Year after year, championship after championship, from Cadets to Seniors, it’s the same story. The Israeli NT isn’t the most talented team and very rarely makes it to the podium, but if there were medals for ambition, if there was a heavy-weight championship for hearts, the medal closet in the Israeli Federation building was over-packed a long time ago.
Already in the 2nd game of the first day of the European Championship for U18 Men in Zaragoza we witnessed the same scenario once again. Turkey holds some of the most promising prospects in this generations, even without Ersan Ilyosava, their prime superstar, who didn’t come to the competition due to an injury, and they are one of the tallest teams in the tourney with players like Bayev (208 cm) Coksun (207 cm) and Erden (210 cm). They even won the gold medal in the prestigious Albert Schweitzer tournament only several months ago. Israel on the other hand barely made it to the Championship, qualifing only at the last gasp after it didn’t depend anymore on its own results. Even in Israel nobody expects very much from the Junior NT and, as always, it doesn't have a tall front court. Israel’s tallest player is only 203 cm.
Even if you take a very long look on the boxscore of the game between Israel and Turkey you won’t see any of that. Not only Israel won by 11 points, 69-58, it also took more rebounds (43-42). The top rebounder of Israel was Yoni Nir, a 201 cm inside player coming out of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s junior team, who pulled 16 rebounds, 7 of them in offense, and added 13 points. One of five players that registered a double-double already in the first day of the games.
How do you explain the big heart of Israel? Is it something you talk about in practices?
“We know it’s our biggest advantage on all the other teams here. We have the biggest heart and we use it. Israeli National Teams are always like that, and the coaches talk about it in preparation. It’s a very important tool for our team and we have to use it”.
Did you prepare yourself specifically for the first game and for the Turkish team?
“Oh yeah, we spoke a lot about the first game in the last weeks. We know how important it is to start a championship with a win. It gives a big advantage and adds confidence for the future. We studied the Turkish team in general and what their top players do well, and knew exactly what we need to do in order to win. Making few turnovers was one of the keys and we were able to do that”.
How was the change for you from being one of the tallest players, as you are in the Israeli Junior league, to this championship where you face much taller player?
“In Israel I’m usually the tallest player most of the games, but here obviously it’s different. Every team has bigger guys, and I have to adjust to it, change my game a little. I go out more and play with my face to the basket more than I’m used to. The coaches prepared me for that, but I admit it’s not an easy task”.
What’s your impression so far from the championship?
“Part of being here is to play against players that in a year or two will be drafted to the NBA and it’s a big challenge. In general the level of competition is very high. We saw Italy beat Serbia & Montenegro and they played terrific”.
And where do you go from here? Did the Quarter-finals become a goal now?
“Our goal from the first moment was to be in the top 8. Every Israeli national Team in any age group that plays in a European Championship wants to be at least in the top 8 and we are no different. Tomorrow we face Spain, and we’ll have a very tough match, but we’ll try to win that one as well to be closer to our target. We never give up”.