While Maccabi Tel Aviv and Kiryat Ata battled it out for a spot in the Winner Cup semifinals against Hapoel Tel Aviv in which the yellow-and-blue took 95-71, it was also an opportunity to see two of the top up and coming youngsters in Israeli basketball take to the floor on either side of the court just ahead of a Derby semifinal clash on Thursday night.
Ben Saraf for Sharon Avrahami’s Kiryat Ata team and Omer Mayer featuring for Oded Katash’s Maccabi Tel Aviv are ticketed to be the future of blue-and-white basketball and both were on display this week for their respective clubs as they played significant minutes with and against players who are a decade or more older than them.
While the pair have played with each other on the Under-18 National Team back in 2022 when they finished in 5th place at the European Championships it was exhilarating to get to see them bring up the ball, dish out assists and also manage their offenses. It’s been quite a while since hoops aficionados had such an opportunity and hopefully each player will be able to continue to make significant strides in their careers with each of their club’s first teams.
Whether it was Saraf who played 19 minutes, scored 5 points, grabbed 4 rebounds, dished out 3 assists and stole a pair of balls and shared the floor with James Batemon, Amin Stevens and Raz Adam or Mayer who checked in with 6 points and 2 assists in 9 minutes and teamed up with Wade Baldwin, Roman Sorkin and Bonzie Colson both didn’t look one bit out of place. To think that the pair of teenagers who are 17 and 16 years old respectively were playing with rosters loaded with wily veterans can only entice and excite the fans around the country.
Saraf has been the player with the headlines, but Mayer was the one who helped the Under-18 squad under Kiryat Ata coach Sharon Avrahami this past summer to a 6th place finish in the European Championships.
The bench boss, who has been privileged to work with both and now Saraf on his club team had nothing but praise for the two, “I love Omer Mayer as well as Ben and there is a lot of pride to see him and Ben in the Israeli league which is just great. Omer was excellent and Ben is also a player, I only wish that there will be even more.”
Mayer hit a pair of back-to-back triples to the delight of the Maccabi faithful and also delivered a stunning alley-oop assist to Antonius Cleveland in the second quarter that was absolutely delicious as the thoughts began to run through everyone’s heads that perhaps maybe Saraf was not the only player with NBA ambitions.
Regardless of what might be down the road the future seems to be now for both of them and that’s good news for Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach Oded Katash, “Omer is a great kid and he’s very young but doesn’t carry himself that way. He has a bright future ahead of him. It’s great to be able to coach him and that his shots fell. I was happy that he was able to get into the game and gain confidence. He’s 17 years old but has confidence that some players who are a decade older than him don’t have.”
While Mayer may not turn 17 until October 8th, it’s clear to Katash that he is well beyond his years in maturity as has been seen with the U18 squad this past summer as he was the leader of that group both on and off of the court. If he can keep that part of his personality intact that’s 90% of the battle of succeeding in the Israeli league.
Rafi Menco who is starting his second season in yellow-and-blue has seen plenty over the first month of training camp to understand that Mayer is the real deal and that it’s a good thing that the next generation is starting to receive recognition.
“It was great to see that, I don’t know Ben Saraf so I will speak about Omer who has been with us from the start of camp. He has shown how professional he has been as well as his game play. I am sure with time he will continue to learn from our top level guards and from Oded as well. There is no doubt that he will continue to improve throughout the season.”
While everyone was ogling and googling over the young guns, there’s a Derby coming up for Maccabi as they face Hapoel on Thursday night as the two sides will battle it out in the Winner Cup semifinal with the victor playing for the preseason title against Hapoel Jerusalem on Sunday night back at the Drive In.
The Reds will be coming into the game with only four imports as Xavier Munford is suffering from bruised ribs and John Holland still nursing a hand injury while the yellow-and-blue will have a full complement of foreigners as both Lorenzo Brown and Jasiel Rivero will be in the lineup.
While the game will take place on Hapoel’s home court, there will be a 50/50 split between the fans in the facility with each set receiving 1400 seats so the Reds won’t have the major advantage.
In fact, perhaps they may be at a disadvantage due to the happenings at the soccer derby that took place earlier this week that saw their Ultras boycotting the game itself plus only 4 imports to Maccabi’s 5 may leave Danny Franco’s squad a bit short, however, that doesn’t mean that they will be down and out.
“Just ahead of the start of the EuroCup season we have a big Derby challenge in front of us,” Franco said. “We are still working on integrating the new guys and the veterans and the game against Maccabi will be a good opportunity to continue to come together against a quality opponent. I’m certain that everyone who plays will give the maximum and will give it their all.”
Oded Katash is aware as to what happened the last time the two squads played one another at the Drive IN which saw the Reds smash the yellow-and-blue by 39 points in game two of the Israeli league finals and understands that his team will need to be focused in order to punch their ticket to the final where Hapoel Jerusalem awaits on Sunday night.
“We can’t go into the game without being focused, especially a Derby. Hapoel Tel Aviv is a good team and we all remember what happened the last time we played here against them. It won’t be easy and it will be a big test for us ahead of the start of the Euroleague season. Every team is coming into these games in the same situation. Both teams have some players that are continuing from last season and they know one another. Hapoel Tel Aviv is a quality team and it will be interesting.”
Finally, Rafi Menco perhaps stated it best as to what Maccabi’s goal for the game is, “As for Hapoel Tel Aviv, on one hand it’s the Winner Cup and preseason but it’s also a Derby and the best team will win. We have to go into the game and win it.”