufer is a former Yugoslavian national team player who won a bronze medal at the 1982 World Championship in Colombia. He played a decade for Serbian powerhouse Crvena Zvezda Belgrade before moving to Israel in 1990 and playing the final seasons of his career there.
It was in Israel that he met Deni's mother, Sharon Artzi, who the young talent praises as no less an influence on his athletic ability than his well-known father. "I grew up in a family of athletes," he said. "My mother was a runner and an athlete; she was the Israeli champion in 700 meters."
"I've gotten to learn here from a wide range of experienced players, and I always try to take the best qualities from each." – Deni Avdija
Even though Zufer was retired by the time Deni was born, from his earliest memories Deni was aware that his father had been a great player. Naturally, Zufer, who is now a youth coach in Israel, has had a major impact on Deni's basketball development, but not necessarily the way one might expect.
"He helped me more with off-court matters; how to behave and things like that," Deni summed up. "On the court, we didn't work much together. He tried coaching me, but it didn't work out for us."
Even so, if not for Zufer's guiding hand, Deni might not have wound up a basketball player. It wasn't the sport he picked up first.
"My first sport was soccer. I played for two seasons," Deni recalled. "I wasn't bad, but I had enough of soccer. I didn't want to play anymore and I stopped focusing in practice. That was about third grade and the basketball league only started in fourth. My father asked me if I wanted to try to play and I said, 'Why not?' But then I said, 'They'll all be older than me, etc.' and he said, 'Don't worry. It will be okay. Just try it.' I tried and as you can see, it went well. I'm here!"
The path that took Deni from youth basketball to starring for the Israeli national team and playing for Maccabi in the EuroLeague took hard work. However, Deni is fully aware that he had luck and help along the way.
Countless influences helped turn him into the player he is today, names he easily rattles off of youth coaches, trainers and teammates who helped to mold him. Then there are his physical gifts: "My growth spurt was about 15-16 centimeters," Avdija explained. Before he shot up in height, he wasn't as committed to basketball. In fact, when he first left his hometown club in Herzliya for Maccabi, Avdija struggled.
"I went through a tough period. It took me time to adjust to playing on a new team and with players who were better than me and taller than me," he said. "I had been the 12th, 13th player. Then I suddenly grew and kept playing and started to become a more dominant player."
"He's really talented and he's a good learner and a hard worker. He has a big future ahead of him" – Iaonnis Sfairopoulos
And that was just at the junior level. Deni was in 11th grade when he was first called up to play for Maccabi's senior team and that proved to be another difficult hurdle to overcome, at least initially.
"The reality was a blow to me. In the juniors, everyone is your age and roughly your physical level and then you come to the seniors and there are no discounts," Avdija said. "Everyone is making money and fighting for their money and their place in the roster. And physically, they are much bigger. It was very difficult for me to adjust. But little by little, I have."
Avdija is quick to credit his Maccabi teammates for helping him become both a leader and an unstoppable force at the junior level. "I've gotten to learn here from a wide range of experienced players, and I always try to take the best qualities from each of them. Being able to do that has really made me a better player."
In particular, he credits one teammate whose influence was significant if rather untraditional.
"The player who was toughest with me was DeAndre Kane," Avdija said. "We were together for two years and he didn't always treat me nicely. But I have to thank him for everything that he did for me. He caused me to understand that being a professional basketball player isn't easy. He caused me to get upset at times and he beat me up in practices, but his intentions were good – and I really appreciate it today."
Avdija's accomplishments at the junior level over the past two-plus years have sparked a buzz in the European basketball world. He signed a long-term contract with Maccabi in 2017 at the tender age of 16. Then, in 2018, Avdija was named to the all-tournament team at the U20 European Championship in Germany, after helping Israel capture the gold medal. He followed that up with a series of dominating performances in the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament, including recording a triple-double against U18 FC Bayern Munich in the qualifying event in Munich and leading the ANGT finals in scoring (24.7 ppg.), rebounds (12.0 rpg.) and performance index rating (29.7). In the summer of 2019, he led Israel to a repeat of its European U20 crown at home in Tel Aviv; Avdija was crowned MVP.
Despite dominating the junior circuit, stepping into a big role on a EuroLeague team is no easy task. But it's a job that Coach Sfairoploulos, aided by assistant coach Veljko Perovic – whom Avdija boasted "works with me 24/7" – is committed to.
"Deni is really talented. He is at an age where he is building his body, his mind and afterward his basketball," Sfairoploulos said. "He is a player who this year... will have a different and more important role on the team. Last year, I did not get a chance to work with him all the time because he was sometimes with the junior team and he had school... He was in and out of the main team. But this year, we have him exclusively on our main team and already he has started to play."
Working with Sfairoploulos is a gift for Avdija. "I like to work with young players. I have always had young players in my previous teams," Sfairoploulos said, rattling off a long list of teenage talents whose careers he helped launch, including former EuroLeague champions Georgios Printezis and Panagiotis Vasilopoulos and All-EuroCup selections Kostas Vasileiadis and Loukas Mavrokefalidis.
"Because I started as a coach of small kids, I know how it is to work with young and inexperienced players," Sfairoploulos explained. "[Deni] still needs a lot of improvement because he is young, which is normal. But he's really talented and he's a good learner and a hard worker. He has a big future ahead of him."
Working hard is a challenge Avdija is eager to embrace: "I am always working to get better, 24/7, even in the summer, even during the season I wake up early and work on my game. I want to be a complete player – to rebound, pass, dribble, read situations. I am trying to maximize all of those things together." Avdija even detailed the weaknesses he is working on: "I know I need to work on my dribbling, my left hand and my outside shooting."
What is Avdija's ultimate goal? "I want to get better every day and help the team win," he said.
That is an attitude any team can build around.