Last month, I was fortunate enough to attend the FIBA U20 European Championships in Tel Aviv. I learned a lot about international basketball, the NBA scouting process, but most of all, I learned that if you start talking to someone from Israel about Deni Avdija – especially someone who follows basketball – you’ll have a hard time getting them to stop.
Avdija is a star in his home country, and for good reason. The 18-year-old has been a household name in Israeli basketball for a while now, reaching international recognition last year when he, along with Yovel Zoosman, led the Israeli U20 national team to a European Championship. This July, he secured another U20 European Championship, this time in front of his home crowd in Israel, and this time earning MVP honors.
I am still fascinated with Avdija for a number of reasons, but my biggest question about his game is his ability to serve as a primary shot creator and distributor. There is no doubt that Avdija has top-5 pick upside, but his role as the first option on offense in this tournament tells us a lot about how high his ceiling is and where his improvement areas lie.
Avdija hasn’t always been the focal point of his team’s offense, but was very much the focus this tournament, which is why these seven games are particularly relevant when it comes to evaluating his potential to grow into a team’s lead offensive weapon.
Avdija’s frame is one of his biggest assets. Though he’s not blazing fast, his big strides and long wingspan help him cover a lot of ground on the defensive end and enable to finish through contact on offense. I’ll talk a lot more about Avdija’s finishing abilities in a bit, but standing at roughly 6’8” with a 6’10” wingspan, Avdija has a solid frame for a small forward in today’s NBA.
His skinniness hurts him at times when facing more athletic forwards, but it’s worth noting that he is the youngest player on his team and one of the younger players in the tournament, so it’s inevitable for him to get bodied from time to time. Of course, once he gets in an NBA weight room and fills out a little bit more, that will hopefully be less of a weak spot.
“It’s not easy, but it’s not the first time that I’ve played with grown ups, but [my teammates] they’re really doing a great job….giving me confidence and letting me play my game,” Avdija told me in an interview last week. “Sometimes…it’s a little bit harder to be the youngest, but I’m improving.”
High Release Point
Aided by his size and wingspan is the high release point he gets on his jump shot, enabling him to shoot over the top of defenders closing out. In a slow-mo video of his shot below, you can see that while he doesn’t jump too high off the ground, he gets good extension up top and releases the ball from well above his head.
His quickness allows him to gain separation and to force defenses to play further back on him, and he takes advantage with his high release point. In the clip below, he drives, pulls back, and shoots over France’s 6’9” power forward Timothee Bazille.
This is the skill Deni flexes most often, and is the chief reason so many NBA scouts are tantalized by his potential. Even when he’s having a bad game by conventional standards, as one scout mentioned to me, he’s still affecting the game in numerous positive ways through his facilitating.
His favorite place to pass out of is the mid post. He absolutely loves seeing over the top of smaller defenders and his height, wingspan, and vision allows him to make well-timed cross-court to both cutters and shooters.
Whenever he is in the post, he is usually looking to pass first, so much so that doubling him in the post should be considered defensive negligence.
Israel’s 27 possessions derived from Avdija working out of the post resulted in 37 points, an excellent clip of 1.37 Points Per Possession, via Synergy Sports. Avdija is a smart and intuitive passer who doesn’t even need to be doubled to make great reads finding the open man with passes over both his right and left shoulders.
There are too many instances like these to include in this article, but his post passing is truly a special skill. Additionally, he’s an aggressive and talented outlet passer who routinely goes for full-court passes. Watch how quickly he looks up the court after making a phenomenal off-ball defensive play.
He crashes the defensive boards so hard in large part because he begins salivating in transition when he sees an open man. He also pushes after made baskets, something teams are looking to do more and more in today’s NBA. Though the camera cuts away at exactly the wrong time, watch how aggressive Avdija is at connecting with a sprinting Yam Madar after allowing a basket on defense.
His eyes widen whenever he runs a fast break with the ball in his hands, showing off his court vision with smart feeds to teammates in transition.
Avdija’s finishing as a whole leaves a lot to be desired, and we’ll touch on his areas that need improvement later in the article. Here, however, I want to acknowledge that he’s a really talented finisher in the appropriate situations, namely when he can absorb contact and finish with his right using his length and finesse. This is a good example against France’s Bazille.
Most of his skilled finishes from the right side look like this one. He absorbs the contact, shifts his body to the right, and goes up with his right, relying on his long arms and soft touch to make the layup fall.
He’s also confident in both his floater and his runner, as he demonstrates in the same semi-final game against France.
As for the things that hurt him in this most recent tournament, finishing from his left was certainly an area that jumped out. But for the purposes of this piece, we’ll focus on that as an opportunity, which I’ll cover in a little.
In the tournament, the thing that hurt him the most was his inconsistent free throw shooting. Obviously, this too can be looked at as an opportunity for improvement, but Avdija left 18 points at the line with missed free throws, including a string of several missed in a row. Avdija shot just 51% from the line in his last season at Macabi Tel Aviv (EuroLeague, Israeli League, and Adidas NGT combined) and shot just 60% on 45 attempts in the European Championship. This is an alarmingly low rate for such an effective scorer, though he has had his fair share of inconsistencies shooting from deep as well. With teams looking to free throw shooting as an indication of future improvement in three-point shooting, this might be the area that Avdija needs to address most urgently in order to put some scouts’ fears at rest.
For what it’s worth, Avdija showed no hesitation raising his hand and walking to the free throw line as soon as a technical foul was called against Montenegro, despite going 4 for 10 from the line the previous game against Ukraine. This type of confident swagger is exactly what people love about Avdija’s character and was on full display throughout Israel’s championship run.
Always aggressive, Avdija’s greatest skill quickly manifests itself as a glaring weakness the moment a risky outlet pass gets intercepted.
Avdija committed less than two turnovers in just one of his seven tournament games, surrendering 20 turnovers to go with his 37 assists on the tournament. This is what you might expect from an 18 year old playing the role of a primary option in an intense environment surrounded by frenzied supporters in his home country. He can try really hard to make plays, often to the team’s success, but not without its drawbacks.
Remember his awesome post passing? It’s great until he turns it over thanks to an errant feed to a cutter into a passing lane that was never really clear.
In big moments, he sees cutters and gets a little too excited, launching passes over his teammates’ heads and frequently running into miscommunications with the targets of his passes.
He also has a tendency to try to force passes inside when they aren’t there. This is especially harmful early in the shot clock and whenever it results in a fastbreak for the opponent.
You get the idea, he’s an 18-year-old and does 18-year-old things. People mature with age and experience, and there’s no reason not to expect Deni to do so. This brings us to our most optimistic section…
This section is where we put on our rose colored glasses and view some of his weaknesses through the prism of being potential areas of improvement. Starting with his left-handed finishing.
The reason to be optimistic about Avdija’s finishing ability is the dynamism he has shown time and time again while finishing on the right hand side. Yet defenders have made the adjustment of forcing him left, which he takes advantage of at times. He can drive left well, but he always goes up either with two hands or with his right hand, unless the layup is uncontested.
This increases the degree of difficulty of these looks and rewards defenders for forcing Avdija to his left. The clip below is a good example of this; Deni attacks early in the possession and is ceded an open lane to his left, which he is unable to capitalize on because he has to rotate his entire body and release the ball awkwardly from his right hand.
Even when he’s given an open look on the left side of the rim, he often opts for his right hand, such as in the clip below.
This is not to give the impression that Avdija has no idea how to use his left, but it’s worth noting that he seems to hesitate when faced with the prospect of such a finish. He displays the same excellent frame and fundamentals that aid him in finishing from the right side, it’s just that his confidence level in this particular element of his game doesn’t appear to be there.
Remember that first clip of the Serbian defender giving Deni the left lane? They did that all game, and this is what it looked like when Avdija took advantage and tried to finish with his left hand.
Bad miss, but not horrendous, right? He still gets good extension, jumps off the correct foot, and it looks pretty natural. With time and the right player development staff, he’ll hopefully be able to integrate left handed finishes into his game more comfortably. This is why I view his finishing from the left as more of a opportunity than a weakness.
Three Point Shooting
All things considered, Avdija appears to be an average three-point shooter with a solid foundation on which to improve. He shot just 29% on the tournament, though it’s worth noting that many of those looks were contested, off the dribble, and difficult attempts.
In last year’s tournament, Avdija shot 41% from behind the arc, a very solid clip for a 17-year-old. This year, he was asked to take a lead role and struggled to produce at the same level of efficiency. There is significant room to grow, but he’s able to get his shot off over the top of defenders pretty easily, just look at how he creates enough separation here with the step back.
While he’s not able to connect, his ability to create his own shot from deep is a very intriguing element of his game. He’s demonstrated that he’s able to shoot on the move, shooting well coming off screens and maintaining his balance nicely.
Given his high release point and his quickness with the ball, Avdija can develop into an excellent shot creator from distance if he’s able to hit step-back and off the dribble threes more effectively. Next season, his efficiency from deep is heavily dependent on the type of role he will play for Macabi Tel Aviv and whether he’s able to modify his shot selection to be more disciplined.
Taking off the rose colored glasses, we look now to all the threats to Avdija’s long term development as a lead guy.
We covered the issues surrounding his over-aggressive passing in the ‘Weaknesses’ section, but it’s worth harping on again. Many guys show improved discipline and pass selection with time, but this concern is particularly relevant for Avdija’s growth due to his unique style of play.
In order to be a reliable primary option, Avdija has to be trusted not to turn the ball over as often as he did at the U20s. Committing 3.5 turnovers per 40 minutes, Avdija did not necessarily prove that he could be an ultra-disciplined facilitator, though he certainly showed flashes of his phenomenal passing at all turns. That’s why the discipline is so important; in order to unlock his greatest skill, he has to be mentally prepared to pull it back in the right situations.
This isn’t so much a threat to Avdija’s game specifically, rather an external threat facing the NBA environment that could shift how he is utilized. It’s been well documented that post-ups have declined steadily and steeply over the past few years, per my calculation with Synergy’s NBA data, post ups have decreased over the last ten years by nearly 40%.
In the 2009-10 regular season, NBA teams ran possessions out of the post an average of 11.3 times per game. In the 2018-19 season, that rate was just 6.81 times per game. Teams are shifting away from the post up, which has been contemporarily viewed as being the least efficient type of shot in the NBA.
As this pertains to Avdija, there are two ways to view this shift in the NBA landscape. You could choose to see the shift as a positive for Avdija’s long term growth, emphasizing that there aren’t many excellent post players in the NBA, so Avdija’s unique skill set will stand out more and be more effective in the modern game. However, I don’t believe this to be the case.
The more likely outcome is that Avdija’s post touches will decrease dramatically as soon as he’s plugged in to a modern day NBA offense. His post ups will likely be viewed as more of a once-in-a-while occurrence aimed at keeping defenses on their toes rather than his bread and butter. To survive in the NBA, Avdija will have to learn to play more outside facing up and less with his back to the basket.
Though this is a strength at the moment against weaker (figuratively and literally) competition, once Avdija walks on to a court with NBA talent, it’s likely this will be an area he needs to work on.
He’s not the strongest guy around, and still can tend to shy away from contact underneath, relying on his wingspan and finesse to finish when he should probably be going up stronger.
So….What does this all mean?
Avdija is a super talented prospect who is worth keeping an eye on next year at Macabi Tel Aviv. How he’s utilized in the NBA will be interesting to watch and also massively important for his long-term development.
If he’s trusted with primary ball handling responsibilities and given some room to make mistakes, he’s primed to blossom into an excellent facilitator and multifaceted scorer who impacts the game on the defensive end as well. Yet, if he’s relegated to a catch-and-shoot role on the wing without much rope to create for himself and others, it will likely not turn out the way Israeli Basketball’s most passionate supporters are hoping for.
Naturally, given all the hype surrounding him, I had to ask Avdija about the pressure of being the most heralded young basketball player in the history of the country. His response showed his cool as well as his focus on the court.
It’s nice to have a good name and a good resume, but I can tell you that I’m not thinking about it one minute that I’m on the court. I’m trying to share the ball, [I’m trying for] my team to win first.
And win they did.
Five Big Things
Since the name of this website is Stretch Five, and since I’ve been away from writing for a while, I have a lot of thoughts I want to get out into the world. What better way to do that then to give you all some bonus thoughts for sitting through 3,000 words about Deni Avdija. This is also my way of doing an homage to my favorite basketball writer, Zach Lowe and his ‘Ten Things I Like and Don’t Like’, as well as Scott Van Pelt’s ‘One Big Thing’. So here are five other thoughts from my trip to Tel Aviv and the rest of this summer in basketball.
Issuf Sanon’s Swagger
Nobody was more fun to talk to or to watch in Tel Aviv than Sanon, who was drafted last year by the Washington Wizards with the 44th pick and took a leading role for his home country of Ukraine. A monster on the defensive end on-ball, the lengthy point guard showed nice tools on both ends of the floor, scoring in buckets for his team throughout the tournament and coming up with 3 steals per game.
I’ve never seen a human being flex more on the basketball court than Sanon did during his 30 point scoring outing and victory over Serbia. After the game, I started asking him about his flexing, and he interrupted me midway through the question to drop some knowledge.
“You have to do it, bro. It’s all about this. If you’re not flexing, you cannot play basketball.”
The NBA can never have too many guys like Issuf.
Yam Madar is a Baller
Seriously, remember this guy. The starting point guard for Israel made waves during the tournament, impressing scouts with his ball handling, creative short range shot making, and court vision. He could very easily find himself in the NBA one day, and his performance in this tournament could very well be remembered as his breakout moment.
If you want to read more about him, check out Mike Schmitz’s piece on Madar and other breakout stars from the tournament.
Israel Loves Basketball
Though several people explained to me that Israel is a soccer country first and foremost, it seemed that everyone has accepted basketball’s place as Israel’s second favorite sport, and its popularity is rising.
Seriously, just check out this video of fans celebrating and lifting Deni Avdija and Yam Madar into the air after their semifinal win over France. There’s a lot of love for basketball in this country, and it’ll be great to watch it grow over the coming years.
The HBL is Gonna Be Awesome
This has nothing to do with Tel Aviv, and I’m not gonna say much more than this because I enjoy my job working for a college basketball team, but you should check out what they’re doing. Really cool stuff.
My MVP and All-Tournament Team Ballot
Being a credentialed member of the media, I got to vote for the all-tournament team and the tournament MVP. Avdija got my MVP Vote, while my all-tournament starting five looked like this:
- Yam Madar (ISR)
- Carlos Alocen (ESP)
- Issuf Sanon (UKR)
- Deni Avdija (ISR)
- Georgios Kalaitzakis (GRE)
Honorable mentions to Ivan Fevrier (FRA), Marko Pecarski (SRB), Jonas Mattisseck (GER), Gabriele Stefanini (ITA), and Dimitrios Moraitis (GRE).
Jacob Mooallem is an intern for DraftExpress and a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.