Basketball was in Deni Avdija’s blood before he was even born. Both of his parents played the sport and his father, Zufer, played for more than 20 years for Israel and the former Yugoslavia.
Avdija might be one of this year’s hottest NBA draft picks, but he didn’t always know that basketball would be his destiny. He started out playing the biggest sport in Israel: soccer.
Avdija shared his journey - from his early love of soccer to becoming interested in basketball to being drafted into one of the most prestigious basketball leagues in the world - as part of the Hillel@Home series last week. University of Georgia Hillel hosted the event, which attracted more than 140 participants on Zoom.
Avdija answered questions on a variety of topics, like what led to him being where he is today, how he handles pressure and what advice he has for others to follow their dreams.
Avdija had a quick rise in his basketball career from an early age. He started playing at eight years old for the Bnei Herzliya youth team and joined Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth team four years later. But he faced a setback in 10th grade when he suffered a back injury.
Avdija said it was a frustrating time for him because it was difficult for doctors to identify what exactly was causing the injury. During his recovery, however, it was his connection with his coach that kept him going and ensured he didn’t give up on basketball.
“My coach took me under his wing and just called me every morning,” he said. “When we went to the gym before school, we’d stretch the back with some drills. I swam a lot to try to build up my strength . And slowly [the injury] disappeared.”
He went on to sign a six-year deal with the professional Maccabi Tel Aviv team and helped lead the team to back-to-back FIBA Under 20 Championship gold medals in 2018 and 2019. He was named MVP of the 2019 tournament.
When it came time to sign with a national team, Avdija also had the option to sign with the Serbian national team but ultimately chose his home country’s team. He says he chose Israel’s team because he thought it would be more of a challenge for him - a challenge he was eager to take on .
“I grew up here, all my friends are here, I speak the language and I like challenges,” Avdija said. “I wanted to take the national team and maybe do something big for my country. I want to have challenges in my basketball career so I took on Israel.”
Being on the “most-pressured” sports club in Israel hasn’t always been easy for Avdija, but he said he developed his confidence as he became more experienced and mature. With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, he said he misses some of the pressure because to an extent that makes the game more fun.
He eventually realized a future in the NBA was a possibility, but he wasn’t always sure it could be a reality.
“I always pushed it from being a reality because I always focused on playing with Maccabi,” he said. “I always had a tough season, tough schedules, practices, games. So I didn’t really think about the NBA.”
Toward the end of this past Maccabi season, he started thinking more about the NBA. Even now, he is still dealing with some “shock” of being able to play in the “best league in the world and to be the fourth or fifth or sixth Israeli to ever do it.”
During the Hillel@Home session, Avdija also shared words of advice for future basketball players and other young people in general about pursuing their passions to get where they want in life: “don’t give up” may be cliche advice, he said, but it’s the right way to follow your dreams.
“Not every day is right,” he said. “There were years when 364 days were tough. Every time I woke up in the morning, maybe I didn’t want to go to practice. I thought about quitting basketball when I was 13, 14, 15, and I didn’t give up. I practiced harder. I came out and kept my positivity. You always need to stay positive and be ready for your opportunities.”
Special thanks to Roey Shoshan and UGA Hillel for planning and overseeing the event.