Maccabi Tel Aviv looks ahead to the 2021/22 season

You can put a wrap on the 2020/21 Israel Basketball Season. It was a long, long, long journey for everyone involved from the players to the staff and even to the media! It’s time for a nice break from the on court action as the off court activity has already started to heat up.

Maccabi will need to take a good hard look at their roster and make some decisions, tough decisions as to who needs to stay, who will go and who will come in to give the Yellow & Blue a shot to reach European Glory once again. It’s no easy feat, but it’s attainable. That should the goal over the next month or so as they begin to build the 2021/22 roster.

There will be question marks as management will need to see where they can upgrade and where they HAVE to upgrade.

Scottie Wilbekin – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

The number one priority has to be a point guard to play alongside Scottie Wilbekin, Maccabi’s star of the show. The Final MVP who also earned a spot in the League’s First Team All-Stars finished off the Israeli league campaign extremely strong, showing that he is the best player in the Holy Land, but over in Europe, he needs to have a player by his side in order to free him up while also being a player that can be counted on to score.

“It was fun,”Wilbekin said. “The first and third game were more fun. I’m proud of the way we finished it off. I’m glad we can go home and rest and then get ready for a new season. I haven’t played two games back to back in a long time. It’s nice me and my brother are champs.”

We saw in the finals against a super tough Hapoel Gilboa Galil team that other than Wilbekin, scoring was at a premium after losing the likes of Elijah Bryant to the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA and Tyler Dorsey. There was no secondary scorer and that could have cost them big as we saw the Yellow & Blue have all kinds of problems finding the bottom of the basket in the 4th quarter of game 3.

Chris Jones – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Chris Jones made his Euroleague debut with Maccabi Tel Aviv and it’s an open question if he will return for a second season. Jones and Wilbekin never quite developed the on court chemistry as he learned the style of game which took quite some time. The guard starred in Eilat to wrap up their semifinal series and he’s had some very good games but on some nights he wasn’t able to make the impact that perhaps Maccabi was looking for.

“It’s very special and it was a tough year but we knew that we had a good group,” Jones began following the title. “I feel like we ended on a great note.”

As for his development, Jones said that he has to credit many of those around him, “I would say I stayed true to myself. I felt like I did well. Coach and teammates put me in good situations. To end like this, it’s a great year for me.”

There has been talk that a number of Euroleague teams are interested in Jones including Barcelona, so the last thing Maccabi wants to see is Jones head to greener pastures and star for another club after having invested time and effort into the guard.

Keenan Evans – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Guard Keenan Evans who stared with Hapoel Haifa seems to have already been locked up the Yellow & Blue, however, there have also been reports that Zalgiris is interested in obtaining his services so that is another story that bares to watch over the next few weeks.

Iftach Ziv who has matured as not only a point guard but as a true floor general is another player on Maccabi’s radar despite the hapoel Gilboa Galil star stating that he is interested in heading to Europe and specifically Spain to play his trade. Sfairopoulos got to see up close and personal what Ziv is able to do and perhaps he’s a player that could complement Scottie Wilbekin in the backcourt.

Iftach Ziv – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Joe Thomasson, Ziv’s teammate for a couple of seasons feels that the Israeli guard can make that next step, “I love Iftach Ziv and he has the chance to be one of the best Israeli guard.”

It’s still unclear what Yovel Zoosman will do as he may want to team up with Israeli coach Oded Katash at Panathinaikos, however, Maccabi can match any offer that Zoos receives and it would be a surprise to see him leave Yad Eliyahu.

Oz Blayzer – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Oz Blayzer will most probably continue next season as he was an asset for Maccabi in the Israeli league while earning limited minutes in Europe. Although he hasn’t been his best over the past couple of months, he has no ego and is a perfect fit for the club.

“It was my goal to win titles. I’m glad my wife and kid was here because it’s all for them. Near the end of they season, I was not as good as I wanted to be, but I knew no matter what that coach trusts me. I led the league in plus minus and tried to get used to a new type of role in the team. The most important thing is winning the title,” Blayzer said.

Angelo Caloiaro – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Angelo Caloiaro stepped up big time in the finals to help Maccabi win the title by playing suffocating defense while also hitting huge 3-pointers. There’s no question that Angelo who has another year on his contract is an asset in the Israeli league, but in Europe he’s got to be more productive for a player who is on the court for close to 30 minutes a game, Maccabi needs to bring in a top level power forward like they had in Quincy Acy.

“We are blessed we can play basketball,” Caloiaro began. “It was tough with the Covid restrictions but it was amazing to come home and win in front of our fans. It made it a lot of fun. The fans are amazing. I plan on it to come back next year.”

Jake Cohen – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Word is that Jake Cohen will be returning to Maccabi for his third stint after a year at Obradoiro in Spain and he would come in to replace Dragan Bender who is now out for at least a half a year with an ACL injury. But Cohen isn’t enough, Maccabi needs to look for another player with Gilboa’s Kerry Blackshear being a candidate. But can the rookie make an impact in Europe? It certainly looks like he has a chance, however, the Yellow & Blue need to look a little deeper into their options at that position. An upgrade is a necessity.

The same is true in terms of the center position. Ante Zizic will be back and while he is above the league in Israel, he is limited in the Euroleague and has trouble playing a switching defense. Zizic, who is now heading to join Croatia for the Olympic qualifiers suffered a back injury and needed an injection ahead of game two.

Ante Zizic – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

“It was a tough series,” Zizic began. “I’m really happy because I’m part of this team and I just appreciate being here. I think from the first day we went through the whole season and got better and better. All of us came here to win as many trophies as we can and we did it. I think we did a great job. It was a lot of pressure but I’m happy we won.”

Othello Hunter looks as if he will be heading out of Israel after a season that saw him suffer numerous injuries as well as just plain old bad luck. While he had flashes including in the finals, Hunter’s best days are behind him and Maccabi needs to look for a replacement.

Jehyve Floyd – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

One player who is right under their noses is Jehyve Floyd, yet another Gilboa player. Floyd looks like the complete package from his defense to his play above the rim, the big man who is in his second year abroad can bring an aspect that Maccabi so desperately needs.

Josh Nebo who starred with Hapoel Eilat is neater option while Maccabi could bring back Idan Zalmanson who has really developed nicely over the past few years with Jerusalem and Eilat, however, he does have some limitations

TJ Cline – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

TJ Cline provided some needed enthusiasm and positivity off the bench which was something Maccabi was lacking all season long until he arrived. He’s a big time energy guy and perhaps if he would have been with the team from the start of the season they could have even won some gams they lost in Euroleague play due to the bench just sitting lifelessly at times. Will Cline continue? Reports indicate not, but you never quite know and a price tag can’t be put on his contribution.

Not sure what the future is for Sandy Cohen who played a very limited role with the team this year after starring in last year’s final. It would be a shame not to see him stay with the club, but on the other hand, if he isn’t getting playing time why should he continue.

John Dibartolomeo- Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Finally in terms of the players, we get to the captain John Dibartolomeo. John is the heart and soul of Maccabi Tel Aviv. The guard lays it all out on the line time and time again and played a huge role after Dorsey and Bryant departed. Injuries stunted his last two seasons but it seems that he’s back physically while a good vacation should get him ready to role for the new season.

Dibartolomeo has a contract with the club for the upcoming campaign and always seems to hit critical shots when the club needs it the most.

“We play all year for this to end the season on a high note,” Dibartolomeo said following the game. “I’m so happy after such a long season, to put it together and win it. This year there were so many challenges, the coaches and staff deserve a lot of credit. We stuck together and did it. Physically I feel good but I have a long way to go to get back to where I was. I think we should be proud of what we accomplished this year.”

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

As for head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos, this was a challenging season to say the least. But with all of the challenges from inujred players, to COVID-19, war and more, the Greek bench boss was able to win all of the domestic trophies and that should be celebrated. On the other hand, the Euroleague didn’t work out the way anyone wanted it to. That is where the glory lies and that is obviously what the coach really, really wants to succeed in after going to the Final Four twice while in charge of Olympiacos.

“I don’t have pressure,” Sfairopoulos said. “I’ve always been with big clubs. The pressure I put on myself is bigger than that of the club. I always want to succeed. At the end of the day I know I did the best for my team. I like working under pressure.”

Pressure at Maccabi is the name of the game and now that pressure moves to the general manager Nikola Vujcic who will need to retool the roster and add those pieces that are missing while making the tough decisions of who will stay and who will go.

Despite heading into the off-season, there is never really an off-season anymore as the signings and player transactions are about to get underway.

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