Sinai Says: The search for a true playmaker

Since the 2001 European Championships, Meir Tapiro has been the heart and soul of the national team.

Allon sinai 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Allon sinai 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the first time in over a decade Israel finds itself entering the European Championships without a clear-cut starter in the playmaker position. Since the 2001 European Championships, Meir Tapiro has been the heart and soul of the national team. However, the 34-year-old's decision to retire from international basketball in May has left a void in perhaps the most important slot on the team. Tapiro inherited the reins to the national side from Doron Sheffer and Oded Katash, who had shared the playmaking responsibilities since 1995. With Sheffer, Katash and Tapiro at the helm, Israel was nearly always guaranteed an advantage in the point-guard position. The three were among European basketball's better playmakers of the past 15 years. But now coach Tzvika Sherf finds himself in a serious dilemma as there is no obvious heir apparent. It would be no overstatement to say that Sherf's eventual decision regarding the identity of his starting point-guard will be nothing short of critical to the team's chances of success at the EuroBasket tournament, which gets under way in Poland on September 7. Four players entered the start of training last month as potential replacements for Tapiro. Gal Mekel, Yuval Naimi, Moran Rot and Yogev Ohayon began the competition to become the team's new leader on-court from an almost identical position. Two weeks into the preparations it now seems that Mekel is sitting in pole position. The 21-year-old's career only really took off in the final months of last season. Mekel returned to Israel from two years at Wichita State when he was signed to a long-term contract by Maccabi Tel Aviv late in the 2007/08 season. However, he really began to realize his potential while out on loan at Hapoel Galil/Gilboa. Under the guidance of coach Katash, Mekel followed up a mediocre regular season with a sensational playoffs and Final Four, almost doubling his minutes and production (13.3 points, 3.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 29.7 minutes), and dictating the play both on the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Mekel has started in each of Israel's three warm-up games this summer and has made the most of every opportunity. Sherf admitted this week that Mekel is currently the front runner in the race to become the team's next starting playmaker, but would not elaborate, only agreeing to say that the youngster is doing well in training. "I feel comfortable and I thank the coaching staff for putting their trust in me," said Mekel, who will be making his official national team debut in Israel's EuroBasket opener against Croatia. Over the weekend, Mekel will have three more opportunities to prove his worth when Israel faces Turkey, Poland and Great Britain on consecutive days in a warm-up tournament in London. With the promise he has shown so far, and considering he is just 21, Mekel will surely be the future playmaker of the national team. However, Sherf still needs to decide if Mekel will be ready to step into the big shoes of his predecessors by next month or if he will have to wait a little longer before perhaps becoming the next great Israeli playmaker.