Rishon’s Adam Ariel shooting for the stars

Veteran Israeli forward reflects on Jerusalem origins and his maturation as a basketball player.

AFTER STARTING his hoops career with Hapoel Jerusalem, small forward Adam Ariel has blossomed into a valuable player with Maccabi Rishon Lezion. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
AFTER STARTING his hoops career with Hapoel Jerusalem, small forward Adam Ariel has blossomed into a valuable player with Maccabi Rishon Lezion.
With the Israeli basketball League getting back to action this weekend, Maccabi Rishon Lezion’s long-distance sharpshooter Adam Ariel is certainly excited to return to the court with his teammates.
Rishon Lezion will visit Hapoel Jerusalem in the Game of the Week on Sunday night in what is likely to be a heated affair, with Ariel returning to his basketball roots where he grew up and honed his skills as a youngster in the Reds youth department. Although only 25 years of age, Ariel is considered one of the veteran Sabras, having played for a number of clubs around the country as well as abroad.
“I’m super excited to get back to business,” Ariel told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s been a long time since we played and there had been a lot of doubt if we would be able to continue the season, so it’s great that we can now resume the campaign and we have a chance to do something special.”
The Israel basketball League has been on hiatus since the coronavirus outbreak in early March, but Ariel was able to make good use of the time off.
“I was able to put together a strict schedule for myself that included training exercises, which I did on my 20-meter roof. I missed the basketball side of things, but I was able to take advantage of my time by doing other things that I usually can’t do during the busy season.”
Unlike many of the Israeli teams, Rishon was able to keep the majority of its squad intact, especially the foreign players, with a core of Alex Hamilton, Darryl Monroe and D’Angelo Harrison. The only new player on the team is American Zach Hankins, who replaced compatriot James Kelly.
“It was fantastic that we were able to keep our team together and I believe that we also brought in a really quality big man to help out in Hankins,” said Ariel. “I am really confident in the team.”
Ariel grew up in Jerusalem and is one of the few players to come out of the Hapoel Jerusalem youth system who has had a successful career.
“I always wanted to be a basketball player and I was very active when I was younger. I saw that as each year went by, I continued to improve and I also had a number of quality people around me who believed in me, which was super important.
“Hapoel Jerusalem invested a lot into me and the coaches took me on as a project and kept pushing me along. I owe them a lot and I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Jerusalem.”
Sharon Drucker was Ariel’s first coach with Hapoel Jerusalem’s senior squad in 2012/13, and played the young forward very sparingly. The following season, Brad Greenberg took over on the bench after having won the league title the season before with Maccabi Haifa. Greenberg gave Ariel his first real chance as a professional and the then-19-year-old scored 3.4 points in close to nine minutes a game while in the playoffs his stats dipped ever so slightly to 2.3 points in eight minutes.
“I very much enjoyed playing under Brad and I also have to say that the assistant coach at the time was Oren Amiel (now the head coach for Nymburk in the Czech Republic), who is still one of my mentors today,” noted Ariel. “I was able to really expand my game and begin to see what my career was going to look like. I have to give a tremendous amount of thanks to Brad, who never looked at just the names on our jerseys, but rather what we could contribute, and propelled my development as much as he could. I owe my entire career to Oren as he was the one who really helped me become the player I am today and helped me work on things that needed improvement.”
In 2014/15 Ariel played under Danny Franco, who led Jerusalem to its first-ever league championship. That season saw Ariel score 3.4 points and pull down 1.6 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game, while he was used sparsely in European play.
“It was a great feeling to win the title with Jerusalem after having grown up a fan of the team. As a child I used to watch the games in the stands and of course I was part of the youth department. This was a very special season for me and I’m happy that I had the privilege to be a part of it.”
Germany was the next stop for a young Ariel, and he signed with Eisbären Bremerhaven where he played under Moli Katzurin, who had coached Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Israel National Team in the past. However, Ariel’s time outside of Israel was not easy, as he picked up an injury in the preseason and when the team didn’t reach early expectations, Katzurin was let go. After recording only 1.7 points a contest in seven games, Ariel returned to Israel.
“I arrived in Germany with a tremendous amount of expectations to succeed, but I injured my knee soon after the start of the preseason and I was never really able to get into sync the way I wanted to,” he explained. “Then the team changed coaches and I just missed my chance, but there’s nothing you can do and that’s part of sports and part of the career of a basketball player. You’ve got to live with it. But I do believe that it was an experience and one that I learned a lot from and one that I enjoyed being a part of. To live outside of Israel by myself and to manage such a situation at a young age was very challenging for me.”
During the summer of 2016, Ariel moved to Maccabi Ashdod and played under one of the all-time Israeli greats, Meir Tapiro, with whom he played with at Hapoel Jerusalem at the beginning of his career.
Ariel blossomed into a true captain with Tapiro on the sidelines and he helped defeat Hapoel Jerusalem and Amar’e Stoudemire, but once again his season ended early due to an injury. With averages of 6.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 22 minutes per game, Ariel began coming into his own game-in and game-out.
Back on the floor in 2017/18, Tapiro moved on and was replaced by Greenberg, a coach that Ariel was already intimately familiar with, and he notched 7.1 points and 2.9 boards per game, while shooting 45% from three-point range.
“Playing under the tutelage of Tapiro my first season in Ashdod was very special and everyone made sure that we would do our best for the team to succeed. I think he did a great job and it’s just unfortunate that the results don’t really reflect the job that he did because we had a really good team and perhaps we could have done a bit better.”
After a couple of very good years in Ashdod, Ariel was on the move once again in 2018 and signed with Maccabi Rishon Lezion, where he still plays today.
Under coach Tzvika Sherf, Rishon had a brilliant beginning to the season by capturing the preseason tournament. But after a less-than-stellar start to the league campaign, Guy Goodes replaced Sherf and took Rishon to the State Cup final – where it fell to Jerusalem – and then to the league final, where it lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv. Ariel was a big part to the puzzle and dropped 7.5 points per game in 21.5 minutes while also scoring 7.2 points and grabbing three rebounds in 26 minutes a contest during the playoffs.
“Last season we were able to succeed with a team that didn’t necessarily believe in being able to reach the heights that we did in making it to three finals,” said Ariel. “We played solid ball and showed a ton of character in do-or-die games. It’s great that we were able to advance to three championship contests. Perhaps you could say that the season that Rishon won the league championship was better, but I believe that last year was the greatest in the club’s history. We brought honor to both the team and the city. It was just an incredible season.
“I really enjoy playing for Guy, who himself is a former player. He understands the players mentality and he just has tons and tons of basketball knowledge. He knows how to connect to players and he’s a coach who you would always go to war for.”
Playing against Hapoel Jerusalem in the State Cup Final and then the league semifinal brought plenty of emotions to the forefront for Ariel after being an integral part of the Reds’ youth system. While Ariel had extra motivation in those types of games the first couple times, he now understands that he just wants to win each and every game no matter who the opponent is.
“I no longer have extra motivation, but it’s always fun to play against Jerusalem. Of course, a game against Jerusalem means more for me personally, but I always want to play well and I always want to win.”
Thus far this season, Ariel is having the best of his career. Not only is he a senior player on the club, he also featured in the EuroCup which was the first time Rishon participated in the competition.
Ariel scored 7.6 points in 22 minutes per game and hit 41% of his shots from beyond the arc, but only has converted 59% of his free throws. His best game was in continental action against Ulm, with 18 points including five three-pointers, one of which sent the game into overtime at home, a match Rishon eventually won.
In Israeli league action, Ariel put in 8.8 points and added 2.5 rebounds in 20 minutes going 53% from the field, 34% from long distance and 80% from the charity stripe. Rishon made it to the State Cup semifinals but was knocked out of the competition once again by eventual winner Hapoel Jerusalem.
“Playing in the EuroCup was amazing and the level of play was extremely high, which allowed us to prepare very well for the Israeli league. I believe we gave a good performance in Europe and we kept games close all the way until the end. Having to play twice a week against such incredible competition and very physical top-notch teams was different than the Israeli league. It forced us to really raise our level and raise the bar in order to compete. For a club like Rishon Lezion and for its players it was really something special to play in the EuroCup.”
When it comes to clutch shots, Ariel is one of the best in the business. Last season he drilled home the winning triple against Hapoel Beersheba and in the playoffs he also nailed a shot from deep to send Game 2 of Rishon’s quarterfinal series with Holon into overtime, where it eventually took the victory.
In addition to his performance against Ulm, Ariel helped Rishon to a massive comeback against Hapoel Tel Aviv on the road, where he scored five money-time three-pointers – including one at the buzzer – to give his team the win. Although his three-point percentages may not show it, when Rishon needs clutch shooting it knows exactly where it can turn as Ariel’s won many a game thanks to his guile from downtown in the closing minutes.
“Truthfully, I’m very comfortable taking those types of shots and I’m operating on automatic mode. I don’t feel the pressure at all if it’s in the closing seconds, the middle of the game or in the second quarter. For me it’s the same shot time and time again and it’s just a blast because this is why you play the game for these moments.”
Ariel is in essence a swingman who can play as a small forward, but doesn’t believe he takes too many three-pointers.
“I trust my weapon [as a three-point shooter] but I also know that I have to and want to improve other elements of my game. But my shooting is a tool that I have and I’m always going to use it when I need to.”
The Rishon star has made several appearances for the Israel National Team and will be counted on for years to come and as the blue-and-white look to qualify for EuroBasket 2022.
“Playing for the National Team has been a dream of mine ever since I was a child. It’s a huge honor and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to contribute and represent the country for years to come.”
As for goals down the road, Ariel like any other basketball player in the continent is always looking to reach the top level of his sport.
“I want to play in the Euroleague and for a top-level club whether it’s in Spain or another country, that’s my dream.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at sportsrabbi9@gmail.com.