Basketball / Less Is More

The success enjoyed by Israeli teams that lose their fourth overseas player has raised questions about their reliance on imported talent.

In the first seven games of the season, Barak Netanya’s Jerome Randle averaged a very respectable 14.9 points and 6.6 assists per game. Nonetheless, his team won just one of those games. When Randle left for trials with the Dallas Mavericks, Netanya started winning. In the very first game after Randle’s departure, four different players scored their highest total of the season. The averages of Brian Asbury and Adrian Banks almost doubled and Lior Lifshitz, who replaced Randle as the first-choice point guard, has blossomed.

Something similar happened to Maccabi Ashdod. At the start of the season, the team kept the same core roster it had last season − Meir Tapiro and four foreign players. But something didn’t click and Ashdod quickly found itself with a 4-8 record. Due to financial restraints, Ramel Bradley was allowed to join Hapoel Jerusalem, despite scoring 17.4 points per game. In the very next game, Ashdod defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv at Yad Eliyahu and has not lost since his departure.

Meir Tapiro - Ilan Assayag - 22022012
Ilan Assayag

Dror Hajaj, who was having a rotten season before Bradley’s departure, came back to life and has since averaged 9.3 points per game. In addition, both Josh Duncan and Josh Carter recorded season-high totals. Ashdod coach Ofer Berkovich has yet to bring in a replacement for his fourth foreigner. According to Tapiro, the team hopes to continue winning without a fourth overseas player, and team manager Shay Hausman says that “we are still looking into the possibility of a fourth foreigner, but we may yet decide that we don’t need one.”

Immediate change

Maccabi Rishon Letzion is another team that has adopted the three-foreigner philosophy. When Brandon Bowman sustained an injury that would keep him sidelined for at least a month, Rishon − which has one of the smallest rosters in the league − opted not to bring in a temporary replacement. The change was immediate: Amit Ben David’s average went from 6.5 points per game to 12, Adrian Uter’s average rose to 17.5 points per game and Joe Crawford’s went up to 25.2 points per game. Rishon, which had a 5-6 record before Bowman’s injury, has now won four games in a row.

“We didn’t want to upset the chemistry between the players,” says assistant coach Matan Harush. “We were willing to take a risk and we believed in the players we had. The moment a leading player is unavailable, the others take on more responsibility. Nitzan Hanochi, who has been getting more minutes since Bowman’s injury, knows when to take the game on his own shoulders and when to delegate to other players. The same is true of Ben David. In addition, we’ve been able to give Eyal Shulman and Or Solomon a chance.”

Even for teams that have fared less well without a fourth foreigner, there are positive elements. Ironi Ashkelon started the season superbly, winning six of its opening seven games before Raymar Morgan’s injury. While the team lost its next four games, assistant coach Shimon Amsalem insists that there is an upside. “It’s true that we lost four tough road games,” he says, “but we gained Niv Berkowitz, who proved himself to be a great talent.”

The above examples have many followers of Israeli basketball asking themselves whether it’s worthwhile for teams to employ four foreigners on their roster. The alternative, of course, is to play with three dominant foreigners and to give more court time to the Israeli players. Needless to say, the local players are in favor.

“Any team that has lost a foreigner has seen its Israeli players improve beyond recognition,” says Lifshitz. “It’s a function of how many minutes they get on court.

When the Israeli gets five minutes here and five minutes there, they can’t show what they are capable of. There are plenty of local players who are just waiting for a chance to show their worth. And when the young fans see Israeli players leading their team, it proves to them that there is a future for them in basketball.”