Where Are They Now? From Juan Dixon to Gerry McNamara

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Last week, we offered you a glimpse at the stars of yesteryear and where they are today. From Jonny Flynn to Gilbert Arenas, we tracked down some of the names you may have forgotten.

This week, we have more of the same — lost gems, and players we believed would be something more than they’ve ended up.

Regardless of what they’re doing, we’re here to answer a question. The only question that matters.

Where are they now?

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Mitnick: Israeli Underdogs’ Journey To The Cup Finals

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This past week, the majority of the leagues in Europe took a break from their season as teams competed in the Final Four of each country’s respected State Cups. Similar to the leagues in soccer, State Cups are a one-and-done tournament that consists of every team in the first and second division of each country, with two rounds being played out every six weeks or so. While the State Cup may not hold the same respect and demeanor as a league championship, the Cup is given a great deal of media attention, and success in the Cup brings a great deal of respect to a team and its players.

In my first season in a scouting, second assistant role, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a Maccabi Rishon Lezion team that made it all the way to the finals of the Israel Cup. Despite not being the highest profile team or having the biggest budget, and despite missing one of our stars, Brandon Bowman, for two rounds of the Cup, we were able to make a surprise run to the Finals. Without Bowman, we managed to knock off Hapoel Jerusalem, perennially one of the top three teams in Israel, and end the Cinderella story of Hapoel Tel-Aviv, a second division team who had knocked off Galil, the second place Israeli team, and who had managed to make the Final Four of the Cup last season.

While Bowman had returned for the Final Four of the Cup, we knew going into last week that it would be a very difficult challenge to win two straight games in the famous Nokia Area in Tel-Aviv. Top teams in Europe and in the NBA are used to playing two, three or even sometimes four games in a week, but with a smaller budget and much less experience, two games in a week against some of the top competition in Israel is no easy task. For a typical game I have an entire week to watch a lot of film, make scouting reports, analyze statistics and create video for film sessions. Without as much time to prepare, you are forced to think on the fly more than usual. This week was a real eye opener to the type of grind a top European or NBA team staff goes through on a weekly basis, and has left me waiting for exciting challenges like this again in the future.

We managed to knock off Habikaa in the Final Four 78-71, despite blowing a 16-point fourth quarter lead. Frank Robinson led a valiant comeback effort for Habikaa with 16 points, but in the end, Rishon’s quartet of Americans, Derwin Kitchen, Joe Crawford, Adrian Uter and Bowman were able to band together and close out the win as they combined for 65 of the team’s 78 points. The stage was set for a match up against Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the Cup Finals.

While this wasn’t my first time preparing to play against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, playing against them at Nokia in the State Cup finals is something special for anyone who knows anything about Israeli basketball. As a teenager visiting Israel, I was introduced to European basketball by the 2004 Euroleague champion Maccabi Tel-Aviv team that featured Anthony Parker and Sarunas Jasikevicius in a year when American guard, Derrick Sharp, hit an incredible last second shot to beat an Arvydas Sabonas led Zalgiris squad to make it to the Final Four. Now, in 2012, I found myself shaking hands with Sharp before the game, as he is the second assistant to David Blatt, wishing him luck.

Going into the game, few people gave us a chance to take down Maccabi, as they have roughly 20x our budget, and a roster filled with stars and former champions. There are several players on Maccabi Tel-Aviv who, individually, make more than our entire team combined. To put things in perspective, Tel-Aviv has an entire scouting department and a second assistant coach in Sharp who is a legend in the Israeli league and one of Europe’s all time greats as a three-point shooter. Aside from one of Israel’s top coaches, Effi Birenboim, and an up-and-coming assistant coach in Matan Harush, Rishon has me, a 23 year old recent college graduate taking his first step from being a writer to working with a coaching staff.

Unfortunately, despite Rishon fighting hard until the last minute, Tel-Aviv won the game 82-69 behind a valiant 23-point effort by Keith Langford. Maccabi jumped out to an early lead, and despite constantly chipping away, we were never able to take control of the game. While Langford may be an incredible one on one player, the team make-up of Maccabi consists of hard working players whose expertise is capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes. What makes Maccabi difficult to prepare for, is that even if you can come up with a successful plan that works against them, if you make even the slightest mistake in the game, a silly turnover or a defensive lapse, they will make you pay.

Rishon fought hard until the end, cutting Maccabi’s lead from 18 to 8 in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t get over the mountain. Joe Crawford led the way with 20 points, and Derwin Kitchen (18 points, 9 rebounds) and Brandon Bowman (15 points 11 rebounds) did their part, as the team lost in only its second-ever appearance in the Israel Cup Finals, and its first in 20 years. Despite being disrespected by the Israeli Basketball Federation, who were shown carving Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s name into the trophy while we were only down 8 with four minutes left to go in the game, our team showed great spirit fighting hard until the last minute.

Going into the locker room, I was expecting that we would have to pick up the players’ spirits to get them up for the rest of our season. Getting to the Finals of the Cup and losing is a tough feeling to stomach.  However, our players showed a great deal of mental toughness, already talking about how much they could learn from this game and use it to propel us to a successful end of the season. Reaching this type of success in the Cup can sometimes cause a team to become a little too satisfied, but our guys remain hungry and determined to stick together and fight for the rest of the season.

Overall, this year’s Cup was an incredible experience for me in my first year. Getting a taste of working under championship pressure, and witnessing the professional and calm manner that my coaches displayed throughout the run to the Cup Finals, has provided me a great example with how to lead a team and how to prepare for big games. The most important lesson I learned is that in professional sports, it is essential to move on quickly. Instead of taking a night to sulk over the loss, I started working on the video for our Sunday match up with Ashkelon, as we only had two days to prepare for our third game in less than a week. Just another reminder that regardless of whatever highs or lows you face, you need to keep preparing yourself for the next challenge.

 

Mitnick: The 10 best NBA prospects playing in Israel

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Lior Eliyahu, whose NBA rights are owned by the Houston Rockets

TEL AVIV – In recent years, there have been several strong rotation players in the NBA, including Will Bynum, Beno Udrih, Roger Mason Jr, Anthony Parker, Carlos Arroyo and Jeremy Pargo, who have honed their skills in the Israeli league in their quest for NBA success.

While the talent pool in Israel has dried up significantly due to the end of the NBA lockout, there are still several interesting prospects plying their trade in Israel who stand a chance to play in the NBA in the next few years.

Here are my top 10:

Sylven Landesberg – SG, Maccabi Haifa: After going undrafted in 2010 after his sophomore year at Virginia, Landesberg has been arguably the best scorer in the Israeli league during his time with Haifa. Due to having Jewish ancestry, Landesberg was able to acquire an Israeli passport, allowing him to count as a local player in a league that only allows four foreigners to dress per game. Landesberg currently leads the Israeli league in scoring, averaging 22.2 points per game on 58.7 percent shooting from two, and 34 percent from behind the arc.

Landesberg has shown an excellent ability to hit outside shots and shoot off the dribble, and he has no problem getting in the paint and finishing. While he already had elite athleticism, he has vastly improved his understanding of the game the last two seasons, and has developed himself into the type of 2-guard who could provide instant offense off the bench next season. Essentially skipping his last two seasons in college to play with grown men in Israel, Landesberg may have helped his career long term when he decided to head overseas instead of finishing up school.

Sofoklis Schortsanitis – C, Maccabi Tel-Aviv: Drafted by the Clippers in 2003, “Sofo” has become a dominant force in Europe. Many call him the Greek version of Shaq, but realistically, he could bring similar value that Eddy Curry brought to the Bulls before his weight issues derailed his career. An excellent scorer in the paint, Sofo’s massive size and quick feet would force him to command double teams in the NBA. The issue for Sofo would be getting his body through an arduous 82-game season.

He could never be a featured player on a squad, but he could be very efficient in a 15 minute role in 60 games for a contender. With DeAndre Jordan not exactly possessing the world’s greatest back to the basket repertoire, it may not be a bad idea for the Clippers to give some consideration to bringing in Sofo next year to give them a different look off the bench.

Dwayne Mitchell – SG/SF, Eldan Ashkelon: Coming off a season in which he was named the most valuable foreigner in the Israeli league after leading Maccabi Rishon Leziyon to the final four, Mitchell (who attended Louisiana-Lafayette and was cut by the Lakers in training camp in 2008) has been filling up the stat sheet again for Ashkelon this season. A triple double-threat every night in Israel, Mitchell plays with more giddy-up  than the Energizer Bunny. Mitchell is a guy who can come in off the bench and significantly raise a team’s energy level, defensive tenacity and ball movement.

Unfairly labeled a player with character issues by the media, all of his former teammates and coaches speak very highly of him. He has been described by former teammates as the type of player they would want to be in the trenches with when the going gets tough. Michell is very competitive and outwardly shows his enormous desire to win, which can rub some people the wrong way.  But there are many coaches who would kill to have a player with his type of attitude.

Lior Eliyahu – PF, Maccabi Tel-Aviv: Since his draft rights were acquired by the Houston Rockets in 2006, Eliyahu has proven to be one of the craftiest big men in Europe. Most American players scoff at Eliyahu when they see his awkward looking floaters and flip shots, but quickly realize how devastatingly effective his unorthodox game can be. His game slightly resembles a European version of Antawn Jamison’s.

Despite his thin frame, he has consistently been able to score and rebound at the top level in Europe, and has proven to be a solid team defender. He would struggle one on one against most power forwards in the NBA, but on a strong defensive team like Houston, San Antonio or Chicago, he would be able to more than cover up his mistakes with his high basketball IQ, energy and effort. Like many international players, Eliyahu would be very effective in some systems, but virtually ineffective in others. While Eliyahu has the talent to play in the NBA, he may not be willing to leave Tel-Aviv, where he is a well compensated star, for a chance to come off the bench for 15 to 20 minutes a night.

Joe Crawford – G, Maccabi Rishon Leziyon: After stints with the Lakers, Knicks and Kings, Crawford has gone to a situation where he is able to get significant minutes on a winning team. Already an accomplished scorer, Crawford has proven that he can defend, rebound and run an offense at a very high level. Crawford is probably in the best shape of his career right now, showing excellent quickness and leaping ability to go with his strong frame.

While Crawford is more of a 2-guard with his outstanding jump shot, he has significantly improved his point guard skills and should be more than capable of playing both spots in the NBA. Though he has been one of the top scorers in the league, averaging 19 points a game, Crawford has gotten his numbers throughout the flow of the game and his willingness to move the ball and keep his teammates involved has been a large factor for his team’s success so far this season.  It should be interesting to see whether Joe or his brother Jordan (Washington Wizards) ends up being the better player in the long run.

Richard Hendrix – C, Maccabi Tel-Aviv: After a short stint with Golden State in 2008, Hendrix moved on to Europe where he spent a season with CB Granada in Spain before signing a two-year deal with Maccabi. Hendrix has proven to be one of the best low post defenders in Europe and has been an absolute beast in the paint this season. He came overseas as an athlete, but has developed two or three solid go-to moves in the post that have made him extremely efficient around the rim.

At only 6’8”, he gives up a good amount of size at the center position, but he makes up for his lack of height with outstanding energy, strength and a nose for the basketball. He may not be a 7-footer, but he sure can rebound like one. He has the foot speed to stay with NBA guards off of screens, and has proven to be an outstanding pick-and-roll defender this season. Hendrix could fill a similar role to Reggie Evans, with a little less rebounding, a lot better finishing and a lot fewer incidents grabbing other players’ junk.

Jarvis Varnado – C, Hapoel Jerusalem: With the Heat holding his rights after drafting him in the second round in 2010, Varnado doesn’t appear to be an NBA ready center. He is an outstanding shot blocker, and would likely be among the league’s leaders in shot blocks per minutes if he were in the league. While his skinny frame is a big issue, his biggest problem is his tendency to fall for pump fakes consistently while he goes for shot blocks. The Heat may be searching for someone to fill the void at center if Curry does not pan out, but at this stage of the career, Varnado would get abused by opposing big men in the NBA.

Frank Robinson – SG, B.C. Haabika: After failing to make the Atlanta Hawks final roster in 2009, Robinson has been steadily improving his game in Israel. Robinson is a nitty gritty player who thrives doing the dirty work for a team. He is a player who will give a tremendous amount of effort defensively every possession, and has no problem diving on the floor for loose balls or bodying people up for offensive rebounds.

He still struggles a bit with his outside shooting, but his mechanics have improved significantly in the past year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts seeing a lot of improvement in his shot over the next couple of months. Frankly there are a lot of guys out there with more offensive capabilities than Robinson, but defensively, he is capable of keeping up with the top scoring guards in the NBA, as he plays very physical and has the quickness and strength to bother most of the league’s elite guards. It also doesn’t hurt that he shares the namesake of a former Baltimore Orioles MVP outfielder.

D.J. Strawberry – G, Hapoel Jerusalem: Son of former Yankees and Mets outfielder, Darryl Strawberry, D.J. has been the go to guy for Hapoel Jerusalem after unsuccessful stints in Phoenix, Houston and New Orleans. Unfortunately for Jerusalem, he hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of leadership on the floor this season, and this has resulted in Jerusalem getting eliminated from the Eurocup in the first round, and a middling performance in the Israeli league.

Strawberry, however, has shown flashes that he may have what it takes to be a fourth guard in the NBA. He is not a point guard, and he should not be counted on to run an offense, but he can defend at a very high level. He has shown great improvement on his outside shooting, and teams now have to respect his jumper. Strawberry plays with a tremendous amount of energy, and would be very successful playing a role where he had the ball in his hands a bit less.

Keith Langford – G, Maccabi Tel-Aviv: After a short stint with the Spurs, this former Kansas Jayhawk has proven to be one of the top scorers in Europe. After leading the Euroleague in scoring last year with Khimki Moscow, Langford has taken his talents to Maccabi where he is filling the hole left by Jeremy Pargo.

Langford definitely has the scoring ability to play in the NBA, but he lacks the size to play the 2 full time, and isn’t adept enough at running an offense to be a full time point guard. He has gotten some chances to run the point this season for Maccabi since the departure of Jordan Farmar, but he will need a lot more seasoning at the position to be effective in the NBA. He most likely will remain a top player in Europe for the next few seasons, but if he proves he can run a team over the next few years, look for Langford to get another crack at the league.

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.