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Lior Eliyahu, What Should Have Been, What Could Have Been

Lior Eliyahu at Israel National Team training camp 2007

Last night, it was to no surprise that I read that Lior Eliyahu will be released from his contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, becoming another sacrificial lamb from a disappointing season.

Eliyahu had a great future in front of him coming over to Maccabi in 2006 after three seasons at Galil and being drafted by the Houston Rockets of the NBA, he was ticketed to being the first Israeli in the NBA. However, that honor ended up going to Omri Casspi a few years later.

Eliyahu played for Maccabi and then was sent off to exile where he spent a season with Caja Laboral of Spain where he helped the club win a league title for the club.

Maccabi then brought him back from the wilderness where he produced some nice seasons but because of an injury this past year he never really got into the rhythm and never found his place in the rotation.

Sure he had some nice games, but he struggled and every time he missed a shot he had to look over his shoulder and see an irate David Blatt throwing his hands up in the air. Soon after he would be checked out of the game and would barely see the parquet and would be buried at the end of the bench. That unfortunately was Lior Eliyahu’s season in a nutshell.

He became captain after Guy Pnini was suspended by the league and the club for choice words to a Hapoel Tel Aviv player that were picked up on TV, but he never seemed to take the role and run with it. Or was it the fact that he was never given the chance by coach Blatt to do so.

As a fan and season ticket holder of Maccabi Tel Aviv, I have to put partial blame on the players, however, the majority of blame has to be firmly placed on David Blatt’s shoulders.
The team was poorly built from the get go, probably one of the weakest squads in years with very little killer instinct. It was clear that they could not jell together properly though they were able to get into the playoffs of the Euroleague, barely.

All season long Maccabi was so predictable. They would call a timeout to set up a play and 99% the play would not work. Even in the finals, coach Blatt would be feverishly drawing on his board just to watch the players not execute, while Maccabi Haifa’s coach, Brad Greenberg would take a TO and settle his players down, tell them to chill and not to worry. Blatt was so uptight all year long. Bringing in players, shuttling players out and not giving the younger guys a chance to play, made for a tough year all around for Maccabi, its coach, management and fans.

Be it Giorgi Shermadini who ended up succeeding for Olympiakos where he could not with Maccabi, Malcolm Thomas who never fit into Blatt’s system but made his way back to the NBA, signing Darko Planinic and seeing him about to be loaned out, the blame has to lie on one person for this season’s failures, David Blatt.

Lior Eliyahu is just another one of Blatt’s failures this season. He was not able to imbue any confidence in Eliyahu. He was not able to help him succeed as captain of the club. He was unable to help Eliyahu become a better player and maybe have a chance to see the floor of an NBA court. Unfortunately for Eliyahu the closest he may end up to an NBA parquet was at Game 6 & 7 of the NBA finals where he was photographed with his girlfriend smiling and enjoying the sights.

That is the Lior Eliyahu I wanted to see with Maccabi. Happy, smiling, always with a good word to say, the player that always stopped to sign autographs for kids, the guy who always gave an interview, the sports personality that was my first subject in Israel to interview and write a story about back at the Israel National team training camp.

That is the Lior Eliyahu I hope to see somewhere on the basketball floor soon.

Below is the article I wrote back in 2007 about Lior Eliyahu for The Jerusalem Post

As Lior Eliyahu returned to Israel from the Houston Rockets summer league games this week, it seems like his homecoming may only be temporary. Players, coaches and analysts all agree that it is only a matter of time before Eliyahu leaves Israeli basketball for the bright lights, big cities and lucrative contracts of the NBA.

Taking a few moments out from the national team practice at Hadar Yosef in Tel Aviv this week, Eliyahu spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his transatlantic voyage. “It was an amazing experience being at an NBA training camp for the first time. It was like being in the movies,” the 21-year-old forward said.

Eliyahu was drafted by the Orlando Magic with the 44th pick in the 2006 draft. His rights were subsequently traded to the Houston Rockets. The summer league allowed Eliyahu a chance to practice with center Yao Ming and play with 2007 top draft pick, guard Aaron Brooks.

“It was an honor to meet and practice on the same court as Yao Ming and playing with Brooks was terrific. He is a great player, very quick and a true professional.”

While Brooks will probably make the Rockets roster for the upcoming season, Eliyahu will have to work on some elements of his game this year with Maccabi Tel Aviv, according to Channel 1 basketball analyst Eli Sahar. “Lior must improve his outside shooting and continue to get bigger in order to play in the NBA,” Sahar said. The 2.05 meter, 102 kg power forward also played small forward for Houston in Las Vegas.

Rockets summer league coach Elston Turner told Rockets.com, “We’ve been playing him at both the four and the three this week. He’s got some good experience from that and the initial signs are that he’s talented. He’s long and athletic. He just needs to learn how to play the NBA game and be more physical.”

Eliyahu also talked about some of the differences and challenges he faces in order to make it into the “world’s best league.” “With more one on one play, the game speed of the NBA is much faster than in Israel and Europe where zone play dominates,” he said. “The NBA players have more athleticism and power, but I felt good that I was able to physically handle the game situations. I know all of the players were stronger than me and although I have gotten bigger, I still have to bulk up more.”

One of the main concerns Maccabi officials and fans have is about how Eliyahu will handle his second season with the blue and yellow after playing almost two years of non-stop basketball with very little rest. Between the domestic league, Euroleague, NBA summer league and the Israel National team, the games never seem to end.

Last year, Yotam Halperin played with the Seattle Supersonics summer league team and struggled early on for Maccabi. It took a few months for him to get back into game shape, both mentally and physically. “I know exactly what Lior is going through,” Halperin remarked. “The difference between us is that I was in the United States for almost three months and Lior was there for only 20 days. He will have vacation time to rest, even with national team duty.”

Eliyahu agreed, “It’s definitely not easy mentally, and I must have time to relax off the court, but that is the life of a basketball player: play, play and play,” he said. Eliyahu averaged 9.4 points per game last year, his first season with Maccabi after coming over from Hapoel Galil Elyon where he spent three seasons.

New Tel Aviv head coach Oded Katash, is familiar with Eliyahu from his days as coach at Galil and understands what type of player he is and where his future may lie.
“I like Lior, he’s a great kid who’s extremely talented. He has a soft touch and knows where to position himself on the floor. Lior must continue to work on his size. He has great potential to be the first Israeli player in the NBA,” Katash said.

Katash almost played for the NBA’s New York Knicks, but due to a league lockout in 1998 and a career ending injury a couple of years later he never had the opportunity. “With the huge influx of European and other foreign players, it is only a matter of time until an Israeli makes it to the NBA,” Katash explained.

Crediting his parents for being the biggest influence on his career which started out later than the typical Israeli basketball player, Eliyahu said, “I did not look up to any players when I was growing up, my parents were the ones who were always there for me.” Omer Benovich, a reporter from the Sport 5 channel, added, “Eliyahu’s rate of development into a top level star has been truly amazing for someone who was not groomed to be a basketball player from his childhood.”

As the national team attempts to get into EuroBasket 2007 through the last-chance tournament next month, Eliyahu will have a chance to display his prowess against top European competition.
Playing alongside some of Israel ‘s best, Eliyahu will be in a position to learn both on and off the court. “There are a lot of good players and some great leaders on this team,” he said.
When asked if he is ready to take on a leadership role as the cornerstone of the national team’s future, he said, “I think so and I know I will be able to handle it too.”

With close to 70 games coming up this season, Eliyahu will have ample time to hone his skills in order to take the next step towards the NBA. In fact, Maccabi’s season begins at the “World’s Most Famous Arena”, Madison Square Garden in New York City in October, where Eliyahu will have a chance to go toe to toe with the New York Knicks in front of 20,000 fans.

As the famous Yehuda HaLevi poem reads, “My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West.” This may be what the future holds for Lior Eliyahu.