October 22, 2018

Jewish hoop dreams

On a recent evening in the gymnasium of Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks, the squeaking of sneakers on hardwood and shouts of “Defense!” and “Screen right!” echo off the empty bleachers. Valley Torah High School’s basketball team is here to practice — with one noticeable standout.

In between drills, a gangly 6-foot-5-inch teenager with a loose-fitting red practice jersey and a black yarmulke clipped to his blond hair leaps effortlessly toward the basket and dunks the ball with two hands. He hangs briefly on the rim, lands, then smiles sheepishly, revealing braces on his teeth.

He is Ryan Turell, a Valley Torah junior and NCAA Division I college prospect touted as the next big Jewish thing in basketball. 

Valley Torah is an Orthodox Jewish high school located in Valley Village with fewer than 120 students. The school doesn’t have a weight room or a gymnasium, so it rents Emek’s gym, where the basketball team practices two nights a week.

What Valley Torah does have is college scouts stopping by its practices to watch Turell. Coaches from UC Irvine and UC Davis have paid visits. Yale, Dartmouth and Princeton are scheduled to send scouts sometime in October. The University of Northern Colorado held a private workout with Turell on Valley Torah’s lone outdoor court. 

Almost every day, Turell gets a phone call from a college coach. He has made unofficial trips to schools such as Stanford, the U.S. Military Academy and UC Santa Barbara, visiting with coaches and rabbis, touring facilities and sampling the offerings of on-campus kosher commissaries. 

Off the court, Turell is a typical high school junior, spending his downtime binging on TV episodes of “The Office” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and playing video games on his PlayStation 4.

On the court, he’s anything but typical among his Orthodox peers. When asked about the attention he’s getting for his basketball talent, he said he’s just enjoying the ride.

“It has been an amazing experience,” Turell said. “It just sort of happened. I started playing well and schools got interested in me. They love my game.”

Just how rare is it for someone like Turell to emerge from the Orthodox community and get on the radar of NCAA Division I basketball programs?

 “It’s my best story in the last 20 years,” said Beinish Kaplan, who has been coaching Jewish youth teams in Los Angeles for the past 23 years. “I never thought I’d have a Division I guy.” 

If you’re a Jewish kid playing basketball in Los Angeles, you want to play for Kaplan. His teams compete in the widely known American Roundball Corporation league that attracts some of the most talented players in the region. Kaplan has coached against notable standouts such as the 7-foot twins Jason and Jarron Collins, who starred at Harvard-Westlake School and Stanford before careers in the NBA, and Jordan Farmar, who played at Taft High School in Woodland Hills and UCLA, and is still in the NBA after winning two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

Kaplan first saw Turell as a first-grader, when he soon began competing against kids well above his age bracket. Known as a defensive stopper, Turell took on tough assignments, guarding bigger, stronger kids. His knack for diving on the floor for loose balls earned him the nickname “The Broom.”

 “We always knew something was different about him right from the beginning,” said Ryan’s dad, Brad Turell, himself a basketball star at Beverly Hills High School who played at UC Santa Barbara “His competitiveness was on another level. He played harder than everybody else.” 

Although Kaplan knew Turell would be tall (his dad stands 6-foot-2 and his brother Jack, who plays for Division III Yeshiva University, is 6-foot-7), he groomed him to be a point guard. Kaplan’s thinking was that, no matter how tall Turell would get, ball-handling skills would be critical to his development, even if he didn’t end up playing point guard beyond Kaplan’s tutelage.

Brad Turell credits Kaplan for having that vision. 

 “When [Ryan] was about 5-8, Kaplan would say, ‘Ryan is going to be a 6-5 point guard, the likes of which Jewish basketball has never seen. He’ll be Magic Johnson with a better jumper.’ I thought he was crazy,” Brad Turell said. 

In a few years, just as Kaplan predicted, Turell shot up 9 inches and his offensive skills blossomed. He matured into a rangy athlete with long-range shooting skills and a “tight handle” — the ability to protect the ball by dribbling it low and close to his body. 

Brad Turell said his son fits the mold of a “3-and-D guy,” a term coined by scouts to describe players who can make a high percentage of 3-point baskets and play multiple positions on defense. (Turell likes to compare his style of play to that of All-Star NBA guard Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors.) 

In March, Turell traveled to New York with his Valley Torah teammates to play in the 25th annual Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament, a competition featuring the nation’s top Jewish high school basketball teams. In three games, Turell averaged more than 20 points a game (the second-highest average in tournament history) and was one of five players named to the all-tournament first team — as a sophomore. 

Kaplan has no doubt where Turell will be ranked as a junior: “He’ll be the best Jewish basketball player in the country this year.” 

Valley Torah head coach Lior Schwartzberg expects Turell to lead the team in scoring, rebounding and assists this season while playing point guard. In league play against the likes of Milken, Shalhevet and YULA, he likely will draw double-teams and full-court pressure. “If he tries to go to the bathroom, they’ll try to stop him,” Schwartzberg joked. 

Schwartzberg arrived on campus in April of Turell’s freshman year. Previously, he was an assistant coach at UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His Division I experience is evident in his coaching at Valley Torah. He holds practices nearly year-round and involves the players in analyzing scouting reports of upcoming opponents and studying video of past games. 

“This stuff doesn’t happen at other Orthodox Jewish high schools,” Schwartzberg said. “We run the program like a college program. Ryan is developing skills here that will translate well into college basketball.” 

It would seem the stars aligned to bring Turell and Schwartzberg together at Valley Torah. College scouts aren’t exactly clamoring for access to practices or traveling to games at Orthodox Jewish high schools like Valley Torah, but Schwartzberg is changing the game. Brad Turell credits Schwartzberg’s Division I ties with helping expose Turell to college coaches and scouts. Or, as Kaplan put it, “[Schwartzberg] has opened doors for Ryan I could never access, and it’s working.”

In the last two summers, Turell has helped expand his profile. He’s played for the Earl Watson Elite team, a top AAU program whose players travel the country playing in tournaments and showcases. There, he has been less of a jack-of-all-trades and more of a shooter and reliable defender as he has adapted to a faster-paced game with other highly talented players on the floor.

“It’s fun to get a chance to play against better competition, better players, faster-moving games.,” Turell said. “It’s an adjustment. It’s a different type of basketball experience.”   

Even against some of the best players in the country, Turell’s sharp shooting is often on display. He has scored over 30 points on multiple occasions, and racked up 40 in one game. In a game with Earl Watson Elite this summer, Turell sank eight 3-pointers. After that performance, the opponent in his next game put a 6-foot-10 defender on him who guarded him tight.

“He’s just not going to see guys like that in Jewish leagues,” Schwartzberg said. “That’s the benefit of playing at that level.”

During the summer, Turell started on the Earl Watson Elite 16-under team, helping it on a run to the semifinals of the Fab 48 tournament in Las Vegas, one of the premier AAU tournaments in the country. The tournament is regularly attended by college coaches and features a plethora of NBA prospects.

Turell shrugs off any significance behind being an Orthodox Jew playing under such bright lights. 

“I don’t feel pressure or feel different or anything because I’m an Orthodox Jew,” he said. “I just go out there and play basketball and have fun.” 

Playing on that type of stage against top-flight opposition has helped Turell pinpoint areas where he needs to improve. He wants to work on his overall athleticism and add more muscle to his 150-pound frame so he can be “bigger, faster and stronger.”

Schwartzberg said Turell need not worry about his skinny stature at this point.

“College coaches I talk to don’t see it as a concern,” Schwartzberg said. “They’re thinking, once he has resources like weight rooms, trainers and nutritionists, he’ll put on weight and add muscle. Since he’s skinny and playing well, they see that as, how much better could he be? Plus, he doesn’t have any facial hair, which makes them think he’s still growing. They love that.” 

Despite his inability to grow a mustache, Turell is a man among boys at Valley Torah. With his high school level of competition being below what he experienced on the AAU circuit, Turell says he has to look inward to keep improving his skills.  

“When I get back to Valley Torah [basketball], I have to not play down,” he said. “I have to compete against myself and try to get better in that sense. I try to focus on my game, how I play and how I can help make my teammates better.” 

Valley Torah opens its season on the road against Panorama High School at 8 p.m. on Nov. 21. 

Meanwhile, Turell’s decision on where he will play college ball is about a year away.

“I’m definitely looking for Jewish life on campus — it’s a big part of my life,” he said. “The schools I’ve visited so far all have kosher commissaries, synagogues, rabbis and minyans going around. But I’m also looking at where I can graduate with a degree that means something. I want to parlay my basketball into my education.”