On the escalator: Hapoel Tel Aviv going up, Hapoel Jerusalem heading down in Europe

Nov 3, 2022 | Holyland Hoops

When Hapoel Tel Aviv and Trento took to the court on Wednesday it was hard not to notice all of the ties to Hapoel Jerusalem. Whether it was head coach Danny Franco who helped guide the capital city Reds to their first ever league championship or J’Covan Brown, Bar Timor and Idan Zalmanson who are also plying their trade for Hapoel Tel Aviv to Trent Lockett who is now with the Italian squad. One couldn’t but help think as to where each of these two Israeli franchises are right now.

One with a plan, going the right direction trying to reach the highest of heights with the faithful support of their fans playing entertaining, high paced and exciting basketball. The other is mired in mediocrity, without a true plan as to where they want to be and a fan base that is losing patience despite decent results with the club’s frustrating poor play that at times is just so tough to watch.

Hapoel Tel Aviv deserves a ton of credit as to where they are today. A franchise that had to go all the way down to the lower leagues to work their way back up after the team went bust almost two decades ago is now competing in the second best European league, the EuroCup that offers a chance to earn promotion to the Euroleague.

Jaylen Hoard and J’Covan Brown – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

When the opportunity presented itself to join the competition, Hapoel grabbed it with two hands and not only decided that they were going to play twice a week, but also field a team that was going to be able to compete twice a week at the highest of levels. They didn’t just enter the EuroCup, they want to win it all.

The Reds have arguably the most talented squad outside of Maccabi Tel Aviv, a team the put on the ropes in the WINNER Cup Final without their star guard J’Covan Brown. The team also has the best collection of Israeli players as well which is obviously a key component when competing domestically.

When Hapoel took the the court against Trento it was clear very quickly who was boss as they raced out to a 10-point lead after the first frame and then put the game away with stifling defense that led to lethal offense with a 14-0 run at the start of the second quarter to say ciao to the Italians 93-63 and send them packing right back home.

Bye, bye, so long, farewell.

Jordan McRae – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Everything that Hapoel on this night went the right way. Despite not hitting or even taking many 3-pointers, the Reds were still able to score and score aplenty, “We took what the game gave us, Franco explained. “We didn’t plan on not taking 3-pointers but we had players that were able to get to the basket and we didn’t feel that the outside shot was missing. Plus Jordan McRae has gotten more into the game as well.”

“We wanted to come out and go 3-1 and this league as every game matters,” McRae told The Sports Rabbi following the game. “On defense and offense we have a lot of talented guy and the fact that we play like that and play tough on defense makes us a hard team to beat.”

It’s not just McRae who is making an impact but it’s every single import on Hapoel Tel Aviv who have been a “bingo” as they say here in Israel.

Whether it’s Israeli league veterans J’Covan Brown and JP Tokoto, or newcomers Xavier Munford, Jaylen Hoard and Chris Horton, they all get it. Good guys, solid professionals and total all in contributors.

JP Tokoto – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

They all get it and they all understand what the goal is. The roadmap has been laid out clearly.

Franco knows what he’s going to get from Brown and he knows what to expect from Tokoto. While the latter has had a bit of a rough time showing exactly what he can do, the forward finally broke out in a big way with a phenomenal first half to really pace the Reds.

“I wasn’t surprised with his performance because Tokoto played the four and that is where he is most comfortable,” Franco explained. “We will need to play him in various positions throughout the season and JP has a lot of confidence and not that he needs it but he showed that the base is still there. This will give him a bit more peace of mind that he can do many different things on the court for us.”

Xavier Munford – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

The head coach also spoke about two of the newer players on the team in veteran Xavier Munford who has seen one or two things in the world of basketball as well as Jaylen Hoard who stepped into Chris Horton’s shoes for the game as the big man was out due to a minor injury.

“He (Munford) is the the easiest in the world, and he’s a professional he has a very high IQ with not an ounce of fat on his body. He has been able to integrate into the team really quickly and he plays at both ends of the court. He can take on the other team’s ball handlers and he feels that everyone believes in him and he has earned that. We’re happy he is here with us.”

Munford himself spoke to The Sports Rabbi in the lockerroom after the game about the keys to not only the win but how the team has been able to jell so well along with the expectations placed in him.

“That second quarter stretch defensively really opened up the game for us. Our guys out there had a heck of a defensive presence. Everyone understands their roles and we all got a same common goal, we have great players, it’s just about making it work and being on the same page. Coach lets me know what he expects of me and the team knows what I can do. The guys out there put me in good position.”

Jaylen Hoard – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

As for Hoard, the potential is oozing all over the court and came in to replace an injured Horton paid back the faith that the team had for him, “Jaylen is young guy and he has a lot to learn and develop but more than anything he has an excellent connection with the other players which is not easy . He has been able to really integrate nicely.”

“It’s just basketball,” Hoard said. “We have to come in and stay ready and locked in. Chris does a lot for us and I wanted to do a good job. The atmosphere was amazing, it’s always amazing coming here, it’s great. Trento are a tough team, they played hard and we needed to play hard stay ready.”

Bottom line is that Hapoel Tel Aviv looks like they will be a real threat in Europe as they sit 3-1 and seem to have all cylinders clicking.

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Hapoel Jerusalem on the other hand have played subpar basketball as they sit 2-2 in Israeli league play after starting out 0-2 and are also 2-1 in the Basketball Champions League but their 72-71 win over Bakken Bears was as lucky as lucky can be.

The Reds did not look good against a very poor team as much as the Hapoel brass want to make it out that the Danish club is a tough squad and have very much improved from their first couple of games in the competition. In all honesty, Bakken have no business being in the BCL and it’s questionable if they deserve to be in the Europe Cup.

Let’s say it like it is, the Bears were brutal and so was Hapoel Jerusalem.

Stagnant play, missed shot after missed shot, poor passing and very little creativity have made Aleksandar Dzikic’s team very difficult to watch.

Aleksandar Dzikic – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

The imports have not made the impact that was expected from top to bottom and there seems to be no improvement from game to game.

While the club has had a number of tough seasons since the onset of COVD-19, more could be and should be expected from the team on the court especially with one of the bigger budgets in the league.

One can complain about this player and that player who should be replaced and who should stay, but the biggest mistake the club made was leaving the EuroCup a number of years ago for the Champions League.

Jerusalem had been a stalwart in the EuroCup which was once called the ULEB Cup, the one that they won back in 2004. The competition always provided top level clubs to play against as well as the biggest carrot of them all, a ticket to the Euroleague for the winner.

Mareks Mejeris – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

As much as it can be said that the two leagues are almost equal in quality, there is nothing extra to strive for in the BCL.

When Jerusalem became one of the BCL’s flagship teams, they were already getting the Arena ready to host the Final Four and many around the team felt that they would be a shoe in to win the competition and hold the grand finale in the capital city.

However, in reality the results have been subpar at best and while Jerusalem will most probably make it to the best of three Play-In playoff for a spot in the BCL Round of 16, this is not where the club should be. If they were going to be playing in the BCL they needed to dominate the competition and play at the level of a club like Tenerife who demolished Bnei Herzliya.

The closest Jerusalem has been to European glory was the Final 8 in the fall of 2020 that saw them sign an over the hill Nikkos Pappas to play just days before the tournament that took place in Athens.

Speedy Smith – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

The Jerusalem fans never imagined that they would be in such a situation now more than five years after Simone Piagiani arrived in the Holy Land and took the team to the Israeli Championship as well as to the EuroCup semifinals where they succumbed to Valencia.

The capital city Reds seem so far away from where they had wanted to be back then while Hapoel Tel Aviv have just kept making move after move to take their club to the next level.

It feels as if the two teams are on opposite escalators, one going up and the other heading down.

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