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Israel is the Surprise of EuroBasket So Far

EuroBasket 2015 has been the perfect competition to bridge the gap between the always entertaining NBA offseason and the start of training camp in October. The tournament is deep with legitimate NBA vets such as Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Danilo Gallinari and Pau Gasol, as well as successful youngins such as Nikola Mirotic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dennis Schroder. The countries with those type of players are typically the cream of the crop when it comes to international competition. The biggest surprise of EuroBasket so far is a team that has one current NBA player on the roster, and he isn’t even a starter in the league. That country is Israel.

Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings is the lone NBA representative on an Israeli squad that has a less than storied history in international competition. Israel has appeared in one Olympic Games (1952), two FIBA World Cups (1954, 1986) and medaled in one EuroBasket (silver in 1979). The country’s struggles in international competition is baffling since Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Israeli representative in the Euroleague, has won six European titles, including a win over Real Madrid in 2014 led by then-head coach David Blatt. Israel has always had talent. They’re finally proving it.

Israel is off to a 3-1 start in the tournament, with its lone loss coming in an 86-84 overtime defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina where Elmedin Kikanovic hit two buzzer-beaters. Israel has utilized its depth and unselfishness to overcome its lack of NBA talent.

Although Casspi is the natural leader of the team, Israel shares the ball as well as any team at EuroBasket. Lior Eliyahu, a talented forward and 2006 second-round pick, plays the point-forward role for this team. He’s always been an outstanding passer, averaging as high as 4.8 assists per 40 minutes with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2012-13. Israel utilizes a version of the Princeton offense with constant backdoor cuts where the bigs have to put the pass on the money. Eliyahu is handing out 4.3 assists per game in the tournament so far while giving the team a solid scoring option as well.

He utilizes an orthodox flip shot to score down low that looks ugly when it misses and is a thing of beauty when it drops through the net. He’s scoring 14 points per game on an efficient 56.5 percent from the field through four games. His 22 points carried Israel over Finland in the team’s second game.

Casspi is a versatile big in his own right, leading the team with 18.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game to go along with a solid 3.5 assists per game. His inside and out game lends well to international competition. Casspi is the constant of this team, the one player who can be relied on night in and night out. Gal Mekel, who had a cup of coffee in the NBA the past two seasons with the Mavericks and Pelicans, is the team’s catalyst.

Mekel is a strong and fluid point guard who can score when he wants to or become a facilitator when he needs to. His five assists per game lead the team, but he’s also averaging 14.8 points on 52.5 percent shooting from the field. He led the team with 18 points in a 75-73 win over Poland on Wednesday where he converted all six of his free throw attempts in the final 29 seconds. Casspi and Mekel provide Israel with a duo that’s NBA caliber and as steady as they come.

D’or Fischer, the team’s naturalized player, provides Israel with defensive presence and a solid finisher down low. Fischer, who’s coming off a 27.3 PER season in the Euroleague, has utilized his 6-foot-10 frame to average 7.0 rebounds and a team-leading 1.8 blocks per game so far in the tournament. Fischer isn’t as skilled as Casspi or Eliyahu, but his efficient scoring inside is crucial for his team. Point guard Yogev Ohayon is another player who’s somewhat limited in his skill set, but his bulldog mindset and mistake-free game has helped propel Israel to its terrific start at EuroBasket.

The top four teams in each group advance to the knockout stage, so Israel will advance at least that far with Russia (0-4) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (1-3) likely being eliminated from Group A. Israel will play group-leader France on Thursday in a game that’ll be more about positioning for the knockout stage than anything else. Israel will be a huge long shot in that game, but they were already doubted by everyone heading into the tournament.

Only the top two teams at EuroBasket qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics, while the next five teams will advance to a qualifying tournament. Israel likely won’t be in that group, but the progress so far has already been paramount for an Israeli national team that hasn’t placed in the top 10 at EuroBasket since 2005. The core of Casspi, Eliyahu and Mekel is young enough that Israel will continue to improve in the future. Shawn Dawson (21 years old) went undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft, but he figures to be a prominent member of the team moving forward.

Israel is pretty good at basketball. That’s an awesome thing to say.

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