It’s been a busy and successful summer thus far for Israel’s youth national teams as the soccer squads stunned their opposition with incredible tournament results.
Now it’s basketball’s turn to take center court as the Under-20 team begins competing in the European Championship on Saturday night when it steps onto the floor in Heraklion to tip off against Turkey.
While this version of the young blue-and-white doesn’t feature the likes of Deni Avdija and Yam Madar, who were instrumental in the team’s success in years past, there are no doubt some budding stars and compelling stories for head coach Elad Hasin’s squad.
One of those players happens to be a surprise addition to this year’s team in Danny Wolf. The Yale University big man arrived in Israel just last month after having been courted by coaches and staff of the Israel Basketball Association over the course of a couple of years due to his Jewish background, which would allow Wolf to play as a naturalized citizen.
With the 7-foot Wolf bolstering the frontline, Israel has found not only a player with a unique size and skill set but also one who is a true bona fide “mensch”. Just ahead of the opening jump, The Jerusalem Post sat down with Wolf to talk about his development as a player, the NBA dream, featuring for an Ivy League school and of course what it means to play for Israel at this juncture of his young career.
“I’m very excited and super thankful for the opportunity that I was presented with,” Wolf began as he sat in the stands of the Zisman Arena in Ramat Gan. “I was reached out to by these coaches over the previous years and wasn’t able to make it happen earlier, but finally this summer it all worked out and I couldn’t be happier to be here and hopefully we will do some great things in Greece.”
Putting on the blue-and-white jersey is emotional
As a Jew, there is no question that putting on the blue-and-white jersey is emotional for the Glencoe, Illinois, native.“I honestly don’t think I can put words into the feelings. Growing up in a Jewish household having Jewish beliefs and faith, I’ve never really been able to experience something like I have this past month. Just being able to represent Israel in a way that I haven’t been able to do in the past is something that I shouldn’t take for granted.
“Having my Bar Mitzvah in Israel as well as my brothers was great. When I grew up, I always held on my shoulders that I knew I had a very strong belief in Judaism and I used that to my advantage in life. Judaism was a huge part of how I was raised and how I carry myself today.”
Despite having visited Israel many times in the past, coming on this type of adventure is one that could bring up many types of concerns, but with the help of the players Wolf integrated into the squad with ease.
“I was worried at first because I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, especially with the language barrier as I can’t really speak Hebrew. But guys like Noam Yaacov and Ariel Isaak have been two of the big guys who have really helped me to just get acclimated to everything that has been going on this past month. Everyone has been great and they have helped when the coach is speaking in Hebrew and they are translating for me or they have walked me through plays that they have been going through for years which are new to me.“As for my Hebrew, I’m learning a little here and there and when I have more time I definitely want to become more fluent in Hebrew which is a goal of mine. But I need more time on my hands to really do that.”While the time in Israel with the Under-20 team is not exactly a Birthright-style trip, Wolf has still been able to enjoy the time he has away from the basketball court.
“I have been to Tel Aviv quite a lot as my family has come to visit. But to be able to visit all of Israel has to offer has allowed me to learn so much this past month, including things that I didn’t know about or even existed. Israel is such a cool place, it’s so beautiful, the weather is awesome and I’ve loved every part of it.”Basketball has always been a part of Wolf’s life with many in his family who played the game and acted as role models.“I grew up in a household that had basketball in its roots. My dad grew up playing and as the youngest of four, both my older brothers play. From the first moment I picked up a basketball, it was all that I wanted to do and I never really played any other sport growing up, it was just basketball. Being the youngest and the competitive nature really drove me to do what I wanted to do in basketball.
“My dad and my brothers are my biggest role models. Picking up little things from them and learning from them day-in and day-out not just in basketball but in life. Their work ethic, their drive and passion about it, I have been able to use that towards my basketball passion. I never really emulated anyone else but I always looked up to players and watched a ton of film of some of the European greats because of my style of play and to pick up things here and there to become better.”A McDonald’s All-American Game nominee, Wolf helped Northfield Mount Hermon High School reach the finals in both the NEPSAC Triple-A championship and the national prep championship as his team was ranked No. 11 in the country as a senior. Following his time in high school, Wolf had numerous options for college but decided to take his talents to Yale, where he just completed his freshman year on an economics path.
“I enjoyed every part of it through the ups and downs. My coach and I always joked how I had a super tough time transitioning at the start, but after a month and got my head on my shoulders I felt much better. We had a really good team and I loved my teammates and my coaches in what was a successful season. If we would have won the Ivy League it would have made it that much better. But being able to learn from the two bigs and learning something new every day in practice hopefully will turn this coming season into something good with many guys returning. Hopefully I can do my part for the team to be as successful as possible.”Being a 7-footer has its advantages as a basketball player, but there are also plenty of places where Wolf can also improve and hone his skills whether he is playing as a power forward or as a center.
“My height is an advantage and I am a versatile player that I can create for others. That is my biggest strong suit, passing and being able to make my teammates better. My shooting is pretty good and I can shoot it pretty well for my size. I definitely need to get much stronger and more athletic. If I can make that leap this year, I can become a much better player. On the defensive end, I want to become quicker laterally and in pick-and-roll situations as well as switching. But I think that my versatility is the best part of my game, creating for others along with getting my own shots.”
“This past month, my coaches emphasized the use of me inside and out and I have always really refrained from trying to become a post player. I don’t know why that is, but that is another weakness, my post game, which has been improving. I enjoy the perimeter more and it’s what I grew up playing and what I know. I think that if I can incorporate a post game I can be a much better player.”
While Wolf joined the Israel National team program this year, it was actually last year when he was first approached to come on board.
“I was reached out to by the coaches last summer about playing on the U18 team, but unfortunately that didn’t work out as it was very last minute. Earlier this year, one of my best friends put me in contact with some of the coaches and other guys in Israel. We then started a relationship and it got stagnant and I didn’t think it was going to happen. But then in late April I decided that this is what I wanted to do and I thought it would be an awesome experience. We got all the paperwork done and I made aliyah a month ago and now I’m here.”
People in Wolf’s circle thought that this was a tremendous opportunity and are very supportive of his decision to head to Israel for a summer of European hoops.“Everyone thought it was an awesome experience and one that I shouldn’t pass up on. Putting basketball aside, living in Israel, not the Birthright or Onward experience with many Americans, but being with many Israelis, has allowed me to learn so much about the culture. From a basketball standpoint, we are playing against some of the top European players and it’s a totally different game than the United States. I have been able to learn so much and I will be able to bring all that knowledge into my college season next year. I never really watched a ton of European basketball, but the best player in the NBA is from Europe. Seeing the playing styles and how unique it is from the American style is more suited to me, being a versatile big and being able to pass the ball. European basketball is so much different.”
Wolf has been able to learn plenty from Hasin, who is also the bench boss for Ness Ziona in the Israel Winner League.“It’s a totally different coaching and playing style that I am used to,” noted Wolf.. “They are really emphasizing me taking smaller players into the post and bigger players onto the wing. It will open up not only my game but create opportunities for the team. They are being very hard on me, which is what I need at this point in my career. Concepts that I am learning which are new and foreign to me are being instilled in me in a way that I am not used to, which I think has been awesome.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Jake Cohen starred years ago for the Israel U20 National team while attending Davidson University and Wolf would be more than happy to follow in his footsteps.
“Of course I have heard, as the coaches here talk about Jake a lot. I actually had a chance to go to one of the Maccabi Tel Aviv-vs-Hapoel Tel Aviv games last month which was cool. My first goal is to become a pro in the States and hopefully have a chance to play in the NBA, but the opportunity to play in Israel at the professional level is something that seems extremely cool to me. Just playing here and to be able to live in Israel if it presented itself would be incredible.”
On the topic of the NBA, Wolf knows that Israeli forward Deni Avdija has made a huge impact by playing in the world’s best league and that is also a dream for him.“I’ve heard a ton about Deni, the sole Israeli player in the NBA right now. I hear that he is such a big deal here in Israel and a role model to the kids. Hopefully one day I will have the opportunity and ability to do the same.
“I think that if I can continue working hard and become more athletic and more consistent with my all-around game I think that there is a chance, but it comes with hard work. If I really put myself in the right position and I really take in what my coaches are saying and I really put a lot of effort into it, I think that there is definitely and hopefully a possibility of playing in the NBA.”
As for the tournament that is about to get under way, Wolf shared what his personal goals are and that of that of the team.
“I want to improve my game and improve on my weaknesses and just help our team be as successful as possible and hopefully win a gold medal. Also to be able to learn a bunch of stuff that I can bring back to Yale and hopefully in the future in Israel if I come back and play next summer or in the future. Being able to learn as much as I can and take it in. I want to help the team as much as I can.”