13 - 21
July 2019
8 Deni Avdija (ISR)
Long Read
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In Deni Avdija's world, basketball is a 24/7 obsession

TEL AVIV (Israel) - What would you do if you just had a monster all-round 16-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist, 4-block and 3-steal game in the Quarter-Finals of a major FIBA event in front of your own fans? Most likely, you would celebrate with your teammates and friends. But Deni Avdija doesn't exist in a "most likely" world. So he came back to the arena, in his game jersey, to work on the free throws.

"That's what I do. I'm trying to work on them every day and to punish myself when I'm not making them. I'm saying - and I'm not bragging - that I'm a good free throw shooter, and playing in front of this crowd and all those emotions around, it hurts my percentages. So I come in here to the gym when nobody's around, shooting free throws, that's how I calm myself down."

The 18-year-old was so disappointed with his 3-of-8 shooting night from the charity stripe that he could not wait for another day or another practice. He waited until the 3,000 fans left the arena, then went through his routine with a coach, as the clock struck 11 p.m. on a beautiful Thursday night in Tel Aviv.

You can ask anybody around the city, especially those involved with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and they will tell you the same thing. Free throws at a late hour aren't some stunt. Deni Avdija is one of the hardest working guys out there, and his post-game workouts are becoming a habit.

"That's what I did in the seniors, as well. We would finish the game, and even if I didn't play, I would still come back to the court and shoot I don't know how many shots. My personal coach Veljko Perovic is always next to me to help, to talk to me when I'm down. He's a big part of who I am," Avdija said after taking his Israeli team to the Semi-Finals of the FIBA U20 European Championship 2019.

That's the kind of approach that got worldwide attention to the young swingman. In his mind, basketball is not something you do for fun. It's not something to do to make money. It's a never-ending obsession, the one that never stops.

"Never, never, never... Mentally-wise, off the court and on the court. And this summer, I didn't have a lot of free time, I had like two days off after my Maccabi Tel Aviv season, and I feel like that wasn't enough time for me to rest. I flew so many times over the season, had so many practices, and worked so hard...but there was no replacement to coming here and helping my friends, just playing in front of this crowd and doing great things."



Doing great things sums it up nicely. Avdija is averaging 16.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per game, all done in 30 minutes a night, with Israel being a +14.2 team when Deni is on the floor. Keep in mind that Avdija is two years younger than most of the players, being born in 2001 and playing a tournament with players of the 1999-2000-born generation! No wonder the Shlomo Group Arena fell in love with the number eight man, and his number 41 roommate Yam Madar, too.

"I am very proud of Yam. He's doing a great job, he's my roommate and I love him. I love what he's doing on the court, and, really, I couldn't ask for a better point guard than him," Deni expressed his feelings about Yam.

But Israel is not just Avdija and Madar doing the damage. Lithuania felt it best in the Quarter-Finals, as Raz Adam led the scoring with 17 points, and Eidan Alber's 16 points, along with Amit Suss' 13 and Yotam Hanochi's 11 also helped coach Ariel Beit-Halahmy to bring the defending champs back to the final four.

"You see how we grew up, how coaches in Israel taught us how to play, how to fight, how to not give up, how to be sharp every day. All of the players on the national team, we're all great players and we have great chemistry inside the locker room," the team leader explained.

Turns out, all of these are perfect ingredients to create sell out crowds and packed stands every time they step out on the floor.

"Israelis are very supportive as a crowd. I didn't think there will be so much interest, but I'm very happy to see that we have basketball growing in our country. People are interested in what's going on with us, that's making me happy. Very happy," Avdija said in perfect English.

We offered him a chance to reply in Serbian, too.

"Znam malo," he laughed while saying he "knows a little bit." His father Zufer Avdija was born in Prishtina, before making Belgrade his permanent home during his playing career, becoming a long-time team-captain of Crvena Zvezda, where he spent 11 years from 1979 to 1990. A move to Israel followed, before Zufer retired eight seasons later.

"I'm not talking Serbian, though. I'm really angry at my dad because he didn't teach me when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I knew better how to speak the language, I'm always trying to learn it, but I'm still angry because I don't understand a lot of words. And I suffered a little bit because of it, a lot of players, coaches, they see the last name and try to speak Serbian with me. And I let them down, 'I'm sorry, speak English, please' and they go like this (shrugs)."

Patient throughout each question, Avdija never seemed like the youngest guy among the Semi-Finalists and the second youngest in the entire championship - only Great Britain's Kareem Queeley is a couple of months younger. Maturity will also help with the pressure of the expectations now that the medal hunt is on.

"No pressure. Right now we're just happy. Then, on Saturday morning, we'll be focused. And we'll do good in the games, I hope."