The Winner League basketball season opens this week with a plethora of new names and faces supplementing the local franchises’ rosters. Most of these newcomers will pass through the league and our memories within a season, or even less; a few will become part of the league’s fabric for several years. And then every few years we get a “Tyrese Rice experience.” Rice joined Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, foundered on the fringes of its rotation system for the first half of the campaign, yet by season’s end was the MVP of Euroleague and an unstoppable force who helped Maccabi capture the local and European crowns.
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According to Bnei Herzliya coach Muli Katzurin, who was a big believer in Rice after seeing him play firsthand in the German league, “there are always a number of talented foreigners entering the league with the potential to have Rice-like seasons – but this rarely occurs because of the factors of adjusting to a new team, a new country, and sometimes of transitioning to European, as opposed to American, style basketball.”
Katzurin, who is returning to the local scene after many years of coaching in Europe, has three of those high-potential newcomers on his squad: point guard Josh Selby, forward Devin Ebanks and power forward Magnum Rolle. Like many other foreigners who come here, Selby and Ebanks are arriving after short, uneventful stints in the NBA. Katzurin claims “both are tremendously skilled, and expects to see them make their way back to the NBA.” Rolle is more of a role player (no pun intended) who has “tremendous athleticism and is a defensive specialist.”
Selby, 23, is a classic example of a player who, due to circumstances, was forced to make a decision – the wrong one – at a very early stage of his career. He had a ballyhooed high school career and in 2010 was rated the top high-school prospect in the entire United States. Sought after by all the top college programs, he eventually decided on Kansas University, but only played 26 games in his one season there because of injury and eligibility problems (due to receiving illegal payments from an agent during high school). Despite being completely unprepared for the NBA, Selby entered the draft in order to help support his family. He was selected by the Memphis Grizzlies and played briefly for them during parts of two seasons. Last year he played briefly in China and Croatia.
'Two speeds – fast and faster'
Katzurin claims Selby has extraordinary talent, but is still hampered by inexperience and the basic learning he missed out on by leaving college so early. “He plays at two speeds – fast and faster – and has to adjust to the different pace of the European game. But I fully expect him to make it back to the NBA,” predicts Katzurin.
Ebanks, 24, is making his first overseas appearance, after three seasons on the Los Angeles Lakers bench and several stints in the NBA’s Development League. In addition to his high level skills, coach Katzurin is greatly impressed by Ebanks’ versatility – he is reportedly capable of playing both forward positions and scoring from close to the basket as well as the perimeter.
Rolle is 28, 2.06m (6’9”) and a native of the Bahamas. Like many players born outside the United States, Rolle came to basketball at a relatively late age, after initially concentrating on soccer. According to legend, at age 14 his school’s basketball coach noticed Rolle’s great height and prompted him to try a free throw. His first attempt landed in the bushes, and Rolle only agreed to attend basketball practice because of the free fried chicken afterward.
The Bahamian’s interest in the game increased rapidly, though, and he finished high school at a strong basketball program in the States, followed by a decent college career. Although drafted, Rolle never appeared in an NBA game, spending most of his career in the Development League. Katzurin describes Rolle as an unusually hard worker, willing to do absolutely everything asked of him. Despite being known as a rebounding and shot-blocking specialist, he also possesses a versatile offensive game, and Katzurin thinks highly of him.
Another newcomer worthy of attention is Hapoel Eilat’s Khalif Wyatt. The 23-year-old American is a highly skilled shooting guard; his offensive level and athleticism is slightly below NBA standards, but he could be a perfect fit for European basketball. Wyatt is what’s called a “pure scorer.” There is nothing fancy or exceptional about his game – he just knows how to put the ball in the basket. A Philadelphia native, Wyatt averaged 20 points a game in his final season at hometown Temple University, and concluded his college career by going over 30 in his team’s two games in the NCAA championship tournament.
Wyatt is still in the formative stages of his professional career and, according to Eilat coach Dan Shamir, “is still learning as well as adjusting to European basketball. During the preseason, his performance has been up and down, but he has the ability to be one of the best guards in Israel – and in all of Europe as well.”
Return of a familiar face
Defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv has brought in combo guard MarQuez Haynes to replace Rice – who left for Khimki in Russia – but so far the only similarity between them is the two seasons they played together at Boston College.
Maccabi’s truly important newcomer is hardly a newcomer at all. Point guard Jeremy Pargo is back at the Nokia Arena after a two-year hiatus in the NBA, plus a season with CSKA Moscow last year. Pargo has been Maccabi’s most impressive preseason performer.
Ironically, this season’s most intriguing newcomer is Croatian, not American. Dragan Bender is 16, 2.12m (6’11”) and has signed with Ironi Ramat Gan of the National League, making him the youngest foreign player ever to play professional basketball in Israel. The multitalented teen is currently being tabbed as a lottery pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. This might allow the few basketball junkies who attend National League games to brag that they got to see a star in the making.