The opening day of the NBA's free-agent signing season boosted local pride as Gal Mekel sealed a deal with the Dallas Mavericks for a three-year guaranteed contract. In other words, despite the uncertainty about Omri Casspi's NBA future, there will be an at least one Israeli playing in the top basketball league in the upcoming season.
Mekel, 25, last month led Maccabi Haifa to a Super League title over perennial champion Maccabi Tel Aviv had been courted by several NBA teams in the past few weeks, before coming to terms with Dallas.
The 6' 4" (1.92 m) Mekel first captured the NBA's attention last fall during an audition with the Utah Jazz. At the time, the Jazz were so impressed that they planned to offer Mekel a spot on their pre-season training camp roster until visa issues got in the way. But he was on the NBA's radar.
Several factors paved Mekel's path to Dallas. With his road to the NBA deferred temporarily and the season already underway in top European leagues, Mekel chose to return to Israel with Maccabi Haifa and fortuitously came under the tutelage of coach Brad Greenberg. Greenberg, whose NBA pedigree includes stints as the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers and director of player personnel for the Portland Trailblazers, helped Mekel refine his game.
As Mekel orchestrated Greenberg's up-tempo offense all the way to a championship, basketball fans got a chance to witness his excellent decision-making, skill at penetrating, uncanny ability to make big plays and knack for keeping cool under fire.
Mekel's NBA chances were also enhanced by what I'll call the "Pablo Prigioni effect." As previously observed by other NBA commentators including ESPN's Marc Stein, the Knicks' signing this year of the 35-year-old Argentine point guard symbolized a change in thinking at the NBA front offices.
For many years, foreign players have been drafted into the league at an early age and based on their "potential." Many others are drafted and then "stashed away" in the European leagues for further seasoning, before "making it" or more often "not making it" to the big leagues. The Knicks' reasoning was, Why not take a chance on a seasoned foreign professional playmaker despite his lack of experience in American basketball? In the end, Prigioni more than held his own in his initial NBA season – and possibly helped pave the way for Mekel.
Mekel played two undistinguished seasons of college ball at Wichita State. His professional development came after that and his rapid improvement in the past year attracted the NBA, which always considers a prospect's "upside."
Mekel will play for the Mavericks' summer league team in Las Vegas. He has a good shot at making their roster, since two of the Mavs point guards from last season are free agents who are not expected back.
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