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Israeli NBA Draft prospect Deni Avdija says you’re looking for Luka in all the wrong places

Deni Avdija is 6-9, 220 pounds. He passes the basketball with expertise and elan. He has played in Europe’s most prestigious competitions. He has not yet reached his 20th birthday. He is among the most intriguing prospects available to be selected in the NBA Draft.

Is there enough in all that to warrant a comparison to Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic?

Sorry, but no.

Doncic was, at age 19, named the most valuable player in the 2018 version of the EuroLeague. He averaged 16 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists as Real Madrid won the continental championship. Though he was named MVP of the Israeli Winner League, Avdija started only five games in EuroLeague last season and averaged just 14 minutes and 4 points per game as Maccabi Tel Aviv preferred not to expose him to the more experienced, most challenging competition.

“Deni’s been asked that question: Are you the next Luka Doncic? And he will always say, ‘I’m Deni Avdija. That’s who I am.’ I don’t want to be compared to anybody,’” Josh Halickman, who covers Israeli sports for his Sports Rabbi website and podcast, told Sporting News. “Obviously, we all know that people are going to compare him, regardless, to Luka. He’s not Luka.

“Perhaps if he’d stayed in Europe for one more year and was a year advanced, the same type of schedule Luka was on, perhaps he would be Luka Doncic. We’ll never know that. Because Luka was playing a much more integral role both for his national team the year before he was drafted and also for Real Madrid. This year, coming up, would have been the year Deni would have had those opportunities.”

The great news for Avdija as he prepares for Wednesday’s draft is that the NBA career that will follow his selection will not be based on a narrative. Comparisons to Doncic only will matter if he allows them to matter, and that does not appear to be his inclination.

They are different players in more ways than experience accumulated. Avdija is slightly taller. He is not as versatile. Physically, he is more powerful. He is not, as Doncic was, so skilled a playmaker that he essentially operates as a secondary or primary point guard.

“If people are projecting him to be this Luka Doncic, ‘I’ve got the ball, I’m going to create scoring opportunities for my teammates’ … he’s not that level of ballhandler yet,” analyst Matthew Maurer of The Draft Review told Sporting News. “He’s not going to be able to take guys off the dribble consistently. I like him, but the concept I’ve heard some people say that he’s a top-3 guy, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Maurer has Avdija projected as No. 6 in his mock draft, two spots behind where he is placed by ESPN’s Mike Schmitz and The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, identical to where he is expected to land by CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish.

“I would have loved to see him play here for another year and see where he would stack up,” Halickman told SN. “He has a ton of attributes that make him the head of the class of this draft year — the fact he’s been able to play against adults, both in the Israeli league and the EuroLeague the last couple years. He’s not playing against players of his own age. When he played against players his own age, or players 2-3 years older, he dominated, leading Israel to back-to-back European under-20 championships.”

There is an interesting point buried in Halickman’s assertion. Avdija didn’t just play against men in his pro games last year in Israel and Europe. He finished. Point guard LaMelo Ball played 12 games in Australia last season before leaving to rehab a foot injury. Big man James Wiseman played only three college games at Memphis before deciding, toward the conclusion of a 12-game NCAA suspension, to abandon his college career and focus on the draft. Both now have gone nearly an entire year without competition.

“His body has grown tremendously, just between the time we saw him in March, before the season stopped, and when the season restarted in June, he put on so much body mass. You could see his muscle tone, his body size was that of, now, an adult,” Halickman said. “It was clear he had worked out tremendously over the three-month process of the coronavirus break.

“As he said at a press conference last week, his mechanics have to continually change because his body is still changing.”

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This is the area Avdija has in common with Doncic, and for each it is not a strength. Neither will have left Europe as an accomplished jumpshooter. Doncic shot 28 percent on threes (33-of-118) in his final season in Spain’s ACB. Avdija hit 35 percent (48-of-136) in Israel’s BSL. Doncic has been a threat for the Mavericks from long distance, but he is not a weapon.

“It’s kind of rare for an overseas player of his caliber to have inconsistent 3-point shooting,” Maurer said. “But he really does struggle, especially shooting off the move. That’s very streaky with him. He does great when his feet are set. His release is a little slow. But shooting on the move has always been an issue with him.”

The best news for Avdija is that for one day, he need only be compared with the other players in the 2020 draft class, and the competition is not overwhelming. And, if his new team plays it right, comparisons to Doncic will arise only when games are played against the Mavericks.

“What Luka did and what he has done is great. I think he’s a great player,” Avdija said during his NBA combine interview. “We came from the same league, basically, and I understand why people see familiar things. I just want to make it clear that he’s a great player and has his own path and skills. I have my own path and skills. I have my own abilities, the good and the bad.

“I just don’t want to be compared to anybody. That’s about it.”

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