TEl AVIV – Sonny Weems might have his eye on a return to the NBA, but can he leave Lithuania?
Weems’ team has been eliminated from Euroleague title contention, but his coach says he expects Weems to stay with Zalgaris Kaunas through the end of the domestic Lithuanian league and the regional VTB league seasons.
“I do believe Sonny will remain through the rest of the season,” Zalgiris coach Aleksandar Trifunovic said after Maccabi Tel-Aviv knocked off Kaunas 70-66 to clinch a spot in the Euroleague playoffs.
Weems and Zalgiris came out swinging, leading by more than 17 at one point in the first quarter, but was unable to keep up with Maccabi on its home floor despite 20 points from Weems.
Weems had an excellent night showing off his ability to penetrate and thriving in transition. During his time in Europe, he has learned how to get to the basket through a more crowded paint, and his half-court offense should be dramatically improved in his next NBA opportunity.
But when will that come?
“I’m not the kind of coach who is going to read Twitter or anything, but I know there is a lot of interest of your part of the job which is a big part of the Euroleague and in general a big part of basketball,” Trifunovic said. “Generally, I think Sonny is going to stay. He has a valid contract until the end of the season. Right now, he is going to be a part of the team. This was probably his best game of the top 16 phase.
“He is also a newcomer in Europe, which is something that when people see an NBA title in front of a name, they simply forget it. The basketball is totally different here, dramatically different, especially the approach is totally different.”
As they have traditionally done in their home gym, Maccabi made Zalgiris pay for letting them get out in transition.
After falling behind, Maccabi took advantage of Zalgiris’ turnovers and sometimes poor shot selection by getting out on the break and finding the shooters in the corners. Keith Langford led the way with 17 points, while Alabama product Richard Hendrix held down the middle with 11 points and 9 rebounds.
However, it was the presence of David Blu in the lineup that changed the game for Maccabi and led them to their comeback.
Maccabi spent most of the game keeping two of their three shooters — Blu, Guy Pnini and Devin Smith — on the floor. Having three versatile shooters who can all thrive in the open floor, and who also are above-average defenders, is a luxury, especially since Blu can play the four position. Being able to throw two or three of these guys out next to Langford or Sofaklis Schortsanitis can give them a lot of room to operate and make Maccabi an extremely difficult team to defend.
Greek point guard Theo Papaloukas had one of his most productive nights of the season with 7 points and 7 assists.
The aging former Euroleague MVP has been a part of an Israeli media circus that has been hammering away at Maccabi coach David Blatt all season to give him more playing time.
What most fail to realize is that when you bring in a player like Papaloukas at this stage of his career, the early months of the season are not the time to judge his impact on the team. Maccabi didn’t bring Papaloukas to play 30 minutes a game in January, they brought him to help them make big plays in the fourth quarter of the Euroleague playoffs.
When asked in the press conference about Papaloukas’s season thus far, Blatt said, “Papaloukas came to help Yogev (Ohayon) do what he’s been doing this year, and he’s been doing an excellent job at that.”
Yogev Ohayon is a 24-year old Israeli point guard who has made excellent strides this season. Over the past year, he has become the starting point guard for the Israeli National team, and the starting point guard for Maccabi.
In his first year playing against the top European competition, Yogev has proven to be an outstanding defender and playmaker, and he has been a large part of Maccabi’s success this season.
“First of all, I think that he has played extremely well the whole year. I think he’s been a major factor in our success so far,” Blatt said. “Yogev is what I like to call a two-way player, who defends and attacks on offense. He creates situations with his speed and his penetrating ability and his pick-and-roll capability. He is improving his shot all the time and he has that quality of life in his game. He influences other people with his activity and his spirit on the court. I think he’s been doing the things he’s done all year.”
After seeing Ohayon go up against many of the top guards in Europe including Sasha Vujacic, Rudy Fernandez and Acie Law, it may be time to start considering Ohayon as a legitimate NBA prospect.
After speaking with several coaches and scouts in Israel, there is an increasing belief that Ohayon could fit in as a backup point guard on an NBA squad. He is a top-notch defender who can get steals with his length and activity on defense, and he is excellent at defending the pick-and-roll.
Offensively, he has made a lot of strides in his jump shot, and he is excellent at running the pick-and-roll and getting to the paint in isolation plays to either finish, or kick the ball out to shooters. While he is having a good season for Maccabi, his game suggests that he would probably be more comfortable in the NBA’s style of play.
After seeing Jeremy Lin and Ricky Rubio tear through the league in the first half of the season, there may be an uptick in teams looking at penetrating guards with high basketball IQs.
Rubio’s numbers in Barcelona didn’t suggest that he would be scorching it for the Wolves this season, and Lin may not even have started for Harvard if not for an injury to Drew Housman, currently playing with Beer Yaakov in Israel’s second division.
Two months ago, many would have scoffed at the idea of a 24-year old Israeli who is getting his first chance in the Euroleague playing in the NBA, but who can be sure of anything anymore after witnessing Linsanity.
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.