TEL AVIV, ISRAEL -- As Deni Avdija converted a tournament-clinching and-1 with 32.5 seconds left, the 18-year-old strutted toward his opponents' bench with close to 4,000 fans in a frenzy.
First, a wave goodbye as Avdija shouted "adios" to the Spanish team. Then a salute in front of Spain's bench, putting a bow on a 23-point, 7-assist, 3-block night and tournament MVP honors, lifting Israel to its second straight Under-20 European Championship while strengthening his status as a potential top-five pick in the 2020 NBA draft.
"I don't want to be boring," Avdija told ESPN.
Spain's players and coaches didn't take the gestures lightly, throwing things onto the floor in frustration. At first glance, Avdija's brash style of play can be eye-opening, especially amid adversity, which he faced plenty of as he stumbled through the early stages of the U20s. The ultra-competitive Israeli-Serbian teenager will sulk toward teammates or scold them for mistakes. He'll bury his face in his hands mid-play after a missed layup.
But that body language comes from a drive to win, and although it took him a while to get going, Avdija ultimately delivered. His swagger, passion and rivalrous nature -- combined with his do-it-all skill set -- took over and played a pivotal role in Israel's U20 title.
"When he was really young, he had this swag," said Avi Even, Maccabi Tel Aviv's current head scout and former assistant coach who brought Avdija to Israel's top club at age 12. "He was a kid that everybody loved."
After Israel took down France in the U20 semis, Avdija made his way to the team bus where hundreds of fans were waiting in celebration. Avdija draped the Israeli flag over his head and walked into the center of the crowd only to be hoisted into the air, leading chants and songs while beaming ear to ear. Shortly after, he was paraded around the crowds, taking selfies with fans and lifting up babies, à la "The Lion King," before being whisked away onto the bus. The celebration was even grander after the win over Spain, with a shirtless Avdija front and center in the mosh pit yet again.
At practice with his club team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, the confidence remains. He'll talk smack to his older American teammates during post-practice one-on-one battles. When I met him for an interview in Herzliya, Israel, he was sporting a white T-shirt that simply read, "F---", uncensored, in red letters. During a performance by Eden Ben Zaken -- one of the nation's biggest pop stars -- at the Israeli League all-star game, Avdija joined in on the show, grabbing the mic, soaking up the spotlight and belting into song despite shaky vocal chords.
"I really like singing. I'm not a good singer, but I'm trying my best," Avdija said, jokingly. "I think my future in singing is bright."
The swagger runs in the family. His father, Zufer Avdija, played with a similar edge and personality. Born in what was formerly Yugoslavia, Zufer starred for now-Serbian powerhouse Red Star from 1979 to 1990, serving as a team captain. The 6-foot-8 scorer also was a mainstay for the Yugoslavian national team that won bronze in the 1982 FIBA World Championship. He competed against Michael Jordan when MJ was playing for North Carolina.
After an injury while playing in Serbia, Zufer took his talents to Israel, where he eventually met Deni's mom, Sharon, who was a track athlete and basketball player. During a professional career that spanned nearly 20 years, Zufer once scored more than 70 points in a second-division Israel game. Zufer never saw a shot he didn't like, according to former teammates, and he combined that aggressive scoring with a signature mean streak.
"Oh, man, he was a killer," said Even, who used to work with Zufer. "One thing that Zufer had from the first day that I saw him, he was a winner by heart. He did whatever required to win the game. You can feel it in his energy."
As Deni explained, "Our mentality was the same, definitely. We came to kill. Every night to win."
Despite battling shooting struggles and inconsistent scoring efficiency early in this year's U20 tournament, Avdija averaged 18.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.4 blocks in 32.3 minutes per game. With droves of NBA scouts and executives on hand, Avdija showcased the type of big-game comfortability teams look for in an elite prospect.
"This kid has a high-level competitive spirit and understands what it takes to get to his highest level," said Maccabi assistant coach Tim Fanning.
In almost every evaluation setting up until this point, he has been arguably the best prospect. So, in a wide-open race for the No. 1 pick in 2020, where does Avdija fit in?
How will Avdija's game fit in the NBA?
While he still must prove himself at the pro level and doesn't have the tantalizing tools of James Wiseman or the three-level shot-creation potential or athleticism of Anthony Edwards, Avdija, by my estimation, deserves to be in the top-3 conversation, given his skill set built for the modern game.
Avdija's U20 performance was impressive down the stretch, but many in international circles consider the competition level to be at an all-time low since the best players were either competing in the U19 World Championships or the NBA. Even so, watching Avdija function basically as a power forward on defense and a point guard on offense was impressive.
At 6-foot-9 in shoes with a proportionate 218-pound frame and 8-foot-10 standing reach, Avdija should be able to function at the 4 defensively in the NBA for stretches as he gets stronger and gains more experience -- opening up a world of lineup possibilities offensively.
He still has a few bad habits to extinguish, but Avdija made a jump defensively in Tel Aviv, ranking third overall in blocks per 40 minutes (3.0) and second in defensive win shares (0.59). He showcased tremendous timing and excellent verticality technique both as the primary and help-side defender. He demonstrated a willingness to do the little things that we haven't always seen from him in other evaluation settings, and he has the feet to slide on the perimeter when fully engaged.
Whether in the passing lanes or around the rim, his defensive anticipation is sharp and he has the rebounding instincts to survive at that spot.
Again, the competition level wasn't stellar and he is far from a lockdown defender, but Avdija's improvement -- particularly as a rim protector -- and willingness to adjust his game stood out.
Every NBA team is looking for big, versatile shot-creators, as that allows for ultimate lineup flexibility, which is exactly what Avdija provides.
"He can shoot the ball, he's playing defense, he's playing offense, he can play post up, he can dribble the ball up, he can play pick-and-rolls, he's smart," U20 teammate Yam Madar said.
It starts with Avdija's ability to push off the glass. He is fast in the open court, either moving it ahead through the air with on-the-money outlets over the top or racing up the floor with his dribble. The transition push from a player of Avdija's size is one of the more devastating plays in basketball, given the chaos and cross-matches it creates. Combine that with his basketball IQ and ability to shoot it from deep and his open-court game becomes that much more valuable.
In the half-court, Avdija's intrigue starts with his ability to make pull-up 3s. Now, he shot only 28.6% from 3 during this tournament, and he is a career 58.2% free throw shooter on 306 attempts, which is concerning. But watching him play in person for more than two years, he is not lacking touch. The fact that he can hop into 30-foot pull-ups versus switches or step back into 3s gives him tremendous upside as a half-court shot-creator, even if he's still learning on the job, particularly as a ball handler. Avdija made 2.1 3s per 40 minutes at the U20s, and he is a career 32.4% 3-point shooter on 358 attempts, which likely would be a much higher clip if he were more selective.
With defenders having to at least respect the pull-up, Avdija can then pick teams apart out of pick-and-roll, particularly as a playmaker. While he is extremely right-hand dominant with his handle, he understands how to use his body to put defenders in jail.
While he had major help from breakout point guard Madar, Avdija orchestrated Israel's offense from all over the floor; it is something we've seen in different settings and so impressively that I've suggested lead guard might well be Avdija's best offensive position in the long term.
When he wasn't pushing in transition or operating out of ball screens, Avdija took defenders down to the post, where he is more often than not looking to create for others. This bodes well for Avdija's ability to punish switches in the NBA. He can make a short turnaround, use his strength to create opportunities or employ fairly crisp footwork to draw fouls. He sees both sides of the floor from the block and loves to hit the weakside shooter on the wing.
There's still too much catch-and-hold in his game when he is the primary option, but given the role he is expected to play with Maccabi along with the glimpses he showed at the U20s, there's certainly optimism that he'll be able to adjust to playing more off the ball when necessary.
Key improvement areas
We've seen many players dominate the FIBA youth levels with an edge and not find stardom in the NBA, but few had the untapped potential of Avdija, which is part of what makes him such an enticing prospect.
As he works closely with highly regarded Maccabi assistant Veljko Perovic, here are Avdija's greatest improvement areas:
Avdija struggled mightily around the rim all tournament, to the point where he appeared to develop a case of the yips for stretches, blowing wide-open right-hand layups or air-balling short floaters. He lacks a degree of physicality as a finisher, too often shying away from contact and lacking versatility in his technique. Predominantly a one-leg jumper, Avdija must find more ways to keep the defense guessing while utilizing his size and strength, in order to benefit in the long run.
2. Shooting consistency
For all the worthy praise about his natural touch, the percentages still speak for themselves. His free throw issues were a problem all tournament, so much so that he started staying after games for extra reps. He would avoid contact around the rim with panic shot fakes in part because of his ineffectiveness at the free throw line. For a player who generally plays with confidence, the mental aspect of his free throw woes is noteworthy.
3. Left hand
As aforementioned, Avdija is exceedingly right-hand dominant as a driver. He will do whatever it takes to get to that right hand, lacking much variety in his dribble moves, often resulting in deep contested 3s because he doesn't have a host of ways to attack. When he is forced to drive left, he'll kill his dribble or try to retreat and re-attack right. If given the opportunity to extend with his left around the rim, he'll shy away. Part of this is because he has spent so much of the past few years dominating the under-18 level in Israel while playing however he wanted. He simply hasn't had consistent opportunity to test himself against greater athletes, given his age and the huge gap between youth and pro basketball in Israel.
Avdija still has some flash over substance to his game and can be a bit turnover prone. He is a high-IQ player who generally trusts his teammates, but he'll still jack contested 3s early in the shot clock, airmail a home run pass attempt or break off the offense to go get his own shot. Finding the right balance in his risk-reward style will be important to earning the trust of Maccabi's coaching staff.
5. Inconsistent energy
Part of this is energy conservation while playing a big role, but Avdija walks on the floor too often, sometimes not even crossing the half-court line (a pet peeve among NBA scouts). He has occasional dips in intensity defensively, as well. He loves to point and switch assignments and doesn't always want to leave the paint to contest jumpers.
Next season and the 2020 draft
The lingering question among Israeli basketball fans and scouts is just how much of an opportunity Avdija will have to show off his game with Maccabi next season. Everyone around the team speaks confidently that he'll play a role in the Israeli League and the EuroLeague. But will that role be big enough for him to show some of the shot-creation skills and versatility that make him so interesting? Or will he be relegated to being a catch-and-shoot wing?
There's pressure to win in Maccabi, but there also is pressure to play him given the hype surrounding his NBA future. He has the talent to increase his role as the season progresses, but there's no question that the level of freedom he has this season will have an impact on his draft range, as high-ranking American executives still are getting a feel for his game.
One other thing of note: Israel's three-year mandatory military service makes Avdija's situation more unique. He heads to basic army training on Aug. 5 for three weeks, which will shorten his summer and run up against the start of Maccabi's preseason preparation. There isn't much precedent for similar military requirements with top draft prospects, but there's confidence that Avdija will be able to proceed toward the draft and an NBA career.
Overall, scouts seem scattered on Avdija, who has the makings of a polarizing prospect. Many talent evaluators marvel at his versatility and talent, and others get hung up on the body language, streaky shooting and the fact that -- despite some comparisons in the media -- he is not Luka Doncic, balking at the idea that Avdija could be considered in the top-3 of the draft.
Doncic and Avdija are clearly different-caliber prospects with different trajectories. Doncic already had played more than 2,000 EuroLeague and ACB minutes by the time he entered his draft-eligible season. Avdija has just 348 pro minutes to his name, with almost all of them coming in the Israeli League.
But it is stubbornness for scouts to deny that there are any stylistic similarities between the 6-foot-9 shot-creators who both enjoy great basketball instincts and swagger on the court. How Avdija and NBA decision-makers handle the comparisons -- fairly or not -- will be something to monitor between now and June, just as expectation and comparisons played a role in Doncic's stock.
"I mean, Luka's a great player," Avdija said of the Slovenian swingman and NBA Rookie of the Year. "I really like him. I really like how he's playing and what he's doing. One of the biggest Europeans to have came from here. But I can tell you Luka's the exception, you know? He played like a grown-up at the age of 18, and I can tell you that it's nice, but I don't want to do that. I like how young I am and how I have this ceiling to improve."
Avdija brings the ability to slide anywhere between positions 1 through 4 in a pinch on both ends. He has basketball pedigree. He has winning instincts and star quality. He also will be facing enormous pressure this season as Israel's first real elite draft prospect while trying to earn a role on a major club.
Still, if we're talking about pure talent and potential in today's NBA, Avdija at least belongs in the early conversation with Wiseman and Edwards. Maybe he won't get drafted that high if he's a fifth option this season. But given what we've seen from Avdija at the youth level along with how valuable players like him are in today's game, his NBA upside is clear.