Maccabi Tel Aviv will raise the curtain on the 2022/23 EuroLeague season when it tips off against Zalgiris on Thursday night with an almost brand-new roster of players in an attempt to win a first continental crown since 2014.
Last year, the yellow-and-blue advanced to the quarterfinals of the competition but was swept away with ease by Real Madrid in what was a one-sided series that saw Maccabi, under the tutelage of interim coach Avi Even, also fail to reach the domestic league finals after falling in the semifinals to Bnei Herzliya.
However, when Lorenzo Brown checked in during the first quarter for Maccabi Tel Aviv in its Winner Cup semifinal 97-91 win over Hapoel Holon, it was as if the yellow-and-blue had a changing of the guard so to speak.
A new era for Maccabi Tel Aviv
It officially marked the beginning of a new era for Maccabi, in with the new and out with the old.
New head coach Oded Katash had waited for this moment over the course of the past month when his new team began to mold and take shape, while Brown was busy helping lead Spain to the European Championship.
The bench boss, who himself was once a dominant guard until injuries derailed his career, had patiently played one exhibition game after the next with his incomplete squad and saw that he was missing that one last piece to the puzzle that would make the team one that he could feel comfortable with heading into EuroLeague action.
That piece arrived, thankfully for Katash, in one piece and made a sterling debut, impacting the game almost immediately as he stepped onto the Hadera floor with his patented headband.
Brown passed the ball with ease and found one teammate after the next racking up four assists by the end of the first frame while making an instant impact on the court and creating chaos for his opponents.
However, the 32-year-old Spanish-American guard wasn’t interested in all of the accolades and is focused on the team play first and foremost.
“The only thing that is important is that we won the game,” he said. I still haven’t shown all of what I can do and as a team, we still haven’t proved our worth. We have a talented group of guys that are ready to work. It was very exciting to play this game and the atmosphere was terrific. The coach and my teammates trust me, but at the end of the day the most important thing is that we won.”
It was quite remarkable how fast Brown made a difference for a Maccabi team that was clearly lacking a floor general in the worst way. His smooth moves, quick first step, dynamite shot and explosiveness was all on display in what looked to be a reenactment of how he played for Spain earlier this month.
And shall it dare be said that it made one forget about Scottie Wilbekin or perhaps brought up the thought of what Maccabi may have looked like if it had had that dominant point guard and playmaker next to the now-Fenerbahce man. Oh, what could have, should have, would have been.
Brown can do things that Maccabi teammate Wade Baldwin can’t, and vice versa which is very, very good news for Oded Katash.
“Being a point guard is an important role on the court,” said the yellow-and-blue coach. “Up until now, it was all on Wade. They are different guards and each one creates in his own way. There’s no question that he will provide some peace and quiet in decision-making on the floor.”
A decision that Katash did make was to play plenty of minutes with both Alex Poythress and Josh Nebo on the floor as the pair combined for 56 of the 200 game minutes, together scoring 31 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. That’s a pretty good night at the office for the big men who will both be on the receiving end of plenty of Brown passes throughout the season.
“It feels good to have Zo and he’s a good point guard and great passer that allows Wade to play off the ball too,” Poythress said. “He uses his strengths and we are just trying to get used to playing with each other as we haven’t had a lot of practices as he just got here last week. But this week we will have plenty of time to work and it’s going to be a big week as we have Zalgiris coming up.”
Brown fit into Maccabi’s schemes almost seamlessly with a 13-point, 12-assist double-double. One advantage of getting the guard now after his time in the 2022 Eurobasket is that he is in top, top, top shape and raring to go.
“Lorenzo is in game shape as he came back from the European Championship,” Katash continued. “He is another guard on the court and he’s a true point guard who had a dozen assists. He can control the game. Up until now Wade was the only real ball handler and there was a lot of pressure on him. You need a few guards that can take the ball.”
Another one of those guards happens to be Israeli veteran John DiBartolomeo, who was in the starting lineup alongside Bonzie Colson, Baldwin, Poythress and Nebo. John D, who has had his ups and downs over the last couple of seasons due to injuries, has really gotten into the swing of things this preseason, especially after having been the last cut from the Israel National Team.
That was a blessing in disguise for the guard as he was able to get first-team reps over and over again both in practice and in the exhibition games.
Katash is well aware of his value and importance to the team.
“I was able to coach John during some of the National Team windows, not that much but I would have been happy if it had been more. I really like John. I don’t know why it surprises anyone as to his value and contribution because John is a very good player. I’m not surprised at all.”
It’s clear that Katash trusts DiBartolomeo and will use the Maccabi captain plenty whether it’s in the domestic league or the EuroLeague where he can provide some serious relief and backup for ten rest of the squad.
Katash ran a tight game, especially the first half as a real dress rehearsal for what lies ahead on Thursday night at Yad Eliyahu when it's tip-off against Zalgiris in the continental curtain raiser. His substitutes were clear as day as he wanted to really test his tools before the real thing begins.
He went with a very short rotation throughout the game playing only seven players more than 17 minutes while the other four players who featured – Roman Sorkin, Jake Cohen, Guy Pnini and Iftach Ziv – were on the court from anywhere between three to five minutes. Katash also had three imports who weren’t dressed for this game in Austin Hollins, Jarrel Martin and Darrun Hilliard, which most probably means that two of the Israelis listed above won’t be in the squad against Zalgiris.
One Israeli that will certainly be a factor and could in fact be Maccabi’s X-Factor is Rafi Menco, who scored 14 points while going 4-of-5 from downtown in a stellar performance after joining the team following Israel’s Eurobasket elimination.
Despite only being around for such a short time, Poythress already can see that Menco will be an important player for the yellow-and-blue even though the small forward will be a EuroLeague rookie.
“Rafi’s is going to be great, he takes open shots and plays hard on defense. As long as he plays with the same urgency in these games, he will be great in the EuroLeague and we can always count on him.”
With the EuroLeague about to start, Katash may be content with where his team is but he is also well aware that it’s still going to take a good amount of time to get his team into tip-top shape, the way he wants to see the team at their best and that may be a bit down the road.
“We are trying to be even better and the preseason schedule was very challenging, with 10 new players it takes time to find our best basketball. Anyone who thinks that it will take one or two months is mistaken, as it will take time. A lot of it will be trial and error as we continue to play better and get what we want out of the players. There is an endless list of things that we have to work on.”
Of course, the big question that remains is whether will Maccabi be a threat for the continental crown this season and can it take its game to that next level?
Poythress thinks the team will answer that question in the affirmative, partly because of Katash’s skill as a players’ coach.
“We have a lot of versatile guys on this team and the coach is doing a good job putting us in a position to finish and score. We can do something special.”