Prospect of Interest: Deni Avdija has foundation to become special player

DJ Strawberry (R) of Herbalife Gran Canaria dribbles through his legs as Deni Avdija (L) of Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv tries to defend in their EuroLeague basketball match Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv vs Herbalife Gran Canaria in Tel Aviv, Israel, 28 March 2019. (Jim Hollander/EPA)

Touted as the best basketball prospect to ever come out of Israel, Deni Avdija has a whole nation’s worth of expectations to shoulder heading into the NBA Draft. Thankfully for him and the many who are cheering for him, he appears to already have the necessary maturity and dogged work ethic to turn himself into a fine NBA player -- if not a future All-Star.

Blessed with a plethora of skills he’s honed as a professional since he was just 16 years old, Avdija is very different from a lot of the other top prospects in this year’s draft in that he’s more of a high-floor, lower-ceiling guy. He doesn’t feature the kind of raw physical tools that you normally see from future NBA stars, but much the same has been said about many a European prospect, and there are nearly endless examples of guys like that who were dismissed for not being athletic enough and who went on to have great NBA careers.

There’s no way to truly know what kind of NBA player Avdija will end up being, but he has a strong foundation and has a shot to be something special.

Here’s a little more on his game and what aspects, specifically, he’ll probably need to work on to be effective at the next level.

Age: 19

Position: Shooting guard/small forward

Height: Six-foot-nine | Weight: 220 lbs

2019-20 stats: PPG: 9.0 | RPG: 4.7 | FG%: 50.5

Great pedigree

Avdija is of Serbian-Israeli descent and has basketball running in his blood as the son of Zufer Avdija, a former national team member of the former Yugoslavia.

Deni started playing basketball seriously in the fourth grade. When he was 12 he joined the youth ranks of Maccabi Tel Aviv, and then became the youngest player in Maccabi history to make his debut for the senior team at age 16.

As such, despite being only 19 right now, he’s already had about three years of professional experience giving him invaluable reps against not only professionals, but grown, veteran men, in games against some of the best competition the world has to offer.

This is because even though the Israeli Basketball Premier League isn’t among the best leagues in the world, Maccabi plays in Euroleague (basketball’s equivalent of Champions League) where the best teams in Europe compete against each other.

So, in a sense, Avdija has been battle-tested already against top competition and has come out of it looking pretty good.

The stats you see above are a combination of Avdija’s games in both the Israeli league and Euroleague this past season. He didn’t play many minutes in his Euroleague games, but was a featured player in domestic play, earning MVP honours this season in the Israeli League and helping Maccabi to its third straight Israeli League championship -- Avdija has won the Israeli championship in every year since he’s joined the senior squad.

In the Israeli League last season, Avdija averaged 12.9 points and 6.3 rebounds on 52.6 per cent shooting. Those are pretty good numbers. But for the real eye-poppers and a look at what happens when Avdija is given responsibility as the No. 1 option, you need only look at his Under-20 European Championships performance from 2019 when he led Israel to a gold medal and was named tournament MVP.

In this tournament he averaged 18.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.4 blocks as he dominated competition his age.

In general, this is a lot of high-level competition for someone so relatively young, with most of it coming against grown men with plenty of veteran experience to draw upon and Avdija, for the most part, has proven himself every step of the way, so why should the NBA be any different?

Jack of all trades, master of none

Take a look at that stat line of Avdija from the 2019 Under-20 European Championship again, it’s an absolute box score stat-stuffer and is indicative of the kind of player Avdija is.

With his combination of size and skill, Avdija can do just about everything on the basketball court. He has terrific feel for the game, is an advanced passer, has good-looking shot mechanics, makes smart cuts, can finish at the rim and is a strong team defender.

So then, with this total package that he appears to bring, you may be wondering why Avdija isn’t an apparent lock for the No. 1 overall pick, right?

The answer is simple. While he has all these tools at his disposal, he’s only what you would say is pretty good with each one and lacks a single skill that could be called great.

Of his myriad skills, his passing might be the one you could point to that has the potential to turn into something truly game-changing, and it’s possible that teams may be banking on him getting there with that passing, as point forwards who can pass out of the short roll and make reads from the high post are valuable in today’s game. Right now, he isn’t there because he is far too right-hand dominant and is unable to make clean feeds with his off hand.

With that said, nearly every aspect of Avdija’s game can be nitpicked to death to find flaws in it, but what’s important to remember is he can improve and he’s shown willingness to improve.

Avdija is a young man who appears to take basketball very seriously and he wants to get better. This is reflected in his work ethic, his coachability and how hard he competes on every play. Mistakes will be made with him but it won’t be for a lack of effort, and that holds promise that some of those weaknesses in his game can get shored up and he can become a true multi-faceted versatile threat in the NBA.

Shaky shooter

If there’s one part of Avdija’s game that is vital for him to improve it’s definitely his shooting.

At a glance, Avdija seems to have really nice-looking mechanics as he has a high release point on his shot, has good balance, and puts nice rotation and arc on the ball.

This is only in easy catch-and-shoot situations or when he’s able to slowly step into a shot, however. When coming off the dribble, he loses his balance and his shot becomes crooked leading to dismal shooting percentages such as the 27.7 per cent he shot from three-point range in Euroleague this past season.

Across all competitions in 2020 Avdija shot a good 50.5 per cent from the floor, but that doesn’t exactly tell the full story. He’s a player who’s very analytically friendly in that he’s always looking to score with either a lay-up or three-pointer, meaning when he’s looking to rise up to take a jumper it’s going to be a three-pointer and right now he doesn’t look like he’s got enough natural touch from distance to justify himself taking those kind of shots.

And more to this point that Avdija just might be bad shooter is the fact he’s a terrible free-throw shooter, converting only 58.8 per cent of his attempts at the charity stripe in all competitions last season, an indicator that even if his mechanics look good, there’s still probably something fundamentally wrong with his stroke.

Again, this isn’t to say Avdija can’t become a better shooter, but shooting is the most important skill in the NBA and right now it looks like he doesn’t have it and it’s critical that he finds a consistent stroke if he’s going to have the kind of NBA career he’s probably imagining for himself.

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