A Lucky Break for William Avery

An early season injury was probably the best break William Avery has had in a long time. The injury which forced the 1.88m combination guard to rehab in the United States after only a month with Makidonikas of the Greek league, changed Avery's basketball fortunes. "I guess," said Hapoel Tel Aviv's excellent late season addition, "I'd still be in Greece today instead of being here."

By "here" Avery means as a key member of a Hapoel Tel Aviv squad that has reached the semifinals of the Europe League and that can seriously challenge Maccabi Tel Aviv for the Premier League championship this season. Hapoel currently holds a 2-0 lead in its quarterfinal play-off series with Galil Elyon.

Avery signed with Hapoel on February 18, after overcoming his health problems, but a week too late to be eligible for Europe League competition. He did manage to appear in Hapoel's last five domestic league games as Erez Edelstein's team defeated Maccabi by 25 points in last month's derby and eventually captured second place in the league's standings.

A tremendous offensive player and strong defender, 25-year-old Avery has further strengthed a strong Hapoel roster. He has also blended in exceptionally well with a team that knew disharmony during the time of A.J. Guyton, the player he replaced.

Avery has recently been inserted into Hapoel's starting lineup as the team makes its play-off run, and scored 23 points in each of the victories over Galil. "You can see what a tremendous talent he is," coach Erez Bittman of Galil commented last week, after Avery's 4-6 three-point shooting brought Hapoel back from a 13-point deficit against its northern rival.

Despite his belated arrival, Avery is hardly disappointed. "This a great situation that I fell into. The second season [the play-offs] is what basketball is all about; having something to play for."

No stranger to pressure

Avery is certainly no stranger to post-season pressure. The Augusta, Georgia native is a product of Duke University, which is as close as you can get to being a dynasty in present day college basketball. Duke has won three college titles since the early 1990s and has been a frequent qualifier for the NCAA's Final Four.

Hailed as Duke's point guard of the future, Avery averaged 8.5 points a game in his freshman season as he adjusted to the college game. He had a breakout season in his second year averaging 15 points. His shooting and playmaking in the second half of the 1998-9 season were one of the main reasons Duke made it to the national championship game against the University of Connecticut that year. Duke lost that game to Uconn and Khalid Al-Amin (who starred for Ramat Gan last year) but Avery was hailed as a budding superstar with a bright future.

Instead of remaining at Duke, Avery opted for the 1999 NBA Draft in a move that was highly criticized by his legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. Duke, a school of high academic standing, had always prided itself, that unlike other top college programs, none of its great players had ever left early for the "quick riches" of the NBA.

After the loss to Connecticut, Avery as well as two other Duke underclassmen - Elton Brand and Cory Maggette - shocked Krzyzewski and the college basketball world by leaving for the NBA. "Coach K" supported Brand's decision, but bitterly criticized Avery and Maggette in public, feeling that both were far from ready for the pros. Today Maggette is an up and coming star with Los Angeles Clippers, but Avery's NBA career was a disaster.

The Minnesota Timberwolves made Avery the 14th player selected in the 1999 draft. During three seasons, he never negotiated the steep learning curve required for leaving college early and still becoming an effective NBA point guard. Avery never averaged as much as three points a game for Minnesota and by last season was out of the NBA and playing for Strasbourg in France. Of his decision, he told Anglo File, "The money from the NBA definitely helped my family but obviously my career would have been very different if I stayed at Duke."

With Hapoel's point guard duties in the more than capable hands of Lior Lubin, the team has utilized Avery's ability to score, whether starting or coming in off the bench. Hapoel started geling as a unit almost immediately after Guyton left and were in no hurry to replace him until they found the right fit. "Erez Edelstein researched Avery's background thoroughly before deciding on him," notes Bittman.

Hapoel and Avery seems to be a successful match. Hapoel added a high quality player to a team that's moving in the right direction and Avery has landed in a place where his pro career is finally on track. "I still dream of getting back to the NBA," says Avery. "Everyone does, but I'd definitely consider staying in Tel Aviv."