((JR)) — As the NBA’s only Israeli player, Deni Avdija has had a lot on his mind as his home country navigates a war with Hamas.
But as the new NBA season tips off on Tuesday, the 22-year-old is poised for his most impressive year yet on the court.
On Monday, Avdija and the Washington Wizards agreed to a four-year, $55 million contract extension that will keep him in D.C. through the 2027-2028 season.
“Deni has many of the characteristics that we value in the players who represent our organization,” said Wizards general manager Will Dawkins. “He has a team-first mentality, works hard on his craft, competes with toughness and is committed to improving the community.”
Avdija, who grew up on Kibbutz Beit Zera in northern Israel, enjoyed his best season last year, averaging 9.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 0.9 steals in 76 games. He started 40 games for Washington, equalling his starts from his first two seasons combined.
The former No. 9 draft pick is still working on establishing a consistent offensive approach, but his defense has earned applause. Avdija also racked up double-digit rebounds 15 times last season, including a career-high of 20 during a January game against the Chicago Bulls.
“It’s rare to find young players who embrace the defensive end as enthusiastically as Avdija has,” Wizards reporter Josh Robbins wrote in The Athletic.
Avdija has also become one of the more outspoken Jewish players in all of sports on issues relating to Israel and antisemitism.
During a flare-up in violence in Israel last year, Avdija wrote “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the Jewish people live”) and drew Stars of David on his sneakers. The year before that, Avdija called attention to Holocaust remembrance day on his shoes.
Beyond Avdija, there are a few other Jewish players and storylines to watch in the 2023-2024 NBA season.
Two new faces have joined the Jewish basketball scene — one who is new to the NBA and one who is new to Judaism.
Sacramento Kings big man Domantas Sabonis is in the process of converting to Judaism. Sabonis, 27, has been studying with Los Angeles rabbi Erez Sherman and has been involved with the local chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Sacramento.
“He loves [Judaism] and really wants to be a part of it,” Sabonis’ wife Shashana Sabonis (née Rosen) said earlier this year. Shashana grew up in Los Angeles, where she went to Jewish day schools. The couple was married by a Reform rabbi in August 2021.
Sabonis would immediately become the best Jewish player in the NBA. He’s a three-time All-Star who led the league with 12.3 rebounds per game last season while averaging 19.1 points.
Amari Bailey, whose Jewish heritage comes from his mother, was drafted 41st overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA Draft this past summer.
A former five-star recruit who played at Sierra Canyon High School — the prestigious private school where LeBron James sent his son to play basketball — Bailey declared for the draft after a stellar freshman season at the University of California Los Angeles, where he was named to the Pac-12’s All-Freshman team.
The 19-year-old, who was born in New Orleans and grew up in Chicago, personally identifies as Jewish, his agent Bernie Lee confirmed to the Forward without providing more detail.
Bailey is expected to spend a sizable chunk of his rookie season with Charlotte’s G-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm.
Speaking of the G League — the equivalent of the NBA’s minor league — Ryan Turell, who is seeking to become the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA, is expected to spend his season with the Motor City Cruise, the G League affiliate of the Detroit Pistons.
Turell, 24, was drafted by the Cruise before last season, where he played in 31 games and averaged 4 points and 1.7 rebounds. Jewish fans turned out in full force to support Turell, who wears a kippah when he plays. He was also recently featured in an Amazon Prime documentary about G League players.
Lastly, former University of Maryland star Abby Meyers is currently playing for the London Lions of the Women’s British Basketball League, the top tier of British women’s basketball. Meyers had been selected by the Dallas Wings in the first round of the WNBA Draft in April but was quickly cut from the team. She signed a few short-term contracts with the Washington Mystics, ultimately appearing in nine games before being waived in August.
Meyers, who won a gold medal at the 2022 Maccabiah Games in Israel, told (JR) earlier this year that she had received support from Maryland’s Jewish community.