Gal Mekel may have played last season in Italy for Benetton Treviso, but he remained dear to the heart of Israel's national basketball coaching staff. When a leg injury sidelined him going into the mid-season break, it was Israel's medical staff, not that of his team, which treated him.
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"It was the first time since I was 16 that I took a complete break for a month-and-a-half from basketball," says the point guard. "After that I was treated by the national team's medical staff, while coach [Arik] Shivek supervised everything."
The investment in Mekel by the national team, which starts practice today, is paying dividends. "Two weeks ago I started running and handling the ball," he says. "I worked in the weight room. I played in national team practices and had private practices in a gym in Herzliya. I brought my little brothers with me to throw me the balls. The leg is responding well and the pain is almost completely gone."
Mekel says he enjoyed the season in Italy, adding that he played well after returning from his injury, which took two-and-a-half months, so he ended on a high note.
He says he would like to have done better than 6.3 points and 3.7 assists per game, and thinks he would have averaged in double figures in scoring had it not been for the injury.
Benetton, which reached the playoffs the season before Mekel arrived, finished 11th last season. Mekel says it was a disappointing finish but notes that the team's budget significantly shrank, and that the team was in a lot of close games.
The level of play is higher in Italy, he adds - more physical, while Israel is more tactical, relying on intensity.
The 24-year-old says he still does not know where he will play next season, noting that while he has a contract for another season with Benetton, the team seems on the verge of disintegration. "Right now I'm released from my contract with them," he says. "And there are talks with teams from Italy and Spain."
Mekel says he wants an important role with whatever team he's on, adding that while money is of course important to him, getting more playing time is his first goal. "If I can reach certain heights, the money will follow," he reasons. "Right now the direction is to keep playing abroad. I started something last season, and I believe in long-term processes."
He says Maccabi Tel Aviv tested the waters with him, but nothing more.
Mekel's main concern for the moment is the national team, which opens practices without its leading players - Omri Casspi, Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin. "It would be better if everyone would join from the start, but it could also turn out good because others will get an opportunity and take more upon themselves," says Mekel, who will have to fight over a spot on the team with three other point guards.
"It doesn't bother me, it only motivates me to want to be better," he says. "I'm not afraid. That word isn't in my vocabulary. I'm arriving very hungry for the national squad. Just like the last campaign, I want to be an impact player on the team and be there for it."
Mekel says he hopes to translate his accumulated experience into doing just that. "I played at a very high level, and to be a foreigner on this team is also progress on a mental level," he explains. "When I played at Galil, I knew that even if I wouldn't be good, I'd play 35 minutes. I learned in Italy to produce even when the number of minutes are minimal. The trick is to continue to impress even when you are not the star of the team."