Israel’s young basketball players need more minutes - commentary

Yaacov and Wolf star at U-20 Euros, but the rest of the national team’s lack of experience is concerning

 NOAM YAACOV (center) has been one of the bright spots for Israel at the Under-20 European Championships. The blue-and-white next face Spain in the round-of-16. (photo credit: FIBA/COURTESY)
NOAM YAACOV (center) has been one of the bright spots for Israel at the Under-20 European Championships. The blue-and-white next face Spain in the round-of-16.
(photo credit: FIBA/COURTESY)

The Israel Under-20 basketball team has had mixed results this far at the European Championships as it now heads into the knockout stage of the tournament.

After defeating Turkey convincingly in the opening game 86-70, the young blue-and-white players have struggled mightily to keep their heads above water. Following the 16-point victory over a squad that had finished with a bronze medal just a week earlier at the Under-19 World Championships with a win over the powerful United States, head coach Elad Hasin’s squad suffered a pair of very disappointing defeats.

The second game saw Israel fall to Italy 66-50 and the final group stage contest was no better with yet another 16-point loss to Belgium (70-54). With a 1-2 record, which puts it in fourth and last place in Group A, the blue-and-white now has to face the defending U20 European Champion in Spain in the last-16.

While every team advances to the knockout rounds of the competition, had Israel won against Belgium it would have been set to tip off against a very weak Montenegro team that placed fourth in Group B with an 0-3 record. Instead, Hasin’s crew get the Spaniards, who sit in first place and have been arguably the best team in the tournament having seen off Serbia, Estonia and Montenegro by an average of over 26 points per win.

There was no question that this Israel Under-20 team was not going to be as strong as its most recent predecessors that had featured the likes of Deni Avdija and Yam Madar, Yovel Zoosman and Tamir Blatt as well as Noam Dovrat and Gilad Levy. All of those players helped the blue-and white win a pair of titles in 2018 and 2019, advance to the finals in 2017 and play in the semifinals just last year in 2022.

 YALE FORWARD Danny Wolf battles against Kentucky this past season. Wolf is playing for Israel in the FIBA Under-20 European Championship. (credit: Jordan Prather/USA Today Sports)
YALE FORWARD Danny Wolf battles against Kentucky this past season. Wolf is playing for Israel in the FIBA Under-20 European Championship. (credit: Jordan Prather/USA Today Sports)

While this year’s team has some solid players in Noam Yaacov, who played for part of the last season with Hapoel Jerusalem after being loaned out by French outfit ASVE,L as well as Yale big man Danny Wolf, who has been no less than stellar, there has been little help from the balance of the squad.

The first game saw starters Ron Zipper, Ariel Isaak and Yuval Levin all make significant contributions, but since then there has been little help coming from the rest as no other player besides Yaacov and Wolf have stepped up and scored in double digits. In fact, the shooting has been pitiful across the board having scored only 54 and 50 points in their second and third games, respectively, while going a dreadful 9-of-49 from beyond the 3-point arc combined in those two clashes.

Over the three games, Yaacov has averaged 14 points, 8.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds while Wolf has checked in with 17.7 points and grabbed 8.7 boards with 1.7 assists. That is all nice and dandy, but without the complimentary help from the likes of Zipper, who has gone only 7-of-26 from downtown, this team is in trouble as they head into the game against Spain.

Should the Israelis somehow win the round-of-16 contest they would head into a quarterfinal matchup versus the winner of the Germany and Croatia game. If they lose, then they drop into the relegation zone placement games where the bottom three teams of the 16 that are playing in the European Championships will be relegated to Division B. That would force Israel to play in that version of the continental competition next year as it would need to end up in the top-3 to be promoted back to Division A. This is absolutely the last thing that the program would want to have happen and would be quite a mark on the head coach, the players and management.

On the plus side, Israel is the only last-place team that won a game, with the other trio of Montenegro, Slovenia and Poland all entering the knockout phase with 0-3 records, and the fact that Hasin does have two stars in Yaacov and Wolf to rely on will most probably help keep Israel in the top league.

However, the bigger issue at hand is why are the majority of the Under-20 players not being able to compete consistently at the championship level.

Therein lies the bigger problem with Israeli basketball.

The reason is unfortunately quite simple - the players don’t get enough minutes with their club teams. Whether it’s a player like Zipper, Daniel Guetta, Ido Harel or Ofek Gol who were on Israel Premier League rosters but barely played, to the tune of 300 total minutes between the four with Guetta and Harel playing the bulk of those minutes. Gol did play serious minutes in Israel’s second division, the Leumit League, as did Levin but the others were role players and didn’t get time on the court that is needed to hone their skills.

Younger players need to get more game experience

The bottom line is that Israeli basketball needs to get the younger players more game experience so that when they get a chance to perform in a big tournament such as the Under-20 European Championships, they can.

The only way that these players can get better is if they play. While practice is one thing, playing in an actual game is something entirely different and only a handful of the current U20 squad really had that chance.

The Israel Basketball Association and league administration needs to be able to find a way to get these young Israelis time. Of course, there is pressure for club teams to succeed, win titles and compete at the highest level, both domestically and internationally, but without a proper backbone of blue-and-white hoopsters Israeli basketball will continue to lose its identity.

There have been discussions about starting a league for players who no longer can play in their youth teams, but in essence that is what the Leumit League should be. With only two foreign players allowed, the second division should be a place where youngsters aged between 19-23 should be able to work on their skill set and continue to develop. While that is certainly the case with some teams, more needs to be done to be able to promote the young guns and give them minutes instead of the constant battle to either be promoted to the top league or to make sure they aren’t relegated to the third.

This pressure forces the clubs to rely on older, veteran players instead of allowing the younger ones the chance to play, make mistakes and be able to learn from them.

Hopefully, with renewed efforts by the federation and league administration, the current Under-20 European Championships can be a lesson to learn from and see how these players and the next crop can get an opportunity to play more minutes during the season in order to consistently be able to compete at the highest levels.

Should Israel somehow defeat Spain, that will only be a band-aid on the real issue at hand because the three games to date show that there is a much deeper issue that needs to be dealt with.