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(photo credit: Joshua Halickman)
As Lior Eliyahu returned to Israel from the Houston Rockets summer league games this week, it seems like his homecoming may only be temporary.
Players, coaches and analysts all agree that it is only a matter of time before Eliyahu leaves Israeli basketball for the bright lights, big cities and lucrative contracts of the NBA.
Taking a few moments out from the national team practice at Hadar Yosef in Tel Aviv this week, Eliyahu spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his transatlantic voyage.
"It was an amazing experience being at an NBA training camp for the first time. It was like being in the movies," the 21-year-old forward said.
Eliyahu was drafted by the Orlando Magic with the 44th pick in the 2006 draft. His rights were subsequently traded to the Houston Rockets. The summer league allowed Eliyahu a chance to practice with center Yao Ming and play with 2007 top draft pick, guard Aaron Brooks.
"It was an honor to meet and practice on the same court as Yao Ming and playing with Brooks was terrific. He is a great player, very quick and a true professional."
While Brooks will probably make the Rockets roster for the upcoming season, Eliyahu will have to work on some elements of his game this year with Maccabi Tel Aviv, according to Channel 1 basketball analyst Eli Sahar. "Lior must improve his outside shooting and continue to get bigger in order to play in the NBA," Sahar said.
The 2.05 meter, 102 kg power forward also played small forward for Houston in Las Vegas.
Rockets summer league coach Elston Turner told Rockets.com, "We've been playing him at both the four and the three this week. He's got some good experience from that and the initial signs are that he's talented. He's long and athletic. He just needs to learn how to play the NBA game and be more physical."
Eliyahu also talked about some of the differences and challenges he faces in order to make it into the "world's best league." "With more one on one play, the game speed of the NBA is much faster than in Israel and Europe where zone play dominates," he said. "The NBA players have more athleticism and power, but I felt good that I was able to physically handle the game situations. I know all of the players were stronger than me and although I have gotten bigger, I still have to bulk up more."
One of the main concerns Maccabi officials and fans have is about how Eliyahu will handle his second season with the blue and yellow after playing almost two years of non-stop basketball with very little rest. Between the domestic league, Euroleague, NBA summer league and the Israel National team, the games never seem to end.
Last year, Yotam Halperin played with the Seattle Supersonics summer league team and struggled early on for Maccabi. It took a few months for him to get back into game shape, both mentally and physically.
"I know exactly what Lior is going through," Halperin remarked. "The difference between us is that I was in the United States for almost three months and Lior was there for only 20 days. He will have vacation time to rest, even with national team duty."
Eliyahu agreed, "It's definitely not easy mentally, and I must have time to relax off the court, but that is the life of a basketball player: play, play and play," he said.
Eliyahu averaged 9.4 points per game last year, his first season with Maccabi after coming over from Hapoel Galil Elyon where he spent three seasons.
New Tel Aviv head coach Oded Katash, is familiar with Eliyahu from his days as coach at Galil and understands what type of player he is and where his future may lie.
"I like Lior, he's a great kid who's extremely talented. He has a soft touch and knows where to position himself on the floor. Lior must continue to work on his size. He has great potential to be the first Israeli player in the NBA," Katash said.
Katash almost played for the NBA's New York Knicks, but due to a league lockout in 1998 and a career ending injury a couple of years later he never had the opportunity. "With the huge influx of European and other foreign players, it is only a matter of time until an Israeli makes it to the NBA," Katash explained.
Crediting his parents for being the biggest influence on his career which started out later than the typical Israeli basketball player, Eliyahu said, "I did not look up to any players when I was growing up, my parents were the ones who were always there for me."
Omer Benovich, a reporter from the Sport 5 channel, added, "Eliyahu's rate of development into a top level star has been truly amazing for someone who was not groomed to be a basketball player from his childhood."
As the national team attempts to get into EuroBasket 2007 through the last-chance tournament next month, Eliyahu will have a chance to display his prowess against top European competition.
Playing alongside some of Israel's best, Eliyahu will be in a position to learn both on and off the court. "There are a lot of good players and some great leaders on this team," he said.
When asked if he is ready to take on a leadership role as the cornerstone of the national team's future, he said, "I think so and I know I will be able to handle it too."
With close to 70 games coming up this season, Eliyahu will have ample time to hone his skills in order to take the next step towards the NBA. In fact, Maccabi's season begins at the "World's Most Famous Arena", Madison Square Garden in New York City in October, where Eliyahu will have a chance to go toe to toe with the New York Knicks in front of 20,000 fans.
As the famous Yehuda HaLevi poem reads, "My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West." This may be what the future holds for Lior Eliyahu.