Hooping from Denmark to Israel to Euros - interview

Blue-and-white’s bright young star Noam Yaacov set to pace National Team in U18 championships.

 NOAM YAACOV has honed his skills in France as part of Villeurbanne’s youth department, and he will look to lead Israel in the Under-18 European Championships (photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)
NOAM YAACOV has honed his skills in France as part of Villeurbanne’s youth department, and he will look to lead Israel in the Under-18 European Championships
(photo credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

There’s no question that Noam Yaacov is one of the biggest talents on the Israel Under-18 National Team for the European Championships, which begin on Saturday when the blue-and-white tips off against North Macedonia in Izmir, Turkey.

The 17-year-old point guard, who is currently in France at Villeurbanne’s youth department, is the brightest star on Elad Hasin’s squad that will also face Great Britain and France in the group stages of the competition.

Just before Yaacov takes to the court in search of a gold medal, the 1.86-meter (6-foot-1) budding young gun spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his season abroad, his long-term dreams and desires as well as the immediate challenge at hand as he looks to lead the National Team to glory.

“I’m super excited,” Yaacov began. “It’s always a huge honor to play with the National Team and our goal is to take it game by game, day by day. Win the first game, then the second and onwards, exactly like that.”

Yaacov, who grew up in Denmark and recently moved to Israel, began playing basketball at the age of four, thanks to his father.

 ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate with their Maccabiah medals (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN) ISRAELI PLAYERS celebrate with their Maccabiah medals (credit: YEHUDA HALICKMAN)

“I was always in the gym with my dad and I just loved to play right from the beginning. When we moved to Israel there were definitely cultural differences and of course the language. I didn’t know Hebrew that well, but this was a very significant move in my life which also was a huge help when I made the move to play in France.”

As for players who Yaacov modeled his game after as he was growing up, he pointed to both his father and one of the game’s greats who was tragically killed a few years ago.

“My father was always my role model in terms of life in general and I always look up to him. As for basketball, while I wouldn’t say there is one specific player, I always was drawn to Kobe Bryant’s mindset and his work ethic.”

In addition, there was also a player who Yaacov really gravitated to at Villeurbanne, one who began his Euroleague career with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel – point guard Chris Jones.

“I was very fortunate that Chris Jones played for Villeurbanne as he is really a fantastic player who had a breakout season. To be able to train and practice with Jones along with receiving all kinds of tips is something that I so much appreciated and took to heart.”

Back in the 2020/21 season, Yaacov helped lead Hapoel Emek Hefer’s youth team to an unprecedented double, winning the league and Cup while also being named the Player of the Season.

“This was truly an incredible year that I will never, ever forget. We captured a historic double and it was just a joy to be able to play for Yehu Orland and that team. I enjoyed every minute there.”

Last summer, Yaacov decided to head to a new country and sign a long-term contract in France with Villuerbanne.

“The second that this was an option, it was clear that this was what I wanted to do. I, along with the staff that works with me, felt that this was the right thing for me to do and it still is.”

Yaccov featured for Villeurbanne’s Under-21 squad and was a success as the point guard averaged 6.6 points, four assists, three rebounds to go along with 1.1 steals in 17.1 minutes per game. In Euroleague action, Yaacov checked in with 9.9 points, 2.9 assists, two boards and 1.3 steals in 17.1 minutes, while his team also played in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament.

“This was a season in which I made adjustments and faced challenges, but I believe I was able to overcome that and I was able to adapt myself to the style of play. I can only see myself continuing to progress.”

The move to France also showed Yaacov that there were things he would be able to receive abroad that he would not necessarily have experienced in Israel.

“There are a variety of things that are just not yet available in Israel. Villeurbanne is a Euroleague club that former NBA superstar Tony Parker invests so much time and effort into. I truly believe that this is a place that every basketball player can improve as a person and human being because you are surrounded by quality players and athletes.

“I felt that this past season I was able to learn something new in every single practice I took part in. Over time I was able to adapt myself and during the second half of the season I really felt that I was a part of the club and that I fit in, so it was just a lot of fun.”

Yaacov was able to get to know Victor Wembanyama, who is currently projected to be selected first overall at the 2023 NBA Draft.

“First of all, he is a great guy and there is no question what is expected of him. I can tell you that everything everyone is saying about him is all true. He’s just great and he has it all. He’s really special and I hope for him that he will succeed. He moved to another club [Metropolitans] and I want to wish him all of the best success.”

Living in France has been a different experience for Yaacov as he is full time at the Villeurbanne Academy.

“I love the ASVEL Academy itself, which is basically a building where both the young men and women live. I am on a floor with the rest of my teammates and we do everything together. We eat lunch and supper together, we have our individual training sessions and everything else. I have been able to learn French which has been great as I now know yet another language.”

While Yaacov is one of only a few Israeli youth players who have decided to go abroad, he feels that it is really  a personal choice for each individual.

“Of course every person is different and it isn’t only a decision based on what one can do on the court. It’s not simple to move to a new country, where in my case I am not with my family. But if one feels that this is the right thing to do and one wants to give it a try, I would 100% recommend going for it because it is just an incredible experience.”

Parker, the former San Antonio Spurs star, is the owner of Villeurbanne and Yaccov has had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the legendary guard.

“I had lunch with him together with my parents which was just amazing. Two weeks after I had arrived I went to the workout room and suddenly I saw Parker doing a session right next to me. It was really crazy!”

Yaacov, who has received plenty of publicity already at a young age, has experienced things that very few young Israelis have.

“I feel that this is something positive and of course I am happy to get the publicity. But I want to keep working hard and if more publicity comes my way then great. Right now I am trying to not think too much about it and just keep working.”

As he develops, Yaccov – who prefers to play the point but can also shift to the shooting guard position if he is on the floor with a player who can create – is always identifying parts of his game he sees are his advantages and others where he feels he still needs to improve upon.

“My advantages as a player come in the open court, playing the pick and roll, my ability to get to the paint and to be able to create for myself and my teammates. I still need to work on my shot, reading situations and, of course, I can always improve in my decision making and one-on-one defense. I feel that I can make steals pretty well and also read the passing lanes, but there’s plenty of things that I can continue to work on.”

At the upcoming U18 European Championships, Yaacov will be playing under Hasin, who is the new bench boss of Ness Ziona, along with assistant Orland, who he played for at Emek Hefer.

“Elad has a tremendous amount of experience and it’s been good so far. He’s a terrific person and is someone that you can also talk to off the court, so I’m enjoying it so far. As for Yehu, our relationship is exactly what a player to coach and vice-versa should be. I feel that he is much more than a coach and that is something that I very much appreciate.”

Yaacov, whose full name is Noam Emile Peterson Yaacov, prefers the Euroleague over the NBA for some obvious reasons right now.

“It’s something that I am part of and I see how the entire system works, so when you have some insights it makes it much more interesting.”

As for dreams and desires ahead of what looks to be a very promising career, Yaacov was very modest.

“My dream is to go as far as I can and just simply succeed, but in a way that I will also enjoy it.”