Old faces, new places: Magnifying glass on Hapoel Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv as they tune up for the new campaign

Sep 20, 2023 | Holyland Hoops

The age old question is how much can a team take out of preseason games. We see that in the NFL, coaches rarely play their stars and top players, usually using the exhibition games to see some of the end of the roster guys to determine who can fill out the squad.

For the most part in baseball, spring training allow players to get back into shape and take off the extra weight that may have been put on during the off season. Hockey and basketball for the most part allow the coaching staff to see which lineups and combinations work better than others while the players themselves get back into playing shape.

In Israel, the Israeli basketball league is beginning to ramp up for the season that opens in early October with a number of preseason tournaments including the Winner Cup which sees almost all of the teams participating as they get back into the swing of things following the summer vacation.

Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Hapoel Tel Aviv defeated Hapoel Jerusalem 89-87 in the Winner League Tel Aviv Tournament which precedes the quarterfinal stage of the Winner Cup and while Danny Franco’s team hoisted the trophy aloft after capturing the four team competition which included clubs from Greece and Italy, everyone needs to take the games into proportion.

Sure there are positives and negatives to take out of the last couple of games that both Red teams have played but all in all, the lineups that both squads used will certainly not be the lineups that will be used when the season gets underway.

Minutes were split up in various fashions, combinations were tried out and all in all both Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Danny Franco and Hapoel Jerusalem bench boss Aleksandar Dzikic were looking to see how players reacted, their level of intensity and level of commitment.

In some cases they were content and in others not. But that’s what preseason is for.

Aleksandar Dzikic and Oz Blayzer – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Take Jerusalem for example. They needed overtime to down Sassari in their first game of the competition and afterwards when asked about how he will play the “final” against Tel Aviv, Dzikic was clear as a blue sky that he has things that he wants to get out of the game. While it is a rivalry, the point of the contest will be to get the most out of the 40 minutes for his players which is exactly how he played it.

While the game was neck and neck for the most part, Franco’s team was able to get a bit of separation in the final frame and he decided to keep a lineup on the court of five players who played on the team last year for the crunch time minutes to finish off the game.

“Once the game went down the stretch, there was a ton of intensity and coach was harping on it at halftime to create some separation,” Xavier Munford said. “We know those guys on the court and we wanted to stop them and we wanted to take the win and play our game. We have some small goals within the team and one is to win all of the preseason trophies that we can.”

Tomer Ginat – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Franco downplayed the win, not wanting to take too much out the victory as he knows what the ultimate goal of these games really is, “I’m happy that we were able to win the game as Jerusalem are a good team. Some players are in better shape than others but it was good that we won and we have to keep this victory in proportion. I’m satisfied that we are looking for one another on the court and we are keeping our heads up high. We are building our chemistry and we need to get all of the players up to speed. Some players are in different roles this season than last and everyone.”

While the likes of Munford, J’Covan Brown, Jaylen Hoard, Tomer Ginat, Bar Timor and others are used to playing with each other, Franco will still need to see where Braian Angola is best used, where Kyle Alexander fits in after having just arrived this week and the same is true of John Holland who is nursing a hand injury after having played in the World Cup.

Another open question is the status of big man Jeff Withey who has been playing with the team but the club also has an exit clause after one month which is coming up. Will he stay or will he go?

Jeff Withey – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“Jeff was here because Kyle wasn’t and Jaylen was hurt, but as we can see we still haven’t had the full team on the court and we aren’t going to quickly release a player but we still have to see,” Franco said giving no real indication if Withey will be with the team for the entire season.

Over on the Jerusalem side of the ledger, Dzikic had a plan for the preseason and the games that his team is playing and he is sticking to that plan without question. Did he want the bench boss want to win? Certainly, who doesn’t want to record a victory, but in all reality, Dzikic needs to see how some of his new players will react to his style and system of play.

He knows full well what he will get from Speedy Smith, Khadeen Carrington, Levi Randolph, Zach Hankins and Or Cornelius for example. He also knows what he will get from Chris Johnson who has played in Israel for a number of seasons and has one of the best, if not the best work ethics and focus.

Yovel Zoosman – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

However, Yovel Zoosman, Gaby Chachashvili and Bryton Lemar are all being worked into the team with each having some level of success as well as some concerns.

Zoosman is a player that Jerusalem has made a long term commitment to after having played for Alba Berlin and Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague, but he is still rusty coming off an injury and has not played up to the level that Dzikic has expected. Against Sassari, Zoosman finished with 0 points and while the game against Hapoel Tel Aviv began a bit slow and sluggish that saw Dzikic ream the player out on the bench during a timeout, Zoosman picked up his play and finished the contest with 13 points to lead the team.

At one point, Dzikic even held up his board to the referees with the words, “Zoosman Israeli NT” on it apparently looking for the zebras to give the swingman a bit more respect.

Aleksandar Dzikic – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“He was better than last game but that wasn’t as hard,” Dzikic said of Zoosman’s performance. “Is he at the level I have to push him and I am not here for him to like me, but I want him to be the best version of himself. At other clubs he may have had a different role and here I’m not going to stop be demanding. I don’t think I test him any differently than Smith and Blayzer.”

Zoosman also spoke about his play and what is expected of him, “The coach has a lot of expectations from me and he knows what I can do and I’m happy about that. We have a very good connection and we all have expectations.”

Chachashvili who came in to the club after playing at Bamberg in Germany is still under construction. On one hand, the center has incredible size and upside but on the other side he needs to understand how to use it. The Israeli big started the game and picked up 3 quick fouls which parked him on the bench for the majority of the game until he reentered later and then collected two more to end his night.

Gaby Chachashvili – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“When he will learn that this is his profession, there is room for him to grow up as a professional athlete understanding what it takes to get to the level where people want him to go and at the same time we want him to feel the same. He will have a hard time understanding what he needs to do and once he will get it he will be fine,” Dzikic explained.

This dynamic will be very interesting to follow throughout the season and to see how much Dzikic will rely on Chachashvili. Last season, Gilad Levy barely played and his season didn’t develop the way some had expected it to. Jerusalem decided to loan the center out to Hapoel Beer Sheva and in his club’s Winner Cup game against Hapoel Eilat, Levy scored 17 points, grabbed 13 boards and finished with an efficiency rating of 31 to spur his team to a 93-76 win.

Now it’s onto the Winner Cup as Hapoel Jerusalem will play Hapoel Beer Sheva and Hapoel Tel Aviv will take on Maccabi Ramat Gan who feature JP Tokoto as the forward will return to face his former team and no doubt want to do some damage.

JP Tokoto – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“It was weird when we played them already in preseason,” Franco said of his team’s first meeting with Tokoto and Ramat Gan.” JP was a special part of the team and he was a very important player for us. He did some very nice things for us and we won’t forget that. JP will come here and make sure that we won’t have an easy time. “

All in all, it was great to have this preseason tournament in Tel Aviv and all the parties involved from the League Administration, the municipality, the Toto and others should be applauded for their efforts which all of the teams benefited from. The one downside was the attendance and ticket prices which were a bit steep for in essence exhibition games. While the arena wasn’t packed, perhaps about a third full, those who were in attendance certainly enjoyed themselves.

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