The NBA’s next Israeli player? [VIDEO]


National Basketball Association teams, fans and analysts seem to be in a constant search for the “next Michael Jordan,” looking for a player to duplicate the feats of the six-time champion and five-time Most Valuable Player many consider the best ever in his sport.

Lior Eliyahu won’t enter that conversation, but the “next Omri Casspi” seems more realistic.

The Orlando Magic chose Eliyahu in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft (44th overall) and subsequently dealt his rights to the Houston Rockets, who wouldn’t grant him a roster spot but wouldn’t waive him, either. While the 6-foot-10, 232-pound forward remained in limbo, he saw the Sacramento Kings choose Casspi in the first round of the 2009 draft and beat him to becoming the first Israeli-born NBA player (Casspi now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers). 

Casspi’s NBA leap was aided by the fact that first-round picks receive guaranteed NBA contracts, while second-round picks like Eliyahu do not. But now, a change of scenery might help Eliyahu’s NBA chances. On June 26, the Rockets traded his NBA rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Joseph Gayer—Eliyahu’s agent in Israel—told JNS.org that although it’s “too early to say what affect this [trade] would have on Lior’s chances to make the NBA,” the development was “good for Lior.”

“I think since Lior was drafted at 2006 we always thought once a good situation comes, he would get his chance,” Gayer wrote in an email to JNS.org. “Unfortunately this hasn’t come yet. Hopefully with his rights traded to Minnesota, we hope it can change things in a positive way.”

Minnesota acquired Eliyahu and forward Chase Budinger for the 18th pick in the June 28 draft. Eliyahu averaged 14.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game during the 2008-09 Euroleague season, won a Spanish League championship in June 2010, and in September 2010 signed a five-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he averaged 11.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game this past season.

If a $500,000 buyout clause in his Maccabi contract is settled, the 26-year-old Eliyahu can officially leave the Israeli team this summer. NBA teams, according to league rules, can pay up to $500,000 of foreign players’ buyouts, meaning Eliyahu might not have to pay anything out of pocket if offered a contract. However, the ball remains in Minnesota’s court.

“On paper if Minnesota wants to sign Lior and pay the buyout, they should have no problem doing it, but of course it is for them to decide,” Gayer wrote. “I can’t say who would be responsible for the buyout. First we have to wait and see whether Minnesota would make an offer to sign him.”

Gayer explained that while American second-round picks can immediately play in both the NBA’s summer league and veterans camp to try to make a team and secure a minimum-salary contract, overseas second-round picks like Eliyahu have duties with their national teams that prevent them from going to summer leagues. Additionally, these players often have guaranteed contract offers overseas that are several times the size of minimum NBA contracts, Gayer noted.

“I think that for any second-round player to realistically make the NBA the team needs to want him enough to offer a guaranteed contract without going to [veterans] camp,” Gayer wrote. “Players can go to summer leagues, but if they are not offered a guaranteed contract after and teams all around Europe are running after them with [better and guaranteed offers], you can understand why it’s difficult [for the players] to reject it. Many players I know would be willing to make less money to play in the NBA maybe, get that chance, but won’t be willing to give up a guaranteed contract for just a veterans camp invitation or a partially guaranteed contract.”

The day Eliyahu was traded to Minnesota, NBA expert Jonathan Givony of the DraftExpress website reported on Twitter that Eliyahu “will join the Timberwolves for [the] Summer League in Las Vegas,” adding that it sounds like he “has a real chance to make their team.” The Timberwolves, however, have not yet confirmed that Eliyahu will play for them in the summer league.

One potential factor working in Eliyahu’s favor is Minnesota General Manager David Kahn’s affinity for overseas players. If he made the team, Eliyahu would join Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, Montenegrin center Nikola Pekovic, Serbian center Darko Milicic, and Puerto Rican point guard Jose Juan Barea.

“The fact there are a lot of European players on the [Timberwolves] can definitely help Lior make the team if he gets the chance,” Gayer wrote to JNS.org. “The style of play they are used to is more similar [than Houston’s] to what Lior is used to and fits his skills and playing abilities.” Minnesota’s “Euro-style game,” Gayer explained, involves “a lot of running up and down the court.”

On the other hand, Gayer noted that Minnesota “has a lot of players at [Eliyahu’s] position right now,” perhaps working against the forward’s chances of earning a roster spot.

One thing, however, is clear: Six years after being drafted by the NBA, Eliyahu’s goal remains the same.

“Lior wants to prove himself and show he can play in the NBA,” Gayer wrote. “If Minnesota is interested in him and thinks he has a real chance to be signed this year, he’ll be more than happy to go out there and prove himself.”

The Basketball Diaries


Two standout Jewish hoop stars headlining the Pac-10 basketball tournament? It’s all part of March Madness. David Bluthenthal, USC’s 22-year-old small forward, and Amit Tamir, UC Berkeley’s 22-year-old forward/center, each look to lead their team to the conference title at the March 7-9 tournament at Staples Center.

Tamir, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman, is thrilled about the tournament, the first held since 1990. "I’m excited to compete in L.A. I’m going to have fun and enjoy my first college tournament," said Tamir, whose team entered the Pac-10 tournament ranked second.

The Jerusalem native earned Pac-10 Player of the Week and ESPN National Player of the Week honors (Feb. 11) for his performance against the University of Oregon. He posted a Cal freshman record 39 points, shooting 14-of-19 from the floor, including 5-of-6 from three-point range and 6-of-8 from the line. Tamir clinched Cal’s first five double-overtime points, leading the Golden Bears to their eventual 107-103 victory. He also snagged five boards.

Tamir recognizes that his exceptional play means more than just a phenomenal night on the court. "I got a lot of attention after Oregon and I know that made Jews, especially Israelis, proud. There’s something nice about being an Israeli ambassador of college ball," Tamir said.

Tamir almost missed his NCAA opportunity. While serving three years in the Israeli army, he earned a spot on the Israeli League’s Hapoel Jerusalem. Tamir said he wasn’t paid by Hapoel, but he did play with a professional on his team. This NCAA amateurism rule violation jeopardized Tamir’s eligibility. But Cal coach Ben Braun successfully fought to reduce Tamir’s potential seasonlong suspension to eight games.

Braun, who is also Jewish, discovered Tamir while coaching a youth team in Israel. The coach and player attended High Holy Day services together at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. "It was important to me to celebrate the holidays, and meant a lot to share them with Coach Braun," Tamir said. "It’s great playing under a Jewish coach because there’s so much he can relate to. We share a heritage, traditions and holidays."

Braun is not the only Golden Bear who puts this Israeli import at ease. Berkeley coeds make an extra effort to embrace Tamir.

"Students on campus come up and talk in Hebrew or just let me know they share Judaism with me. It’s made me feel at home," said Tamir, who played for the Israeli National under-18 and under-22 teams and led his 1997 ORT High School team to the Jerusalem city title.

Tamir’s teammates also contributed to his smooth continental transition. "Whenever there’s violence in Israel, the guys on the team want to know if it’s near my home, if my family is OK. It’s really nice, and I feel like I can help them understand what’s going on over there," Tamir said.

Tamir left more than heated conflict behind. His father, Asher, an electrician; his mother, Shula, a homemaker; older sisters, Rozit and Gal, and 11-year-old brother, Daniel, all remain in Jerusalem. "I miss my family and friends. And the food: the hummus, mmm, and, oh, the bourekes. My mom’s cooking especially," said Tamir, who does not keep kosher. "She’s a great cook," added the dutiful son, who claims he was overweight until age 15.

Tamir, who grew up watching televised Israeli League and NBA games with his father, aspires to be the first Israeli to play in the NBA. "It’s always been a dream of mine, and I think it would bring a lot of pride to Israel and the Jewish people," Tamir said.

Bluthenthal has similar NBA dreams. "I’ve wanted the NBA since I was 5, and am excited to have been invited to draft camps. After the season, all my efforts will go toward it. But now, I’m focused on the team and our tournament success," said Bluthenthal, a senior whose Trojans entered this weekend’s tournament ranked third. "We’ve got a great team and a shot at winning the title," added the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Los Angeles native.

The lifelong Lakers fan will enjoy his hometown advantage. "We don’t have to travel, and our L.A. fans will be there to support us," said Bluthenthal, who attended both Venice and Westchester highs.

A talented three-point shooter and aggressive rebounder, Bluthenthal got his career third Pac-10 Conference Player of the Week nod (Feb. 18) for his Arizona series performance. He came off the bench against Arizona State and earned his third double-double of the season, posting 21 points and 10 rebounds. In an upset victory over the Arizona Wildcats, he seized nine rebounds and collected a career high 31 points, making 7-of-12 from three-point range.

After an up-and-down season, the history major credits his success against Arizona, ASU and Stanford (22 points) on his strong mental attitude and work ethic. "I haven’t had the best season, but I stay positive and practice a lot," said Bluthenthal, who hits the gym by 7 a.m. daily and takes 500-700 shots before class. "I love shooting, so practice comes easily to me. And I think it’s paid off," added Bluthenthal, who recently became the 26th USC player to earn 1,000 career points.

Bluthenthal admits it’s difficult to fit Judaism into his current schedule. "I’ve gone to services a few times, but there’s not really time between school and basketball. But I’ve been thinking about going more after the season’s over," he said.

He is, however, a proud Maccabiah Games participant. He played at the 1996 New Jersey games, earned bronze at the 1997 Israeli games and gold at the Pan-American Maccabiah Games in Mexico City. "My Israel trip was an amazing experience. I played with great older players, saw incredible sites and learned about the heritage and history," said Bluthenthal, who withdrew from the 2001 games due to an injury.

This preseason Wooden Award candidate, who holds the Trojan record for most game rebounds (28), has become a Jewish phenomenon. "I receive a lot of attention for being a Jewish basketball player. I was fortunate to be born with my height and a love for the game. If my success — getting to play college ball — inspires other Jewish athletes, then that’s great," Bluthenthal said. "I’m happy to be some sort of role model to young Jewish players," he added, blushing almost as much as he does when asked about a girlfriend.

Raised in Marina del Rey, Bluthenthal wanted to stay in Los Angeles for college, the weather and his family. His father Ralph, a retired L.A. County Sheriff’s Department officer; younger sister, Evelyn, who plays volleyball for Venice High School and the 2001 Maccabiah Team, and two older siblings live in Los Angeles.

Though Bluthenthal’s great-great-great-grandfather, Wilshire Boulevard Temple past president Isaias Hellman, was one of three original USC land donors, Bluthenthal once dreamed of playing for UCLA. "The Bruins have a great basketball tradition. But now I’m glad I went to ‘SC, where we started a new tradition," he said proudly. Last year, USC went to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time since 1954. Bluthenthal earned East Region All-NCAA Tournament Team honors.

"Because this is my senior year, I want us to win the Pac-10 Tournament and go even further than last year in the NCAA Tournament," Bluthenthal said.

Jewish basketball fans everywhere hope to see both Bluthenthal and Tamir achieve their hoop dreams.

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