Local Hoops: Let the games begin: The BSL season tips off

Maccabi Tel Aviv wants its crown back, but the league's other challengers will be biting at its heels

October 24, 2008 06:28

basketball 88. (photo credit: )

The Israeli Basketball season tips off this weekend, and it has a lot to live up to. The Super League certainly lived up to its name last season, with numerous upsets, and a stunning climax which saw Hapoel Holon edge out perennial champ Maccabi Tel Aviv to take the title. Over the summer Holon's challengers have regrouped and rebuilt their squads and will be raring to fight for a coveted Final Four spot and a chance of winning the exclusive title. Deputy Sports Editor Allon Sinai gives a run down of the 12 teams battling for BSL supremacy in 2008/09. HAPOEL HOLON Besides the team name not much remains from Miki Dorsman's side which triumphed in the BSL final in May. Dorsman, who was both the owner and coach, decided he had had enough after last season and was followed out of the club in the summer by almost all the players. In fact, only Chris Watson (6.6 ppg and 3.6 rpg last season) remains from last term's roster, which ended Maccabi Tel Aviv's run of 14 straight championships. Coach Danny Franco will have the practically impossible task of following up on last season, especially considering Holon's tiny budget. Franco is still hoping to add a couple of foreigners to his roster, but as things currently stand the team is more likely to fight relegation than make a return to the Final Four. Player to watch out for: Deron Washington. The 22-year-old was selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 59th pick in this year's draft and will be playing on foreign soil for the first time this season. Washington averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds in his senior season at Virginia Tech and although inexperienced, is certain to light-up the BSL with his amazing athleticism. Last season: BSL champion, (20-7) in the regular season Best case: Holon is still a BSL team at the start of the 2009/10 season. Worst case: Relegation just one season after winning the championship. MACCABI TEL AVIV Maccabi has gone through a complete overhaul for a third straight season. Seven new players have joined the team and Effi Birenboim will be the side's fourth coach in three seasons. The early signs for the yellow-and-blue faithful, however, are worrying once more. Birenboim is struggling to mold the team and there is already talk that two of the side's new players, Rodney White and Tre Simmons, are on their way out. Nevertheless, Maccabi once again enters the season as a firm favorite to regain its league title. Carlos Arroyo (6.9 ppg and 3.5 apg at the Orlando Magic last season) has the potential to become one of the greatest guards Israeli basketball has ever seen and, thanks to Lior Eliyahu, Yaniv Green, Tal Burstein, Omri Casspi, Dror Hagag and Derrick Sharp, Maccabi has the best Israeli roster in the league. Player to watch out for: Carlos Arroyo. It may be an obvious choice, but the 29-year-old is a player of a caliber rarely seen in Israel. The Puerto Rican is coming off seven relatively successful seasons in the NBA, during which he averaged 7.0 points, 3.3 assists and 1.7 rebounds at five different franchises. Last season: Runner-up, (18-9) in the regular season. Best case: After 22 seasons of coaching in the top-flight of Israeli basketball, Birenboim cruises to his first league title. Worst case: A repeat of last season's final. BNEI HASHARON Anything less than a third straight Final Four appearance will be a disappointment for Bnei Hashaton. The team has lost two of the people who led it to success in recent years. Coach Effi Birenboim left for Maccabi and took Jason Williams with him. New coach Moshe Weinkrantz can at least console himself with the fact that Meir Taprio (13.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 5.2 rpg) is still on his roster and remains one of the best Israeli players in the BSL. Cookie Belcher and Ousmane Cisse also continue at the club and, together with new signings Haminn Quaintance and Ori Itzhaki, guarantee that Bnei Hasharon will be one of the league's top sides once more. Player to watch out for: Richard Roby. Bnei Hasharon has made it a habit in recent years to bring in young unknowns and this 23-year-old could prove to be yet another success story. The Californian, who is the half-brother to NBA star Kenyon Martin, averaged 17.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in his senior season at Colorado and assuming his settles quickly, will be a nightmare for BSL defenses. Last season: Third place, (17-10) in the regular season. Best case: Weinkrantz shows that what ever Effi can do he can do better and takes the club to the BSL title game for the first time in its history. Worst case: Bnei Hasharon's run of Final Four appearances ends at two. IRONI NAHARIYA Nahariya replaced its entire roster and coaching staff in the offseason, but is already looking like one of the BSL's more exciting teams. Ya'acov Jino returned from Belgium to guide the team and built a fast-breaking side, which is guaranteed to terrorize the BSL. Raviv Limonad, who played for Le Mans in the Euroleague last season, and Yogev Ohayon (11.3 ppg, 4.3 apg, 3.4 rpg), who was brought in from Galil, give the team two excellent ball handlers and ensure there won't be a boring moment at the Ein Sara Arena this season. However, Nahariya's strength may well also prove to be its weakness as Hapoel Jerusalem proved in the Winner Cup final last week. Jino's team struggled against Hapoel's slow-tempo game, a problem which will have to be solved if the side is to reach another Final Four. Player to watch out for: Ron Lewis. The 24-year-old comes to Nahariya from Belgian side Leuven where he was also coached by Jino. Lewis averaged 17.8 points last season and his superb perimeter shooting will make him a nightmare to defend. Last season: Fourth place, (15-12) in the regular season. Best case: Nahariya's entertaining basketball takes it to a second straight Final Four. Worst case: Ironi fans call for substance over style and for Jino's head. IRONI ASHKELON Ashkelon surprised everyone by finishing in fifth position last season, claiming historic victories over Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem on the way. Steve Burtt, who led the BSL in scoring with 21.0 points per game, is back for another campaign and even more importantly coach Adi Azulai will be on the sidelines yet again. Azulai has managed to build a competitive team once more, with center Eddy Fobbs giving the team a presence in the paint and Amit Tamir and Or Eitan potentially two of the better Israeli players in the league. It seems unlikely Ashkelon will come so close to a Final Four berth again, but after last season who knows? Player to watch out for: Tre Kelley. The 23-year-old playmaker was only added to the team this week, but may well make all the difference. Last season he averaged 11.5 points and 2.5 assists for Cibona Zagreb in the Euroleague and together with Burtt gives Ashkelon a mouthwatering backcourt duo. Last season: Fifth place, (13-14) Best case: Ashkelon finishes one place higher than last season. Worst case: Burtt doesn't get along with Kelley and Ashkelon battles against relegation. HAPOEL JERUSALEM For the first time in many years Hapoel enters a season without the burden of weighty expectations. So far, this seems to be doing the State Cup holder a world of good. New coach Guy Goodes guided the team to the Winner Cup in convincing fashion last week, proving the team is ready to make a return to the Final Four. Travis Watson, who led the Euroleague with 9.7 rebounds at Armani Jeans Milano last season, will be the key under the baskets, with Erez Markovitch giving him all the support he needs. Timmy Bowers (14.2 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.4 rpg) was superb in preseason and has plenty of BSL experience, as does former Maccabi Rishon Lezion forward Omar Sneed. Yuval Neimi and Moran Rot will dictate play from the backcourt and together with Sharon Sasson and Adam Haluska, who will be back from injury next month, give Goodes a not very deep, but well balanced roster, which has the potential to beat any team in the league. Player to watch out for: Yuval Naimi. After two mediocre years at Givat Shmuel, the 23-year-old finally broke out at Ironi Ashkelon last season and returns as a starter to his childhood team. Naimi averaged 14.4 points and 3.8 assists per game in 32.3 minutes on court last season and showed in the preseason that the Jerusalem faithful can expect much of the same at Malha. Last season: Sixth place, (13-14) in the regular season. Best case: A third meeting in four years against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Final Four title game. Worst case: Last season doesn't prove to be a one-off. IRONI RAMAT GAN Last season's unlikely success could prove to be difficult to recapture, with Ramat Gan coach Robbie Balinko building the team from scratch once more this summer. Having one of the league's smaller budgets didn't make Balinko's job any easier and most of his roster will be playing in the BSL for the first time this season. American Josh Gomez and Gerry Gendal, who was the second division top scorer last season, were signed from the National League. Anthony Myles, a former top-scorer in the Chinese league, and Carmelo Lee weren't originally meant to be on the team's roster, but are both veterans who could propel the side to another surprise season, assuming Balinko manages to recreate the team chemistry which characterized his side last season. Player to watch out for: Ilan Berkowitz. The 34-year-old has spent much of his career in the second division, but understands the game of basketball as good as any playmaker in the BSL and will get plenty of chances at Ramat Gan. Last season he not only guided Hapoel Beersheba from the backcourt (14.2 ppg, 7.5 apg, 4.4 rpg), but also coached the club's youth team. Last season: Seventh place (12-15) Best case: For a second straight season relegation isn't even an issue for Ramat Gan. Worst case: Balinko's magic runs out and Ramat finishes in the bottom two. HAPOEL GALIL ELYON/GILBOA The sad reality of Israeli basketball forced Galil Elyon to merge with Gilboa in the offseason, and in its 30th season in the top division Galil leaves its home in Kfar Blum for the new arena in Gan Ner. Crucially, the club held on to coach Oded Katash, and as Maccabi Tel Aviv already learned in the Winner Cup, Galil will be a dangerous opponent once more this season. Aaron Nixon, who is the only significant player remaining from last season's roster, is joined in the backcourt by Guni Izraeli, who is returning home after helping Holon to the championship last season. Foreigners Brian Randle and Lucas Daniel Tischer will be joined in the paint by Israelis Nir Cohen and Elishay Kadir, giving Katash the depth he needs to push for a Final Four berth. Player to watch out for: Nir Cohen. The 27-year-old was the BSL's most improved player last season, averaging 8.4 points and 4.4 rebounds for Ironi Ramat Gan in his first full season in the top division. Now that everybody has heard of Cohen, he will have to upgrade his game appropriately if he's to become a dependable starter in the BSL. Last season: Eighth place, (10-17) in the regular season. Best case: Katash guides the team to a second Final Four in three seasons. Worst case: It's just not the same without Kfar Blum and the team struggles for a second straight season. MACCABI RISHON LEZION Rishon was fortunate not to get relegated in the two last seasons and is hoping to avoid another year in the bottom end of the table. Ziv Erez has built a balanced roster, signing to the team promising foreigners and proven Israelis. Oded Sha'ashoua, Itay Lev, Avi Sukar and especially Gili Mossinzon give Rishon a good Israeli base to build on, with Americans Robert Conley, James Hughes and Ken Tutt already looking like they could be the real deal. Player to watch out for: Robert Conley. The 32-year-old (14.4 ppg at Villeurbanne last season) has played in the Euroleague with Tau Vitoria and his 40 point preseason performance against Maccabi Tel Aviv last Friday showed how lethal he can be on offense. Last season: Ninth place, (9-18) in the regular season. Best case: Battles for a Final Four spot until the very end of the regular season. Worst case: A repeat of the last two seasons. MACCABI GIVAT SHMUEL The National League champion will find it difficult to maintain its BSL status. Oren Aharoni's roster is undoubtedly one of the weakest in the league. BSL veterans Cory Carr (13.2 ppg) and Jermaine Hall (12.2 ppg) will have to turn the clock back to help their side avoid relegation and Ro'i Berkowitz will also have to be at his very best if the team isn't to drop to the second division for the second time in three seasons. Player to watch out for: Anton Shoutvin. The 19-year-old averaged 16.8 points and 6.3 rebounds at second division Betar Binyamina last season and was named as the league's rookie of the year. The forward will get plenty of chances at Givat Shmuel and could prove to be one of the BSL's rising stars this season. Last season: First place in the National League. Best case: Avoid relegation by the skin of its teeth. Worst case: Is all but relegated by the midway point of the season. MACCABI HAIFA HEAT Jewish-American owner Jeff Rosen has handed coach Avi Ashkenazi a handsome budget and Haifa has declared that its goal this season is to reach the Final Four. The National League runner-up has brought in excellent Israelis Ido Kozikaro, Moshe Mizrahi and Amit Ben-David, and has also signed some interesting foreigners. Doron Perkins led the Belgian league is assists and steals last season and BJ McKie is the University of South Carolina all-time leading scorer and finished among the top-5 scorers in the Italian second league in each of the last three seasons. There are many similarities between this season's Haifa and last season's Holon and even though the final result is unlikely to be the same Maccabi and its fantastic fans will be a great addition to the BSL. Player to watch out for: Davon Jefferson. The 21-year-old averaged 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in his senior season at USC and if he fulfills his potential will be moving on to a much bigger team in the very near future. Last season: Second place in the National League. Best case: Reaches the Final Four in its first season in the top division in almost a decade. Worst case: Early expectations prove unfounded and Haifa turns out to be yet another mediocre team. IRONI KIRYAT ATA Kiryat Ata only booked its place in the BSL thanks to a late three-pointer and looks to be anything but ready for the top-division. The club just about met the minimum one million dollar budget required to be part of the BSL and coach Meir Kaminski will have one of the toughest jobs in the league. Kaminski has signed largely unproven foreigners like Draelon Barnes, Terrence Roberts and Dante Milligan, but will hope the relative experience and talent of Uriel Marko will give the team a chance of surviving. Player to watch out for: Brandon McKnight. The 25-year-old (22.4 ppg, 5.1 apg, 5.1 rpg) won the Swedish championship with Solna last season and was named as the league's best defensive player. Last season: Third place in the National League. Best case: Stay in the league, but only barely. Worst case: Never really look like a team capable of maintaining its BSL status.

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