The Washington Wizards cheered their selection Wednesday of Deni Avdija with the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA draft, making him the first Israeli basketball player to be chosen in the top 10.
Tommy Sheppard, the general manager of the Wizards, said the team was “grateful” Avdija was still available, as the 6’9″ forward was considered a potential top-five pick, and called his selection a “no brainer.”
“We were a little bit surprised he was gonna be there at nine. We were very excited but certainly Israeli fans around the world are texting right now… I think we made some Wizards fans tonight,” Sheppard said.
The team shared a video of Sheppard calling league offices to say the Wizards were selecting Avdija.
“Hell yeah,” Sheppard said after getting off the phone with the league office, as other members of the organization gave a standing ovation.
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) November 19, 2020
Sheppard called Avdija shortly after.
“Welcome home buddy! We are so excited,” the Wizards GM was heard telling Avdija. “You were very high on our board and no one thought in a million years you’d get to us.”
Avdija said it was moving to be the highest selected Israeli prospect.
“Israel is a small country, it didn’t provide as many NBA players and for me to represent my country and be in the highest spot possible, that’s amazing and I’m super excited and ready to get my game to the next level,” he said in an interview with ESPN.
Avdija, 19, has played professionally for Maccabi Tel Aviv since 2017 and is also a member of the senior men’s national team, after having helped Israel win the FIBA U-20 championships in 2018 and 2019.
He was born in Kibbutz Beit Zera in the north, where his mother Sharon is from. His father, Zufer Avdija, played for the Yugoslavian national team and later moved to Israel, where he played professionally for a number of Israeli clubs.
In Washington, Avdija will team up with shooting guard Bradley Beal, who finished second in scoring average last season, and point guard John Wall, a five-time all star who missed most of the 2018-19 season after heel surgery, and all of 2019-20 with a ruptured left Achilles tendon.
The team was named the Washington Bullets until 1997, when the name was changed to the Wizards. The decision to change the name has been attributed to the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was a friend of then-owner Abe Pollin. However, Pollin said he decided on the change before Rabin was killed, citing the high levels of gun violence in the US capital.
Besides Avdija, Israeli point guard Yam Madar was selected Wednesday in the second round of the draft by the Boston Celtics,
The only other Israelis to play in the NBA were Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel. Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Leaf was born in Tel Aviv and holds Israeli citizenship.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.