With Israel off to a great start in Prague at the group stages of Eurobasket 2022, the blue-and-white is flying high as they look to make an impact on the continental basketball stage in group play and then in the knockout rounds which take place in Berlin.
With wins over Finland in overtime on Friday and a gutsy come from behind victory on Saturday night against Holland, Israel will now look to officially book their tickets to Germany with a win over Poland a team that has given them trouble recently. Following that, the blue-and-white will tip-off against Serbia on Tuesday and face the Czech Republic on Thursday.
To give us an up close and personal view of the team just ahead of Monday’s Poland game at 14:00 local time, Israel forward Jake Cohen spoke to The Sports Rabbi about what the team needs to do in order to continue on to Germany.
While Israel may be tied in wins at the top of the Group D with a record of 2-0 and are on the cusp of moving along, but Cohen feels that the blue-and-white have plenty of work to go in order or be the best version of themselves, “I’m thinking about playing better and how we can improve and we didn’t play well against Holland. We need to play better and focus on the little things.”
Cohen joined the Israel National back in 2017 when the squad, under Oded Katash began a rejuvenation process following the disappointment of the Eurobasket competition that was hosted in the Holy Land. The Maccabi Tel Aviv forward has been able to see the fruits of his labor coming into full view.
“It’s really cool, it’s weird and not something I’m used to. Usually you are playing over the course of a long season and play the finals in June after starting in August. This has been five years and has a college feel to it. It reminds me of that experience and it’s kind of how it feels for me now.”
So far, Cohen has averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds in the two games and while his play has been very good thus farm he feels that there is still plenty of work to go, “I have a lot to improve and it’s different playing such significant games so early in the year. It’s a playoff atmosphere and it’s only September, but I have a lot to do better and that I can improve on as we keep playing. I am someone who benefits from the team’s success.”
To put it in perspective for the reader, Cohen spoke about how Deni Avdija is raising his level of play in crunch time and has been key to to both victories, “He’s been great down the stretch most importantly and that’s a sign of big time player. He made big plays in the last two minutes of both games. But he will also be the first to tell you that we can all better, but he’s been huge.”
With well over 30 current NBA players participating in the Eurobasket, some like Avdija have been able to raise the level of their play and show that they can really be counted on for their teams. While it’s nice to have an NBA player on one’s national team, Cohen doesn’t feel that this is a difference maker and that there are plenty of quality players who are plying their trade in Europe.
“No, not really. The quality of NBA players is obvious but I don’t think it’s the difference. It’s the talent, ability and professionalism and there are plenty of high quality European players that could play as easily in the NBA? Look at Maodo Lo for Germany and other guys that play basketball at a very high level. It’s great as the NBA players have quality but it’s not a prerequisite to have a good team.”
Veteran forward Guy Pnini just turned 39 on Sunday and he doesn’t look to be slowing down one step as he can been the epitome of a leader of the floor for Israel, “He has a lot of influence and has the respect of all of his teammates. For someone who plays with him I have his respect and you will listen to what he has to say. He’s won everywhere and everything and having him is a huge asset. That is what leaders are for and veterans are for, showing the younger guys how it’s done and being a positive example to get things done.”
It seems that there are many critics out there about the way Guy Goodes has been coaching the squad, but Cohen says that he doesn’t look at that at all, “I try not to follow what is being said by fans or media and I don’t find it productive. I don’t know what being said and we are 2-0 and that is where we want to be at this point. We have done good things and bad things so far and we are working to improve. You don’t want to be satisfied and want to improve and that is what the coaching staff is stressing now.”
Just ahead of the Eurobasket, Israel fell in both of their World Cup qualifiers, on the road in Finland and then at home against Sweden which set off panic throughout the basketball world around the national team but less than one week later those two defeats are way, way back in the past for Israel and is a non-factor.
“Maybe a little bit but it’s not something that was going to stay very long in your head. All in all it was a good thing and it was better than playing poorly in the first two games at Eurobasket, so better to do it in World Cup qualifying. It was a wake up call and things turned out ok as we took it in the best way possible. We have to make sure that we don’t forget those lessons that we learned.”
As a player who lives it, Pini Gershon is right by the bench and has been seen as someone who is returning to involvement for the team be it in practice or during the game in the bench, 1-0I don’t really know, I don’t know what his capacity is and obviously he has a lot of experience and a great relationship with Goodes.”
One player who Cohen is very close with is his Maccabi Tel Aviv teammate John Dibartolomeo who was one of the two players who didn’t make the last and final cut. While it’s disappointing not the guard bit to be able to join Cohen in Prague, Cohen said that perhaps Dibartolomeo not being part of the squad may be a blessing in disguise.
“John is a close friend and more than just a teammate, so of course I wanted to share this experience with him. He’s a good player but it’s not about who my friends are but who the coach feels can help us win. Ultimately if he wasn’t going to play at all it’s best for him to get started with Maccabi and do his captain duties as well.”
With Poland sitting at 1-1, they will be looking for a victory over Israel in order to put themselves in the best position as possible as they also try to punch their ticket to the knockout rounds, “It’s going to take a team effort and they have a lot of weapons. We will have to play well in order to beat them, it’s going to take the whole team to do so and not just a few guys.”