NBA Draft 2020: Can Israel’s Deni Avdija Be the Next Luka Doncic?

The Israeli Junior National Team won the FIBA u20 European Championship on Sunday, defeating Spain 92-84 in Tel Aviv as Israel became the first country since 2008 to repeat as u20 champions. 

Deni Avdija, its 18-year-old point forward, is the one constant between the two teams, and he’s quickly creating NBA-level intrigue about what he can become. 

In 2018, he was more role player than a star, yet still contributed 12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Two big performances in the knockout stage (22 points and eight rebounds versus Sweden and 15 points and seven rebounds versus France) helped him earn a spot on the 2018 All-Tournament Team. 

This year, Avdija was the man, averaging 18.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.4 blocks and 2.1 steals per game while also taking home Most Valuable Player honors.

Israel was playing in its home country so there was additional pressure on him, but this tournament also served as the launch point for his 2020 NBA Draft profile. 

Much like Slovenian Luka Doncic in 2018, Avdija is considered a consensus lottery pick among his peers, but playing overseas means that most NBA fans won’t be as familiar with his game. His showing here reaffirmed his position in this upcoming draft class because he once again saved his best for the knockout stages.

During the semifinals versus France, he had his tournament-high in points (26), rebounds (11) and steals (five). In the championship against pre-tournament favorite Spain, he had 23 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three blocks and a steal. 

Avdija did everything for Israel over the course of this tournament, and the same will be expected this season when he suits up for Israel’s premiere team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. He is the club’s first lottery level talent since Dragan Bender. 

As a prospect, the teenager already has the makings of a player that could make an immediate impact. His biggest strength is as a playmaker, particularly out of the pick-and-roll. Avdija’s size (6’8”) gives him a leg up on defenders as he is able to see and make passes that most primary ball handlers can’t. 

Despite his youth, he operates like a veteran in these situations. He’s not worried about his defender or the screener’s defender but instead is always looking to manipulate the weak side help defender. If they commit to the role man, he can get the ball to the opposite corner in a variety of ways. Choose to stay with a shooter in the corner and he can effortlessly place the ball in the hands of the rolling big at the rim.

Doncic is the last prospect to enter the NBA with a similar advantage and knowledge in pick-and-roll scenarios, and a lot of comparisons are likely to be made, though Luka had a far more decorated career. 

On the other side of the ball, interior defense and guarding the rim are areas where Avdija has performed well. And for what it’s worth, only one player was listed as taller than him for Israel’s u20 team. 

That means he’s spent the majority of his career defending bigger players or being the tallest one on the court for his team. Avdija is not the most athletic player, but his basketball IQ allows him to properly position himself to force opponents into tougher looks. He makes great use of the verticality rule and gets a fair share of blocks just because his hands are raised. 

Far from a finished product, he has to improve his perimeter defense, get stronger and be more consistent as a jump shooter. He displayed some touch from outside during the tournament but his overall numbers were not great: 28.6 percent on 42 total three-pointers and a porous 60 percent from the free-throw line.

Many believe he’ll join the ranks of previous international phenoms Doncic, Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili, but the failures of names like Bender, Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili should make the average fan cautious about anointing international players before they play an NBA game. 

Finding a team that will entrust Avdija with the ball right away will be key when he transitions to a new league as a rookie. 

Feb 16, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Deni Avdija of Israel during drills and practice at the All Star-Borders Global Camp at Queens University . Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Within the 2020 draft class, there’s a multitude of primary ball handlers available. In the U.S., Cole Anthony (UNC), Tyrese Maxey (Kentucky), Anthony Edwards (Georgia), Nico Mannion (Arizona), Ayo Domunsu (Illinois) and Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State) are the top players that play a similar role to Avdija. Overseas, the collection of talent is just as loaded. French guards Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes and Malcolm Calazon all are first-round talents, along with Americans R.J Hampton and LaMelo Ball who opted to play professionally in Australia rather than college. 

There are indeed almost enough primary ball handlers to fill this entire upcoming lottery. 

Avdija’s shortcomings as an athlete and shooter could allow for a few of the players listed above to jump ahead of him on draft night. Yet, among his peers, there are few others who will enter the NBA as ready-made. 

Looking at the landscape of the league, the teams most likely to be selecting in Avdija’s range next summer are the Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Oklahoma City Thunder and (perhaps) the Atlanta Hawks. 

Of those franchises, only the Pistons would theoretically (and immediately) provide Avdija with the chance to be the primary creator as Reggie Jackson will be a free agent after this season. While capable of playing off the ball—he’s very good operating from the post—it is unlikely that a team will get the best out of him in that role unless he improves as a shooter this season. 

Thus, there’s a lot riding on the line with his development this season. The Israeli teenager will need a strong year to keep his name in the lottery conversation. 

However, the goal of all NBA teams is to collect the most talent, and Avdija’s speaks for itself. 

This tournament was only the beginning. Maccabi Tel Aviv will participate in the EuroLeague this season, and his performance during the FIBA u20 European Championship is expected to be replicated if he is going to be a high draft pick. 

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