Starting 5: Deni Avdija’s IQ, Here Comes Pargo, Floor Generals Ben Tzvi & Thomasson, Almeida & Agada! Wrapping up Gameday 23

Lots of storylines this past Gameday in Israel basketball action, so let’s get underway with The Starting 5!

Deni Avdija in his first game with Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Hapoel Eilat September 2017 – Dov Halickman Photography

1) How can we not begin with Deni Avdija? The 2020 NBA Draft Lottery prospect has done everything in his power the last two games to raise the level of his stock and he’s certainly done that without exception. But it’s not just the stats line that has been impressive, it is absolutely everything around his play, from his body build to his improved mechanics and techniques on the court. What has been so special for me is to be able to see him grow up before my eyes over the past few years. Literally. From his senior team debut in Eilat, to his traveling with the team to some Euroleague away games to now finding a complete package is just staggering.

Deni Avdija this week vs Hapoel Holon – Dov Halickman Photography

I want to share a quote from Jake Cohen when I asked him about what he sees as changes in Avdija since returning from the break, “I think he’s playing really well I think he’s playing slower, which sounds like a bad thing but I think it’s great. He’s taking his time and making really good decisions. He rushed a bit in the past to try to get home runs, now he’s taking the game a bit slower and he’s taking what they give him. He has been playing great and is a huge asset for us.” If you read that quote it kind of tells you exactly where Deni is in his game, taking things slower and not looking to hit a home run. His basketball IQ was high before the league came to halt in March, now it’s even higher.

Dov Halickman Photography

2) How critical will the addition of Jeremy Pargo be to Hapoel Jerusalem? That’s the question that everyone around the Israeli basketball world has been asking. It’s clear that Coach Oded Katash needs another guard especially with the loss of both Shelvin Mack and J’Covan Brown who were big time offensive threats. However, Tamir Blatt has played extremely well since the return to play after the break and that fact can’t be discounted. But honestly, Jerusalem needs another major weapon in the holster and Pargo is exactly that. Katash knows what the 3x Maccabi Tel Aviv guard can offer his capital city squad as they continue to change the way they play on the court. He also realizes that Pargo gems with plenty of Israeli league experience which will also be a huge help going forward and his learning curve will not be as steep as other players, “We are still in the process of learning and Pargo will bring some balance to the team. Pargo is familiar with the European style of play and has many years of experience as well in this league.” Tamir Blatt had a funny anecdote about Pargo as well following the team’s win on over Rishon, “I’m excited to have Pargo here. In fact, I played against him when I was in 7th grade when he was a played with my father David at Maccabi.” So not only is Tamir looking forward to playing with Pargo I believe we’re all waiting to see Pargo strut his stuff and perhaps that will occur for a bit on Monday night when Jerusalem faces Maccabi in Tel Aviv.

I’m loving what I’m seeing from 3 teams, Hapoel Eilat, Nahariya and Hapoel Beer Sheva. All three have won both of their games since getting back to action and have all looked good as well. Sure each team had a bit of a challenge but they all figured out how to pull out a win.

Dov Halickman Photography

3) Let’s start with Eilat. I was able to see them live on Friday in Haifa and Ziv Ben Tzvi has turned into an absolute beast of a point guard. Ben Tzvi sees the floor as good as anyone and he’s just so quick and intelligent, it’s a pleasure to watch him play. One great benefit that Ben Tzvi has had is that he has been able to learn under the tutelage of Avi Ben Shimol who is one of Israel’s best point guards and the fact that he hasn’t even played a second yet hasn’t impacted the Red Sea City squad in any negative fashion. I asked Ben Tzvi what has been the team’s secret to success, “I don’t believe that there are any secrets. We brought in a good group of guys who understand the goals and have been able to come together. Right now we have good momentum and I hope that this will continue.” The guard also spoke about getting a chance to show his wares, “In general, I feel good handling the point and this is what I have been doing my entire time as a basketball player. Things have really come together now and I, like everyone else, are being rewarded.” Quite modest to say the least. Jordan Caroline who notched a double-double in the win over Haifa had this to say about the floor general, “I think the biggest thing to our success is our unselfishness and I think Ziv is a big catalyst of that, especially him playing at the pace he does.”

4) I can tell you Nahariya is going for the gold as they have as good a chance as anyone to win the championship and they know it. Danny Franco’s squad has depth, intelligence, gamers and they added a huge piece to the puzzle with the addition of Ivan Almeida. The Cape Verde native has played in a number of countries and saw his greatest success in Poland where he won a number of awards while winning two league championships in the past two seasons. I’m sure he would like to add a third in 3 years and you can see why in his highlights above. Captain Tony Gaffney spoke about Almeida’s contributions thus far, “He gives us a transition game and a very long athletic defensive minded guard that teams would give anything to have. He’s such a diverse player, that just wants to win. He’s a guy that allows us to play so many different styles of basketball and adds to our already defensive minded team.” Gaffney also discussed how he sees the team’s potential as the season winds down, “We’re playing every single game like it is an elimination game, it’s been our approach since we’ve returned from the coronavirus break in play. We have a group that has been together for almost 11 months now, that really know one another. We aren’t playing for financial reasons at this point, we’re trying to give Nahariya another reason to be proud. We are excited about the prospect of the next 3 weeks and we really look forward to continuing to get better.”

5) Beer Sheva may have just escaped with a road win over Nes Ziona, but truth be told, the southern reds deserved the victory. Why have they been so good? I believe it’s because Rami Hadar and the club’s staff were able to sign players quickly and get them into the country without delay in order to get things rolling. Beer Sheva may have not wanted to continue the season but the minute the league said go, they went for it and for that the club needs to be commended. The players that Hadar now has on his roster, and I should mention he had to replace all of the imports have just melded so well and so quickly and each has characteristics that the coach just loves. One of his stars is King Caleb Agada. The Canadian/Nigerian has been an absolute star so far and has shown so much potential in just a few weeks in Israel. It really feels like he’s been playing in the Holy land for 3 years! “I feel I’ve been able to fit in so easy because my teammates, coaches and the club are great. I’m really happy to be here and I think it shows in my play.” Coach Rami Hadar also had praise for his new player, “When we were having a tough time a number of plays by Caleb were able to inspire and strengthen us.” So far he’s inspired many of us and he’s also spoken up about the racist issues in North America and is using the platform provided to him to raise more awareness about the issue, “The struggle for racial equality in North America is something that makes me appreciate what I do and pushes me to be the best I can be. Black Lives Matter and I support all my brothers and sisters fighting back home!” Good Luck Caleb!

Hapoel Gilboa Galil outlasted Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2OT at the Drive-In Arena thanks to Joe Thomasson’s heroics with a game winning 3-pointer which you can see above. I had the opportunity to interview Thomasson for my Holy Land Hoops Show last week and I just loved his attitude, passion and drive. The point guard certainly has a terrific future in store after starring in Poland and puts it all out on the court each and every game. This guy is a winner and he will find a way to escape with a victory from the jaws of defeat because that’s just the way he is. I think you’ll see what I mean if you get a chance to watch him play and listen to him on my Podcast. Thomasson has been moving up the ladder of success and Hapoel Gilboa Galil is yet another stop on his basketball journey as he looks to make it to the top and that includes playing at the highest level possible. But let’s not digress, what did the Dayton, Ohio native say about his game winner? “I felt very comfortable taking the shot, it was in rhythm and shooting range. The game was exciting and fun to be a part of I enjoyed it.”

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