Hapoel Jerusalem opened up their preseason slate with two wins over Hapoel Beer Sheva and Maccabi Rishon Le’Zion as they head out to Italy for a tipoff with Dinamo Sassari followed by the Cagliari Tournament where they will go up against Khimki Moscow and potentially Milano.
So far the Reds have looked good, knowing when to turn up and down the heat as well as being able to implement aspects that Coach Oded Katash asks of them. The new players have been able to join the old almost seamlessly as CEO/GM Guy Harel attempted to bring in the pieces that had been missing last season when Jerusalem fell short in the Basketball Champions League and the Israeli Winner League.
It’s clear that the players brought in this campaign to complement those who remained were in response to a number of issues that the team had last season. Tamir Blatt, James Feldeine, Tashawn Thomas, Bar Timor and J’Covan Brown are as solid a core as you’re going to get in this league and they’ll be joined by Suleiman Briamoh, Idan Zalmanson, Nimrod Levi, Mindaugas Kupsas, Isaiah Cousins, Trent Lockett along with youngsters Daniel Rosenbaum and Dvir Ringvald.
Whether it was toughness, size or outside shooting it seems that the weaknesses have been addressed and that’s good for the Jerusalem fans. Will there be more changes? There could be but for right now it looks like Katash has some good material to work with going forward and he’s definitely content with one of his new leaders.
“Suleiman Braimoh is a true leader,” remarked Katash to me following the victory over Rishon. “You can tell very quickly and we also saw his leadership when he was with Hapoel Eilat, so we knew what we were getting. He’s a very versatile player that can play two positions, but I really like his toughness and that’s something that we really wanted.”
There’s no question that Braimoh will be an integral part of the squad both on and off of the court, sticking up for his teammates and making sure their backs are covered. He’s not going to let anyone push his guys around and that was clear from the first two games. The Nigerian born forward can also hit his shots from beyond the arc going 29/66 last year and that will allow Jerusalem to stretch the floor which was yet another aspect they had been lacking last season.
Big man Idan Zalmanson can hit jumpers around the key which will be crucial for Katash’s flexibility on the court but he is also a larger presence on the defensive end. Nimrod Levi who has bounced around the Israeli league can be a huge asset when put in the correct place to succeed and is shown confidence by the coaching staff. He can also stretch the floor and hit his 3-point shot with consistency, but the one thing I’d like to see from him is a smile once in a while as well as show some kind of emotion.
Lithuanian center Mindaugas Kupsas is still looking to find his form but if he can perform at the levels he did last season in the Champions League in continental play this season, Jerusalem will have yet another threat at both ends of the floor.
Isaiah Cousins is interesting to say the least. There’s no question that the Oklahoma product can play. It looks like there is a yoyo string on the ball when he is dribbling and provides size at the point guard position. Can he succeed in Europe? That’s the question but he does have a friendly face in Tashawn Thomas who played with him in college and also vouched for him to Jerusalem management.
Last but not least is Trent Lockett. The 6”6 swingman comes in to fill the role which both Chris Johnson and Da’Sean Butler and will also be a defensive stopper which he showed numerous times against Rishon Le’Zion.
The Sports Rabbi had the chance to catch up with the veteran just before heading off to Italy and discussed how he’s adjusting to Jerusalem, his new teammates and the value of the preseason.
“I feel good so far. We got two wins and it’s a good way to break the ice. I’m feeling more and more comfortable everyday here and we have a good group of guys. I think we made a good step against Rishon especially after last game.”
Playing against top competition is key for Jerusalem as they prepare for the season ahead as the expectations mount after winning the State Cup last year but failing to advance out of the quarterfinals in the Champions League and falling to Rishon in the Israel league semifinals, “It’s going to be a good test for us and Sassari is a good team that’s playing in the Champions League and winning the Champions League is our goal. Then we can test ourselves against really good competition in Milan and Khimki which will be a good measure for us.”
One of the important factors of the preseason is to prepare the team for the campaign ahead. In that sense results aren’t as important as the actual game play itself, however, winning is always an important aspect for any player or club, “Obviously winning is important, but at this stage of the season we are just trying to get comfortable with each other. We have to work on things that coach is implementing early on. With the type of team that we have, winning is important and it’s something we hang our hat on and we want to do a lot more of it during the season so it’s good to start early.”
So far, Lockett had been quiet on the court looking to adjust to the new situation he is in, but after a strong second half against Rishon, the Golden Valley, Minnesota native was very upbeat about his play, “It just comes with getting comfortable. I missed practice the day before the last game and I’m just trying to get my rhythm and get other guys involved. It will come with time and I think we made a big step against Rishon and I am happy with that.”
After playing the past two seasons with Unics Kazan, Lockett earned the mantra of being a lockdown defender and he is well aware that this role will be critical to the success of the club, “I think we played well and we can take steps to get better on defense and that’s a big role which is on my shoulders a bit. Offensively we have building blocks and a core group of guys that was already here. We have a little bit of that rhythm and everybody is fitting in around that.”
“Offensively we have been solid, spacing and getting our rhythm is going to come but you can tell that the guys like playing with each other and we have a really good group of guys.”
Lockett who played his college ball between 2009-2012 at Arizona State and then 2012-2013 at Marquette to be closer to his mother who was suffering from an illness, believes the most crucial aspect for any team is communication on the court and that is something that not enough people pay attention to, “Communication is key. To me it’s one of the most undervalued things in basketball and when we have good communication out there it makes everything easier. Everybody is in the right spot and its super undervalued. If we can continue doing that it’s going to help us be successful.”
One of the big plusses at Jerusalem Lockett noted was that the core of the team continued together as the Reds look to build a culture for the future of the franchise. Along with that, it allows the newcomers a chance to fit in quickly and sets the team up to succeed down the road, “That’s super important and you don’t see that a ton in Europe, building around that core. You see that in the better Euroleague teams but for this program and this organization to keep that core of guys shows that they are trying to build something here and they kept the right guys. They helped build the foundation for what we are trying to build here and make it easy for guys like me for easily fit it in and help the team.”