If you’re looking for the next potential NBA superstar from overseas — and plenty of teams are after some overlooked Luka Doncic (how has he worked out so far?) — his name is Deni Avdija.
While Doncic was drafted third overall and then traded to the Mavericks, there were few teams who would have predicted his immediate impact. He is an MVP candidate entering his third season, and his transition to the NBA has been seamless.
Teams are not going to bypass the next overseas star, and Avdija, a 19-year-old from Israel who has risen to the top of draft boards, has drawn comparisons with Doncic and other point forwards who have become pivotal in today’s NBA.
Avdija worked out for the Warriors, apparently wowing management and coach Steve Kerr. He has thrust himself into the conversation as a top-five pick, playing for the senior national team since he was 17 and helping the under-20 team to gold at the European championships.
“I don’t care where I go, I just care the team that’s going to draft me is going to maximize my potential and I’ll be a major part of the team,” Avdija said. “That’s my goal. I started representing my country from the age of 16. I played multiple, different competitions internationally, but I really had a chance to represent at the age of 17 when I joined the under-20 team, where we won a gold medal for Israeli basketball. That was big for me.
"It’s always an honor to represent your country. Israel is a really small country. We don’t provide a lot of players like other places, and for me to put the flag wherever I go is super important, and I’m proud I can do that.”
Polished because of his international experience, Avdija appears ready for the NBA stage.
“The whole culture of the United States is different, so I needed to get used to it,” he said this past week. “I did a good job of taking care of my body, working hard, adding things to my game, and it’s a weird feeling to be getting drafted through the pandemic. It’s kind of a bummer for us because we want to be there and we want to experience it as players. What can you do? The whole world is crazy right now. We needed to adjust.”
One player Avdija bonded with during his two years with Maccabi Tel Aviv was former NBA swingman Omri Casspi, who has advised him on the rigors of the NBA life. Avdija also played with former NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire with Maccabi.
“Me talking with him every day and him teaching me and guiding me toward my dream coming true is for sure something special,” Avdija said. “To have somebody like that next to you is a lot of experience who told me how is the travel, how is the game style, and what you need to do and what position is best for you. Our relationship was special on the court. I’m very thankful for him.”
There have been only four players from Israel who have played in the NBA, and Avdija is considered more talented than any in that group. Like Doncic, Avdija will soon become a household name, and coming from such a small country and rising to this level is not lost on him.
“What’s the chances of any basketball player in the world to get drafted to the league?” he said. “Me as an Israeli, coming from a small place going through all those ups and downs. I didn’t think about this at the beginning. It’s a dream come true.”
A GOLDEN STATE?
With No. 2 pick in draft, Warriors in good position
The Warriors will be healthy this coming season with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green ready for a couple of more deep playoff runs before they approach their mid-30s. Because the Warriors finished with the league’s worst record, they were rewarded with the No. 2 overall pick — losing out to Minnesota in the draft lottery.
That allows a playoff-ready team to add a potential star on a rookie contract. Yet, in this draft there are no clear No. 1 or 2 picks. And Golden State has contemplated moving out of the No. 2 spot for an established veteran.
“Obviously, you always want talent, as much talent as you can get,” general manager Bob Myers said. “We’ve got guys at every position that we like in certain respects. We just haven’t seen it. We just haven’t seen what it looks like.
“I hope that whatever we do we can address whatever we needed to, but without knowing for sure — I mean, we have some depth. We need more depth. We’re going to draft a player, will probably draft a couple players, at the most three. Maybe we don’t draft two guys in the second round, maybe we stash one; we haven’t figured that out yet. But we do need some veterans still. Our three core guys, the older core guys I should say, are going to have to be the veterans, but we want to give them some older voices, as well, so that’s something we’re going to have to look at in free agency.”
The Warriors want to compete now, so it’s unlikely they will take a chance on a long-term project. Two of these three prospects — James Wiseman, LaMelo Ball, and Anthony Edwards — will be available at No. 2.
“If everything plays out right, we think we’re in that mix [to compete for a championship],” Myers said. “I don’t know, you can decide how many teams are in it as well as I can, but you’d like to think you have a chance. Predicting it? I didn’t predict we’d have the worst record in the league, and the year we had the best record I didn’t think that was going to happen, either. That’s what makes it fun. That’s why I like sports. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
“I believe you can bet on our guys. They’ve proven it. It’s not an unknown. They’ve done it before, so you’d like to believe it can happen again. And I’m excited to see it just as a fan of basketball. I want to see what it is as much as anybody.”
What the Warriors do could influence the first round of the draft. They could trade out for a veteran, trade down because they don’t like any of the top prospects or stick with a player who could help immediately.
“I think we’ve got some good pieces in place and the pick will be nice, get some youth,” Myers said. “The last year it kind of all derailed, so now we’ve got to see what it is. I don’t know how many meaningful games we played last year, so we really need to — I want to stay healthy. That would be my hope for us and actually every team, stay healthy, and then you get a great ability to evaluate your team. I don’t think we’ve had that in a couple years.”
WESTBROOK WANTS OUT
Potential landing spots intriguing
After his stint in Oklahoma City, it appeared Russell Westbrook found a comfortable landing place by fostering a trade to the Houston Rockets. But after a year in which Westbrook again struggled to shoot and the Rockets were eliminated by the Lakers in five games in the Western Conference semifinals, he wants out and the Rockets will have to determine whether there is addition by subtraction in moving the final three years and $132 million of his contract.
Westbrook signed that massive extension with the Thunder and the Rockets took on that deal — in exchange for Chris Paul — believing he would be in Houston long term. Westbrook has asked for a trade because of what he perceives as a lack of accountability in the organization and the uncertainty with new coach Stephen Silas and GM Rafael Stone.
Although it appears difficult to move Westbrook because of his contract, there are plenty of teams in need of his star power that would be willing to sacrifice a bad contract and a draft pick for a former MVP and a triple-double king.
Let’s look at some teams that would be good fits for Westbrook:
Charlotte Hornets — The Michael Jordan-as-owner thing hasn’t attracted free agents. The Hornets had to work a sign-and-trade deal with the Celtics just to acquire Terry Rozier, a solid guard but far from All-Star-caliber. Westbrook would add legitimacy to the Hornets and give them a shot at competing for the playoffs. And Charlotte has plenty of bad contracts to offer the Rockets, along with draft picks. Nicolas Batum has a $27 million option he is certain to accept. They also could throw Cody Zeller’s expiring contract into the deal, and perhaps a rising standout such as Miles Bridges, to make it work.
The attraction for the Rockets would be the cap relief — two expiring contracts at $42 million — and the rising Bridges. The Eastern Conference is not as competitive after the first six teams, so there is opportunity for the Hornets to reach the playoffs. It may not be the best long-term fit for the Hornets, but it is an opportunity to be respectable in the short term.
New York Knicks — New York is desperate for star power, and Westbrook would bring that. The Knicks have several expiring contracts — Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington — to send to the Rockets along with two prospects in Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, both of whom could use a fresh start. Westbrook gives the Knicks a headliner, but they still aren’t much better with him. The good news is he could play his type of game in his type of offense.
The bad news is Westbrook gets no closer to a championship. The Knicks, despite having promising second-year forward RJ Barrett, are lacking talent, and Westbrook essentially would be a one-man show.
Los Angeles Clippers — This is a tricky one because the Clippers do not have anyone with enough salary to move for Westbrook, except Paul George. The Clippers have been desperate for a point guard after they essentially decided that Patrick Beverley isn’t the long-term answer. George would be a nice addition to the Rockets and his Clippers stock has dwindled considerably after a poor playoff performance in the bubble.
The Rockets could use a player of George’s talent and it would be a fair exchange for Westbrook. The question for the Clippers? Are they willing to take on a 32-year-old point guard with $132 million left on his contract. The benefit could be that Westbrook takes the Clippers to the next level.
Detroit Pistons — This would be a risky move for the Pistons, unless they decide to move Blake Griffin in return. The Pistons have enough cap space take on Westbrook’s contract without sending much back. The Pistons have been looking to return to relevancy and Westbrook would help them do that, but would the team flourish with two players on the back nine of their careers who earn a combined $208 million? And would that result in a playoff appearance? The Pistons want to be big spenders this offseason and are looking for a superstar to pair with Griffin, who has two years left on his contract at $76 million, including a player option for 2021-22.
Phoenix Suns — Phoenix finished 8-0 in the bubble with Cameron Payne as its primary point guard. The Suns need a front-line floor leader to join Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and Westbrook would fit that bill. But it’s risky to place a 32-year-old set in his ways with two rising stars. Phoenix also would have to part with Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, and draft picks just to get the Rockets to listen.
It’s a real risk for the Suns, who are thinking playoffs and more after their bubble performance. But there are connections here. Phoenix coach Monty Williams was a Thunder assistant coach when Westbrook was in Oklahoma City, and that could be a lure for Westbrook to push for a deal.
Atlanta Hawks — The Hawks are another team with enough cap space to take on Westbrook’s contract. This would enable the club to move gifted shooter Trae Young to shooting guard, but Young is a ball-dominant player and that would be an interesting combination.
The Hawks would have to send the Rockets a couple of their prospects — among John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter — and draft picks to make the deal attractive to Houston. Westbrook along with Young, Clint Capela, and possibly Collins would make the Hawks a playoff team, but the possibility of this not working may be too great for the Hawks to take a chance.
The Heat will welcome back Udonis Haslem, who will return for an 18th NBA season. Haslem, 40, is considered a fixture in the organization and is now serving as more of an assistant coach and mentor than player. The Heat have no issue giving Haslem the league minimum and a roster spot because his leadership is so valuable. The fact Miami makes this commitment to Haslem could be a lesson to other teams about the importance of veterans on the bench. Haslem’s leadership throughout the bubble was critical to the Heat’s run to the Finals … The Spurs had planned for Tim Duncan to succeed Gregg Popovich as coach, but Duncan did not travel to the bubble during the team’s month there and now has decided to step down from his position. It’s uncertain whether Duncan actually wants to be a head coach, and the fit appeared strange considering Duncan has kept such a low profile after retirement. He has been replaced by Mitch Johnson, a former Stanford player and son of former SuperSonic Johnny Johnson. It’s a testament to the opportunities in coaching for those who did not play in the NBA … Look for teams to wait until deep into training camp to sign free agents because the market is going to essentially eliminate the middle class, with top-notch free agents signing large contracts and lower-level free agents agreeing to lesser contracts. There is going to be a middle class of players who may not receive their desired money. They will have to play for a team with cap space that may not have a chance to win or accept a lower contract for a winning team. There are four teams with considerable cap space — Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, and New York — and only the Hawks, with a couple of additions, would have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs next season … Facundo Campazzo could be a free agent point guard to watch. He is expected to opt out of his contract with Real Madrid and give the NBA a try. Campazzo has long been considered one of the best point guards in the world outside of the NBA, and he sparkled during his stint for Argentina in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Campazzo, 29, is 5 feet 11 inches and has gotten into better shape over the past few years. He would help an NBA team immediately.