That is how Washington’s first-round pick Deni Avdija first caught Sheppard’s eye at an international tournament when he was 16 years old: on paper, then in person. The executive knew of Avdija’s father, Zufer, who played pro ball in Serbia and Israel in the 1980s and ’90s.
“That name definitely had some twitch to it,” Sheppard said late Wednesday night after selecting Avdija with the ninth overall pick. “Did a little research, and right away somebody goes on your baseline. I can’t recall his [stat] line. I’ll just tell you this: Some guys, they just understand how to play basketball. And it doesn’t matter what age they are, they just kind of have a good feel. This was somebody that had that at that age.”
Avdija’s pedigree — his mother Sharon Artzi is a former championship runner — plus his three years of experience in European pro leagues and time on the Israeli national team are three of the things Sheppard and Wizards Coach Scott Brooks were most excited about in adding Avdija to a young Washington roster that’s trying to compete for a playoff spot.
Brooks, having toiled as a backup point guard in the NBA for a decade, places a high value on effort and toughness and believes the 19-year-old’s high-level basketball experience has given him both. Aside from a tantalizing combination of the forward’s size at 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, and versatile skill set, Sheppard and Brooks liked Avdija’s balance of calm and competitive fire on the court.
Sheppard remembers watching Avdija play a friendly against the Serbian national team in a not-so-friendly environment. He was impressed with how unfazed the young forward seemed.
“I’ve been playing for over three years, and I’ve played with a lot of ex-NBA players. I played in the EuroLeague, the second-best league in the world, and the competition level was very high. I’ve kind of faced a lot of challenges. It made me a better player,” Avdija said Thursday in a virtual news conference from Israel. “. . . I’m a big competitor. I like to win. I’ll do anything for the team. I’ll give 100 percent. It’s definitely something I got from my parents, not just my dad; both my parents are very competitive. I remember going back home after losses; it wasn’t easy.”
In Israel, Avdija was ahead of his peers from a young age. The same year Sheppard first spotted him at a tournament, he became the youngest player, at 16, ever to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv’s senior team in the Israeli pro league.
Avdija grew up playing soccer before committing to basketball full time, and though he credits his parents with his feisty personality, his father was never his coach. The pair butt heads too much on court, so Zufer stuck to teaching his son off-court skills and physical tricks, such as how to wield his supersized body to draw fouls.
“He raised me, raised me to be good off the court and how to behave with my teammates and how to be a professional and work hard and never give up,” Avdija said before explaining that his father was steady as ever when his son became the highest-drafted Israeli player in NBA history.
“He has cold blood, no matter what I did, what goals I achieved in life. I know deep inside of him — he doesn’t show his emotions outside — but deep inside I’m sure he’s very proud.”
Other than his father, the players Avdija looked up to as a youngster were largely those on Maccabi’s senior team. He didn’t watch much of the NBA growing up — games were on too late in Israel — though he became more of a fan as he got older. Being John Wall and Bradley Beal’s teammate still feels surreal after playing with the guards in video games, which is also how Avdija polished his English outside of school.
English-language video games and American TV shows such as “Drake & Josh” and “iCarly” were his go-to extracurriculars.
Though he has the language down, Avdija understands how much of an adjustment the NBA will be even with his European experience. The Wizards believe the Israeli teen has a high ceiling and are willing to be patient with his development. They will experiment with lineups, and Brooks wants to give him opportunities on court when warranted. But Avdija has plenty of work ahead, on individual skills — Sheppard expects his shot to improve — and on learning the Wizards’ system at a more physical, faster level than what he’s used to in Europe.
“There is no easy,” Avdija said. “I think the easiest thing will be to fly to Washington, I think that’s about it.”
Wizards send Admiral Schofield to Oklahoma City
Admiral Schofield, who signed a three-year contract with the Wizards last summer, was traded to Oklahoma City as part of Washington’s draft-night deal with the Thunder.
The Wizards announced Thursday, when the deal became official, that they sent Schofield and the rights to 37th overall pick Vit Krejci to Oklahoma City for Michigan State guard Cassius Winston, the 53rd overall pick out of Michigan State, and a second-round pick in 2024.
The move gives Washington another backup option for Wall as the point guard is expected to make his return after two years because of an Achilles’ injury. Schofield, a 6-5, 241-pound wing, averaged three points and 1.4 rebounds in limited minutes in 33 games with the Wizards.