This past Friday, Sacramento Kings forward J.J. Hickson signed with Bnei Hasharon/Herzliya of the Israeli Basketball Super League for the duration of the NBA lockout.
In a bizarre twist, Hickson landed in Israel several months after being traded from Cleveland in exchange for Israel’s first NBA player, Omri Casspi. The fifth current NBA player to sign in Israel during the lockout, Hickson’s acquisition comes with a mountain of expectations, considering that he is the most heralded prospect to make the leap.
Despite having all the tools to succeed in Israel, Hickson showed in his debut on Sunday that he will need to adjust quickly if he hopes to make an impact. On the surface, it may seem as if Hickson’s first game was a success, as he had 20 points on 67 percent shooting, eight rebounds and five assists.
However, fancy numbers don’t mean too much when your team gets blown out by 39 points against a middle-of-the-pack team, Hapoel Holon, whose big men combined for 66 points and 29 rebounds. If Hickson wants to succeed in Israel, he will need to follow six important rules:
1. Do not take the competition lightly.
Aside from Hickson, other current NBA players such as Jordan Farmar, Avery Bradley and Craig Brackins have been playing in the Israeli league, and Trevor Booker should be returning shortly from his injury to team up with Hickson in Herzliya. While Farmar and Brackins certainly have been very good players in Israeli League play, they have far been far from dominant, as they have struggled to adjust to the style of play.
Bradley looked completely lost in his debut, and was a non-factor as his team, Hapoel Jerusalem, was blown out.
The league is filled with American and Israeli players who may not carry NBA recognition, but have adjusted their game to be better suited for the Israeli League. Recent fringe NBA players such as Luke Jackson, Joe Crawford, Brandon Bowman, Dwayne Mitchell and Sean Williams have fared much better as they have already adapted to the European game.
In last night’s game, American big men Tasmin Mitchell (LSU), Bryant Dunston (Fordham) and Patrick Sullivan (Southeastern Louisiana), none of whom have yet to sniff an NBA court, absolutely demolished Hickson in the paint and on the boards.
It is difficult enough for a 23-year old to change teams in the NBA, let alone move 6,000 miles away and adapt to a different style of play. European teams tend to change their offensive and defensive sets far more often than NBA and NCAA teams. Consequently, players must be willing to learn and adapt on a daily basis if they hope to succeed, or else they will be exposed, as Hickson was last night.
Don’t count the Israeli players out either. Each team boasts three or four Israelis who can go head to head with Americans, and another three or four who are on one-year, non-guaranteed contracts that come in for short spurts and play their hearts out. With a very real threat of being cut and replaced by a second division player, Israelis play feisty and aggressive on both sides of the floor for every possession of every game.
2. Take every game and every possession very seriously.
With only 20 games in the regular season of the Israeli League, each game has the same level of importance as an NFL game. What makes European play so much more intense than the NBA regular season is that in every league, each game is a highly scrutinized dogfight. Players dive after every loose ball, and small mental mistakes will come back to bite you a lot more often than in the NBA. Hickson may be able to take a play or two off on defense in the NBA, but that type of mentality will make it very difficult to succeed abroad.
Aside from a few guys, every player in the Israeli league is on a one-year contract, and run the risk of being cut and replaced if they don’t give 100 percent every night. There will not be games where Hickson will be matched up against a player with a five-year contract who mentally is taking the game off. If Hickson isn’t giving total focus and effort on every possession, you can guarantee that whoever he is matched up against is playing his heart out and will be sure to take advantage.
3. Play like a Center, and make your free throws!
While it may seem like there is a shortage of true centers in the NBA, one can count on one hand the amount of Israelis over 6-foot-8. Coaches in Israel have trouble adjusting to having seven-footers, and many Israeli guards struggle to play with true centers. As such, players like Hickson, who have the game of a center but are a tad too short to play center in the NBA, tend to flourish in Israel.
With elite rebounding ability and a knack for finishing in the paint, Hickson should be a force to be reckoned with against any front court in the Israeli league. Since games are 40 minutes and the pace is slower, offensive rebounding and free throws have an incredible impact on the outcome. When both teams score in the 70s, and each team shoots 25 free throws, missing an extra two or three foul shots will often be the difference between a big win and a painful loss.
In his first game, Hickson was solid on the glass, however he was not the presence in the paint that many expected him to be. While some of this may be attributed to his teammates being star-struck, there is no excuse for a team with Hickson to be outrebounded by 18. Without Anderson Varejao by his side as he had in Cleveland, Hickson will need to be a presence in the middle and a force on the glass.
4. Ignore the referees and make sure you don’t travel.
Israeli referees will surely make Hickson appreciate the refs in the NBA. While officiating can sometimes be questionable in the NBA, it is so far ahead of the officiating overseas, it’s beyond belief. Referees have a much greater impact on the game here, and how a team reacts to the officiating often has equal importance to how they perform on the court. Unless an American can learn to accept the poor officiating and move on from bad calls, his experience overseas will be awfully frustrating.
What Americans call an explosive first step, Europeans call a travel. The NBA encourages players to take one step before they dribble and an extra step before they finish because this tends to result in the same highlight plays that the NBA crams onto the posters we all had on our walls as kids.
Last season, Bnei Hasharon was called for 7 travels in a playoff game in which both teams were called for a combined 11 travels. That’s about as many travels as I remember seeing in the past two NBA seasons combined!
5. Don’t try to do everything yourself!
A typical NBA team has two or three guys who provide 75 percent of the team’s production offensively. Overseas, it’s a totally different ballgame, where it is a rarity for a player to average over 20 points per game. Few teams will consistently run isolation plays for their stars, and almost every player will need to find looks within the team’s offensive system.
In his first game, Hickson’s teammates played as if having an NBA player would magically lead them to victory. Despite being far and away the most talented player on the floor, Hickson cannot win games by himself. He will need to build cohesiveness with his teammates if he wants to do more than just put up some nice numbers in his time here. If Bnei Hasharon wants to enjoy the impact in the standings that a big-time player like Hickson can provide, the rest of the squad needs to stay focused, as Hickson will not earn wins for them singlehandedly.
6. Enjoy the Hummus
Israel has proven to be one of the more pleasant places for Americans to play and Hickson should make sure to enjoy every minute of it. Almost everyone in Israel speaks English, the street signs and TV channels are all offered in English, and the teams’ practices are even conducted in English. One could come to Israel without knowing any Hebrew and have little problem getting around. Former Hofstra center, Adrian Uter, is playing in his fourth season in Israel this year, and he has managed to build a large social circle and a good life for himself, despite knowing very little Hebrew.
Since Israel is the size of New Jersey, the furthest “road trip” is only a one hour drive, allowing everyone to sleep in their own bed every night. Teams in Israel provide foreign players with apartments and cars, and make sure that the transition to Israel is as smooth as possible. Also, each Israeli team has its budget insured by the league, so players are 100 percent guaranteed to receive their money in full.
In an era in which many European teams have struggled to pay players money they are owed, players can take comfort that they will surely see their money in the Israeli League.
Hickson will be living in Herzliya, a city in close proximity to Tel-Aviv that is known to have some of the best beaches and restaurants in all of Israel. While people in Cleveland may be snowed in on a freezing day in January, Hickson will be sitting on his beach chair, munching on some pita and hummus. While it may not be as glamorous as the NBA, being locked out may not turn out to be so bad after all.
AJ Mitnick is an American currently living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A recent graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also maintains a basketball blog, http://mindlessdribble.net, and is pursuing a professional basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel.”