The 2019 FIBA Under-20 European Basketball Championship will be held in Tel Aviv, beginning on Saturday and running through Sunday, July 21, as Israel will look to win back-to-back titles.
The tournament will be played at both the Shlomo Group Arena in north Tel Aviv and at the Shalom Zysman Sports Hall in Ramat Gan, with four games a day for over a week at both locations.
Sixteen of the best national teams from the continent will be on hand, including Spain, Lithuania, France and Croatia, as Israeli hoops fans will be able to see the future of world basketball on the grand stage in the Holy Land.
Last summer in Germany, Maccabi Tel Aviv swingman Yovel Zoosman led the blue-and-white to victory with a supporting cast that included potential 2020 NBA Draft lottery pick Deni Avdija. This summer however, it will be Avdija’s turn to lead coach Ariel Beit Halachmi’s national team as the host blue-and-white looks to repeat last year’s feat.
The Jerusalem Post sat down with Avdija as he spoke about the opportunity to host the tournament in his own backyard.
“It feels great,” he remarked. “Playing at home with our crowd and our facilities in our country is amazing. It’s also a big plus to have our home fans behind us. Israelis love to cheer us on and they really love it when we succeed, and that’s a big part of our potential success in this competition.”
Part of representing Israel means that one represents the Jewish people worldwide and that’s a fact that the 18-year old is acutely cognizant of.
“We also are well aware of the fact that we also represent the Jewish people around the world and we will try to do our best to make them proud.”
Hosting a big-time competition at home also raises the expectations on Avidija, which could increase the pressure to perform at the highest level.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure, but as basketball players we always love to compete at the highest level,” explained Avdija. “But we also know it’s a challenge to win back-to-back championships and it won’t be easy. However, we have a great national team and a terrific coach who can put everything in place.”
Last year, the Beit Zera native began featuring for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israeli league play on a regular basis and with that experience Avdija was able to continue to grow as a player on the court.
“The maturity that I’ve gained has helped me grow and understand how to deal with various different situations,” he said. “It helps you react to things that can happen in the flow of the game. We have no one star on the national team and we all play together as a team. We have a lot of great guys and no one here can win alone. We need to play together and if we do we can do some great things.”
Off of the court, Avdija was raised by his mother and father, Sharon and Zufer, who was also a professional basketball player in both Serbia and Israel, and they gave him life lessons that he holds to each and every day.
“My parents raised me to be humble. I always want to win more and more. I want to work hard and continue to win. I will always be positive and ready to compete to win as many trophies as I can. But I will take one day at a time and I’ll continue to work hard to improve my game and I’ll give everything to this team in order for us to win.
“My parents have influenced me very much and they have helped me mold myself as a person,” noted Avdija. “They raised me to stay humble and how to act both on and off of the court. These are very important attributes as you want to be a good person before you’re a great basketball player. This will reflect on the court. My parents have given me a lot of tools to get through each season. My dad was once a player, so he is also a very big influence as to how I go about my day-to-day affairs. I also have some great coaches, including the Maccabi Tel Aviv coaches and the youth coaches as well. Coach Veljko Perovic is always with me and he has also been able to help me continue to grow in the right way.”
As with every young player, the 6-foot-9 (2.05-meter) Avdija always looks to add various different elements to his game.
“I have worked very hard and I have the stage to show it. I added a lot of aspects to my game and I am very excited to use them in this tournament.”
When it comes to role models on the hardwood or players who he has patterned his game after, the two-time Israeli league champion does have a few players in mind.
“There isn’t someone specific, but there are a number of players who I have taken things from. It could be the way James Harden shoots or Luka Doncic’s court vision. Everyone has something and I try to combine all of these attributes. I enjoy watching them play.”
After Israel captured the warm-up tournament this past week, in which Avdija starred and won the Most Valuable Player award as well as being the top scorer, he wants to keep focusing on the team aspect and not stand out among his mates.
“I don’t want to talk about myself, but there is a team surrounding me and they always know where to find me, battling on the defensive and grabbing important rebounds,” he said. “At the end of the day, the bank will come to me or go to one of my teammates and we have to take the best possible shot, and it’s the best feeling when it goes in.”
With Avdija and the rest of the team, “working 24/7 with the goal to make it back-to-back championships because the sky’s the limit for what we can accomplish,” NBA prospects will be looming over the next 12 months leading up to the 2020 NBA Draft, where Avdija is currently projected to be selected in the top five of 10 spots. But the budding star knows that he needs to have patience and take it one step at a time.
“It’s hard to think about the NBA. It’s exciting, but I have a full year in front of me and I want to take it day by day and I am not thinking ahead, time will go by itself.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com) Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi via email at email@example.com.
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