When members of the Wizards organization expressed surprise they were able to select Deni Avdija on draft night in November, they weren't exaggerating. The Wizards had Avdija rated as one of the best prospects in this year's draft and liked him so much they worked the phones to trade up for him.
The Wizards got closest to dealing for Avdija with the Chicago Bulls at the fourth pick, NBC Sports Washington was told. But, according to one source, "the cost was too high."
They thought he wouldn't last past the 5-to-8 range. So they waited, and waited.
Pessimism returned as the Knicks were on the clock at No. 8. They were certain New York would take Avdija, but when they chose Obi Toppin, the Wizards very quickly picked up the phone to make their selection.
Now, they aren't looking back as Avdija has already turned heads in his first few weeks with the team. He's drawn high praise from his coaches and teammates, and he played well enough in the preseason to raise expectations for his rookie year. Though he was a role player in his last stop in the EuroLeague, Avdija's timeline to being an impact player in the NBA may be sooner than many originally thought.
So, how did we get here? NBC Sports Washington caught up with Avi Even, the head of scouting and player development for Maccabi Tel Aviv, to learn more about Avdija, who played in the team's youth program from when he was in middle school all the way to last season when he polished off his NBA Draft stock with the senior team at just 19 years old.
Even has known Avdija since he was only three. Avdija's father, Zufer, was a former player and coach. He would bring Deni to the gym for almost every practice.
By the time he was 12 and 13, Deni was growing taller than the other kids. Even could start to see the trajectory.
"I brought him to Maccabi because I knew his father's talents. I knew that his father was 6-foot-7 and a big player. I knew when he was young, I saw his passion to the ball," Even said.
"He wasn't that great at the time, but he was bigger than all the others and I knew that he had the potential. We always want every player to go to the NBA, but we never know who will go. With him, it was a beautiful process."
Even has known Zufer for over 20 years, so when it was time to convince him to allow his son to become a professional player at such a young age, he took him out for a cup of coffee. They sat down down at a cafe in Israel and Even explained what he saw in Deni's future.
Zufer agreed, and Deni became part of the program. Very soon after, Even could tell there was something special about him.
"The second he came to Maccabi, we all knew he was going to be a Maccabi [first team] player. There is something in his spirit. He is eager to learn. He has passion to be the best that he can. There are other players that want to be NBA players, but the distance and gap between wanting to be a good player and doing anything possible to be a player; sometimes the gap is very big. This guy, every practice his eyes were like projectors," he said.
Avdija then committed himself to a degree others didn't. He put in extra practice sessions, showing up at 6 a.m. before school and later getting shots up through the evening after everyone else went home.
"After all these crazy days, four or five hours a day, working so hard and working in a crazy way; after all these days, you put him in a [drill] to make 17 out of 20 from one spot of the floor, he would go another hour. He would stay in the gym. I would say to myself 'damn, this guy is so stubborn.' He was exhausted, but didn't break. That reflects a lot of his state of mind," Even said. "I'm a big believer in him because he's a guy that never stops. He never stops learning."
Even raved about Avdija's personality, beyond the work ethic. He said it was common for Avdija to thank his coaches at the end of practice. He would always make time for fans who stopped him on the street for a selfie or an autograph.
Avdija is now in the United States playing in the best basketball league in the world. But his popularity back home may grow further from here, as he is the highest NBA draft pick ever for Israel and on track to be one of the most famous athletes ever from the country.
Avdija has a chance to grow the game's popularity in different parts of the world, and the Wizards are already seeing the impact. They went through this in 2019 when Rui Hachimura was drafted out of Japan. That quickly brought a wave of international business opportunities and enough attention to warrant an internal Japanese-language media arm.
The same is in the works for Avdija's fans with Hebrew-speaking content; a Twitter account, videos and possibly a podcast down the road, according to Monumental Sports president of business operations Jim Van Stone.
"I think being able to build those connections with our other athletes in some of these far away lands is just a really great opportunity for us," Van Stone told NBC Sports Washington.
Van Stone has already been on over a dozen calls to Israel in recent weeks, discussing ways to capitalize in both directions on Avdija's potential stardom. Van Stone made multiple trips to Japan after Hachimura joined the team, going to upwards of 20-to-30 meetings per week to speak with media and business executives.
Hachimura helped grow the Wizards' footprint in Asia significantly in just one year.
"I think Deni is going to be really as equally as impactful," Van Stone said.
Van Stone says there is already a movement growing where young kids in Israel are asking their parents to schedule Bar Mitzvah trips to Washington, D.C. to see Avdija and the Wizards play. In the past, kids have requested to see Lionel Messi play soccer in Barcelona.
The potential for Avdija as a player, and to be something special for the nation of Israel, is there. That process begins on Wednesday night as Avdija plays his first NBA game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Tune in at 6 PM to NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday for complete coverage of the Wizards season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers.