Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Josh Nebo relishes big-time opportunity

With Euroleague quarterfinal with Monaco on tap, Maccabi Tel Aviv's center is excited and confident.

 MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Josh Nebo anticipates playing a key role in the upcoming Euroleague quarterfinal series against AS Monaco, which hosts Game 1 tomorrow. (photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Josh Nebo anticipates playing a key role in the upcoming Euroleague quarterfinal series against AS Monaco, which hosts Game 1 tomorrow.
(photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

Maccabi Tel Aviv kicks off its Euroleague playoff campaign on the road against AS Monaco on Tuesday night in a best-of-five quarterfinal series between the fourth- and fifth-placed teams.

While Maccabi defeated Monaco in their first meeting this season in October, in their last contest at the beginning of March – a disappointing 67-86 loss – Maccabi found itself in 10th place with 13 wins and 13 losses.

However, since that game, things have come together for the yellow-and-blue, going 7-1 for the rest of the regular season to finish in fifth and come into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams.

One of the players whose improvement has been key to Maccabi’s run is starting center, Josh Nebo, who sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the team, his basketball journey from college, to Eilat under new Israeli national team coach Ariel Beit Halachmi and of course Maccabi’s year to date.

“For me personally, I’m very excited to be playing in the Euroleague playoffs for the first time,” Nebo began. “It’s a great experience for me to go through and as a team we’re also very excited – but we’re also not complacent and we want to be able to give ourselves the best chance to be able to win, so we’re very focused and trying to see what we can do in the first round.”

 JOSH NEBO (center) and Maccabi Tel Aviv were too strong for host Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday night, handing the Reds an 88-74 defeat in local league action. (credit: DANNY MARON) JOSH NEBO (center) and Maccabi Tel Aviv were too strong for host Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday night, handing the Reds an 88-74 defeat in local league action. (credit: DANNY MARON)

While Maccabi hovered around a 50% winning percentage for most of the season, the team has found its form in the last couple of months. What Tel Aviv lacks in budget and continuity, it has made up for in other ways, which has helped everything come together at the right time.

“I’m not sure if there’s a specific secret, but I would say that for sure that team camaraderie is good both on and off the court. We have a group of high-character guys that are unselfish and that care about each other. I think that translates to the court and what you guys see us doing well.

“When things don’t go well, we’re not going to start blaming each other,” the 25-year-old Nebo continued. “We’re not going to start giving attitude, we’re not going to start pointing the finger. We’re just going to man up and persevere through it. We don’t give in to all the feelings and emotions that at times are easy to give into.”

Oded Katash has been a key to both Maccabi’s and Nebo’s personal success, the big man explained.

“I feel like with coach, one of the biggest things with him is that he’s very consistent with what he does, his approach, his demeanor, he doesn’t change. You never see him too excited, you never see him too down – he’s very even-keeled, so I think that translates to our team. It gives us a sense of stability so that we know what we expect with him. With me, I think he just tries to put me in the best position possible to be successful during the games.”

While there’s naturally going to be a focus on the elite backcourt matchup between Maccabi’s Lorenzo Brown and Wade Baldwin against Monaco’s Mike James, Jordan Lloyd and Elie Okobo, the battle under the basket will be a key to winning the series.

In the Euroleague, Maccabi ranks third in total rebounds while Monaco ranks seventh. Considering that the team which won the battle of the boards in their two previous games this season also won the game, it will be critical for Maccabi’s bigs to get the edge over their counterparts.

“We’re very tight, we have each other’s back,” Nebo said of his frontcourt teammates, Roman Sorkin, Jake Cohen and Alex Poythress. “We want to see each other do well and we want to see each other execute as best as possible. In regards to Alex [who last week returned from a wrist injury in Israeli league action], everyone is excited to have him back. I know it was a long three or four months for him sitting out. It’s going to be a great boost for our team to have him back for the playoffs.”

One of the central matchups in the series will be Nebo against Donta Hall. While Nebo had 10 rebounds in the last game between the two teams, Hall had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. This season is not the first time that they’ve come up against each other, with Nebo’s Texas A&M coming up against Hall’s Alabama in college.

“I’ve been playing against Donta for a while now, since college, so I’m pretty familiar with his game. I kind of know what he’s doing, I’m pretty sure they know what I’m doing as well. It’s going to be a great matchup – he’s a great player. I’m looking forward to the matchup and the playoff series against him.”

Nebo says his older sister instilled passion for basketball in him

Nebo, native of Houston, Texas, credits his early passion for basketball to his older sister, Kim Nebo, who played college basketball at Southern Illinois University.

“I really got into basketball because my sister played – she was very good. She’s my older sister, so I followed her around and I really got into basketball. Ever since then, it’s been history.”

Nebo began his college career at Saint Francis in Pennsylvania. However, the move away was tough for the center, who transferred to Texas A&M after his sophomore season in order to be close to home. Due to the NCAA transfer rules, Nebo was ineligible to play competitively in his first season at his new school.

“Sitting out a full year is very tough. Every basketball player wants to be playing every game. For the sit-out year, it was very good for me, just being able to work on my body and I think that’s the year where my body transformed and I was able to really fill out and get stronger. So that year was really good for me, for my development as a player and I don’t regret it and I wouldn’t want to change it, because that was really a decisive year for me and my career, even though I didn’t play. The two years there, it was good, I enjoyed it, a lot of ups and downs, but overall, I really enjoyed the experience of playing at Texas A&M.”

After college, Nebo’s first destination was a lot farther away than Pennsylvania, but only 350 kilometers away from his current location, when he suited up for Hapoel Eilat.

“The first year in Eilat was for sure tough. I think any college player coming straight to Europe is very hard, just to get used to being in a different country by yourself. For me that was the COVID year, so everything was closed down, you couldn’t really leave your apartment and obviously not being able to see your family is also very difficult.”

While it may have been challenging to be without family, Nebo credits his teammates for helping him get through the year, including current Hapoel Holon star Joe Ragland.

“Man, playing with Joe was amazing. He really took me under his wings and really worked with me every day. I can’t thank Joe enough, because that year he really helped me get better, he really helped my game. He was almost like a coach, he was always on me constantly, showing me different things, showing me film, showing me how I should do certain things and continuing to motivate me and encourage me. So that year, for sure he helped me out a lot that year and playing against him is cool, just being able to compete against him because he’s a great player, so it’s always fun.”

Nebo acknowledged the role Beit Halachmi, his coach in Eilat, played in his introduction to European basketball. He also commented on his former coach’s recent appointment as Israeli national team coach.

“I’m very excited for him to be able to get the national team job. I really enjoyed playing for him. He was very important for me as well, just being able to help me through my low moments. He was always there for me whenever I struggled on the court, off the court, homesick, whatever. He was like a father figure for me that year, just mentoring me and guiding me through that year, because I didn’t know anything about Europe going into that situation, but he really helped me and guided me along.”

The naturalization of foreign players is a hot topic in international competition, especially after Nebo’s teammate, Brown, lifted the EuroBasket trophy with Spain only months after becoming a Spanish citizen. When asked as to whether he would consider taking a similar path if given the same opportunity by the Israeli national team, Nebo didn’t hesitate.

“For sure, it would be something that I would consider. A European passport is always something that’s positive and being able to play for another country.”

After one season with Eilat, Nebo made the jump to the Euroleague for the 2021/22 campaign, when he played for Lithuanian side Zalgiris Kaunas. Finishing last in the Euroleague that season was rough.

“It was a tough and challenging year for the team. For myself personally, I feel like I was able to do a good job and showcase what I can do on the Euroleague level and show that I can play with the best of them.”

That season brought him back to Israel during the past summer, a destination which was attractive to him because of his prior experience with Eilat and the prospect of playing on a side with a rich history such as Maccabi.

“I’d played here my first year in Israel, so I already knew what the country’s about, I knew what Maccabi was about. So during the offseason, just for me personally I wanted to come back. I enjoyed my time in Israel in my first year and playing for Maccabi at the Euroleague level, it was kind of one of the reasons I came back.”

It is a good cultural fit also, noted Nebo.

“It’s a great place for an American to be and play, the weather is great, the food is great, the people speak English, so it’s an easy transition for Americans to live and to play. So for sure that helps every American that’s considering coming to Israel, to see the living conditions and that has helped, because when you’re happy, it translates on the court.”

While his contract status for the next season is still unclear, Nebo is optimistic.

“I love playing here, so obviously I would love to be here as long as possible, but we’ll see what happens.”

In any event, he and the team are motivated to end the season in winning style, especially after the disappointment of the State Cup final loss to Hapoel Jerusalem in February.

“I think everybody took it very personally, very hard, because we know how much the Cup means to the club, to the organization, the history of winning. So for us it was very tough losing the game against Jerusalem and it definitely left a bitter taste in our mouth and we don’t want to have to experience it again. So I think it’s something that’s been fueling us going forward and giving us motivation to finish the Euroleague well, to finish the playoffs and then the domestic league well, so it’s something that’s motivating us.”

Whatever is in store for Maccabi in the series against Monaco, is clear in what Nebo wants to achieve while in Tel Aviv.

“As for me personally, I want to win everything. I want to win the Euroleague, I want to win the domestic league and have a successful season just winning. For me, I want to be known as a winner, known as a great teammate, somebody with a high character and a great basketball player.”