Months of waiting are over for European basketball fans – the new season is finally upon us! Maccabi Tel Aviv fans are set to flock to Yad Eliyahu on Thursday night (21:05 IDT / 14:05 EDT) to see their team open the season against 5the visiting Partizan Belgrade.
“We’re really excited to start a new EuroLeague season,” Maccabi coach Oded Katash told reports at the press conference the day before the game. “Every year it becomes more challenging and the quality goes up. I like it a lot, it’s going to be really challenging. We miss the atmosphere of Thursday nights here in Menora [Mivtachim Arena, Maccabi’s home arena].”
Maccabi comes into the game after losing the local preseason Winner Cup tournament to Hapoel Jerusalem earlier this week, 79-71. More painful than the loss itself is the loss during the game of star guard Wade Baldwin IV, who last season was named to the All-EuroLeague Second Team and was the MVP in the local Winner League final series. Baldwin, who underwent an MRI on Tuesday morning, has a back injury which will keep him out for at least the next week, and reportedly even longer. Starting center Josh Nebo is also not at 100%, carrying a foot injury from the Jerusalem loss, which is expected to limit him. These injuries exposed the lack of depth in Maccabi’s roster, which could hurt the team against Partizan.
“We’ve maybe built the group a little narrower with a focus on continuity and Wade’s absence is a big blow and disrupts our plans, especially regarding the timing,” Katash said of the questions regarding the team’s depth. “I want to believe that it’s not so bad but we need to prepare for situation that we may be without him for a period of time. We will be without him for around the next two to three games coming and we’ll assess it going forward.
“Of course, we all understand the importance of Wade,” Katash continued. “We’ve built a system and need to prepare for this situation. Regarding tomorrow, we’ll miss him a lot and we’ll be stretched against a deep team. In the EuroLeague, I think that teams understood and have armed themselves, building squads with depth and quality. We’re beginning the season tomorrow, even if we’re missing Wade, we can win with the right energy.”
“Obviously, Wade is a huge piece of our team offensively, defensively, in the locker room,” Maccabi captain John DiBartolomeo said of Baldwin’s injury. “He’s a big personality and a big voice – one of our leaders and one of our best players.”
Both coach and captain agreed that the matchup against Partizan is going to be a big challenge and everyone will need to step up to cover the injuries.
“Even if they [Baldwin and Nebo] were both at 100%, tomorrow wouldn’t be easy,” Katash stressed. “We’re playing against a good team led by coach who isn’t that bad, maybe one of the best coaches that there is. They’ve also got continuity with players and you can feel it. They were one of the best offensive teams in the EuroLeague, I have no doubt that it’ll be the same this season. Almost at every position on the court they can shoot from outside, they’re a very good shooting team. We need to be very focused. It’ll be very intensive. So of course, the injuries to Josh, and definitely to Wade who will be absent tomorrow, have hurt our plans significantly. Everyone will need to step up and bring the result.”
“Filling his shoes is a heavy task ahead. It doesn’t fall on any one of us,” DiBartolomeo concurred. “Everyone is going to have to step up and give a little more of themselves. It’s just another challenge for us – early [in the season] for one of those – but the most important thing is that Wade gets healthy and rejoins us as quickly as possible.”
Being without Baldwin will change things up in the backcourt, but one of the players who will have a bigger role in his absence is Tamir Blatt, who joined Maccabi in the summer after two seasons overseas with ALBA Berlin.
“For Tamir, especially with the absence of Wade, he will have a more significant role,” Katash said of the new recruit. “It’s always exciting to open the season, especially with a new team. It’s never easy to come to a new team, even if Tamir knows half of the locker room. But Tamir, like Lorenzo, we trust him and the EuroLeague isn’t new for him. He comes with EuroLeague experience. He’ll also get used to the new game style like the other new players, he’ll get better.”
One of the benefits of Maccabi’s offseason was that the team managed to keep together its core, including Baldwin, Lorenzo Brown and Bonzie Colson. In addition to Blatt, over the summer Maccabi also welcomed James Webb III, Antonius Cleveland and Jasiel Rivero, whom the Yellow & Blue are hoping will take them to the next level this season.
“I think continuity is something important, especially we kept a core group of guys, something we felt that we could build around,” DiBartolomeo said. “Obviously, it’s good to go into a season with continuity. Then again, the things we accomplished last season are last season. Just because we won games last season doesn’t start us off any better this season in terms of everyone coming into this thing at 0-0. We can’t rely on everything we did last season and we’re going to have challenges this season. Obviously, it won’t be introducing 10-11 new players and new coaches. But then again, every season has its own challenges that we have to get over as a team and that will determine how we are.”
“There are some teams which have built their squads anew, there are also some who have built the teams anew with a lot of money, that’s not bad,” Katash said. “There are things which are impossible to resolve from day today and those are the things that worry me less. The players have confidence and we have new players like Cleveland, Webb, Rivero, who still need to learn. I think this will improve with time.”
“The new guys came in with an excellent attitude,” DiBartolomeo said. “They approached it from the beginning knowing that we were building something and we had something we enjoyed and that we believed in. They came in with the mentality of where can I fit in and where can I add on. So getting these guys ready mentally to be prepared for this game is not something that will be too difficult.”
Of the new players, Cleveland is the only one without EuroLeague experience, spending the past two seasons with the Adelaide 36ers of the Australian National Basketball League, as well as a short stint with Hapoel Eilat after the end of last NBL season.
“Just play your game and have fun,” Colson, in his second season with Maccabi and in the EuroLeague, of his advice to Cleveland going into his rookie EuroLeague season. “Be consistent with what you do. Just go out there and be yourself. Obviously, it’s a new league for him, but just be yourself and just have fun at the end of the day and everything will follow suit.”
On the sidelines at the other end of the court will be veteran coach Željko Obradović, the 9-time EuroLeague championship head coach, including the 2000 championship with Panathinaikos over Maccabi, with Katash coming off the bench for the Greek team.
“We know what kind of atmosphere awaits us there, with the truly phenomenal support that the Maccabi fans give to their team,” Obradović said in the leadup to the game. “The same coach leads the team, they had some changes to their roster, but the way of playing is the same. That means a lot of transition. They want to get out quick when they give up points – their energy on offensive rebounds is there. They play a lot through 1-on-1 plays, and they also have a specific attack. We tried to prepare our best to play to our maximum. Let’s try to play a good game and see where we are.”
“Partizan obviously is a very good team and a very talented team,” DiBartolomeo said of their opponents. “When you have a weapon like [Kevin] Punter [who was also named to the 2022-23 All-EuroLeague Second Team], he obviously will draw a lot of attention. They’re well-coached, obviously. So it’ll be a big challenge for us, but playing in front of our home crowd gives us a lot of juice to hopefully pull it off.”
Partizan will also be coming in with a different look to the team with which Maccabi split their games last season, with both teams coming away with home wins (Partizan winning 96-88 in November and Maccabi winning 90-81 in January). While they have lost Yam Madar to Fenerbahçe, Mathias Lessort to Panathinaikos and Dante Exum to the Dallas Mavericks, they are still a versatile team, including the addition of former top 10 NBA draft pick Frank Kaminsky, who is at the beginning of his first stint in Europe and will cause trouble for Maccabi’s restricted backcourt.
“I think that Kaminsky has added for them a bit of versality, definitely offensively, he’s a very skilled player,” Katash said. “He adds for them especially shooting from outside. It means that we need to do different things against different combinations on the court. I really hope that Josh will be able to play. I want to believe that he will, because he is important to us on both sides of the court, both offensively and defensively.”
So what should people expect tonight, especially the new Maccabi players? “I’ve told them that the game is going to be fun, embrace it,” Colson said. “You’re going to have a lot of yellow and blue in the stands, fans cheering for you and cheering for the club. So embrace it, take it all in and just play your game. At the end of the day. This is a game that we love, but no matter what, our fans are going to support us and that’s important.”