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2017 World Maccabiah Games

Jake Rauchbach reports from on the ground at the 2017 World Maccabiah Games.

Jake Rauchbach

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Every four years, 10,000 Jewish athletes from approximately 78 countries descend upon the country of Israel to compete in the World Maccabiah Games. Just like the Olympic games, each country fields a team in an effort to bring home medals for their respective countries, while maintaining a larger goal of strengthening Jewish relations with foreign countries. Since its inception in 1932, athletes such as Mark Spitz have competed in Maccabiah, and throughout the Games’ storied history, basketball has gradually grown into the Games’ most visible sport. With past participants such as David Blatt, Larry Brown, Ernie Grunfeld, Nat Holman, and Bruce Pearl, the Maccabiah Games have served as a world stage for the best of the best when it comes to Jewish sportsmen and women.

This year, the USA’s Maccabi team is coached by Fox Sports Analyst and TV personality Doug Gottlieb. With the help of team General Manager Josh Schachter, Gottlieb helped to hand select the team. Gottlieb is the all-time assist leader in Oklahoma State history and was a finalist for the Oklahoma State and Tulane head coaching vacancies. Gottlieb draws upon a breadth of experience and competed as a player in the Maccabiah games on two separate occasions, in 1997 and 2001.

“I have played a game in 10 different countries, I have played professionally in three countries, and in three professional leagues in the states,” Gottlieb said. “Some of the greatest connections I have made were in Israel and with Jewish players. My golden rule for life is do onto others as you want done to you. As a coach, I try to coach them how I would want to be coached. I want to help these guys win, but also want them to have an even better experience than I did.”

Gottlieb is a player’s coach. His ability to connect with and motivate players, while also implementing a system geared towards allowing players the freedom to make basketball plays, is why many believe Gottlieb could be poised to successfully lead a high-major division-1 program in the near future.

Among the members that make up this year’s Maccabiah Team USA are Sam Singer (California-Berkely/Israel), JoJo Fallas (Cornell), Jeremy Lieberman (Cal Baptist via Wyoming), Alec Kobre (Pacific/Spain) Travis Warech (St. Michaels/Germany), Jimmy McDonnell (Temple/Israel), Joe Schneider (Amherst College), Grant Greenberg (St. Mary’s), Jordan Cohen (Lehigh), Danny Janel (Connecticut College), Robbie Feinberg (Harvard), and Marc Chasin (Ithaca College). During his first week in Israel, Singer inked a deal with Bnei Hertzliya in the Israeli first division. Like Singer, many of Team USA teammates are hoping to leverage their Maccabiah tournament performance into Israeli Basketball Premier League jobs come next season.

Kobre, McDonnell, and Warech all have professional experience, and according to several Israeli first team division coaches and general managers, virtually all of the Team USA could have the chance to play at some level once their college careers are complete.

USA has a quartet of guards all possessing differing skill-sets. Singer provides good size and great versatility in regards to his ability to shoot and facilitate for teammates. At his size, he also possesses an ability to get in the lane and shoot over the top of smaller defenders. Coming into camp, Lieberman, the former Wyoming Cowboy and current Calvary Baptist Lancer transfer established himself as an explosive guard who gets into the lane at will. Lieberman was slightly erratic when it came to his decision-making and regarding knowing when to pass and or shoot during US camp. However, his game rounded into form nicely while in Israel.

Fallas is a lead guard who started at Cornell last season. Coming into camp, he at times lacked the aggressiveness required to consistently assert himself on the offensive end and apply adequate ball pressure on the defensive end. However, this has gradually improved as he has embodied a bulldog-like mentality. Look for Fallas to be the steady hand that steers the ship for Team USA. Lastly, the youngster of the team, Jordan Cohen, a rising sophomore at Lehigh, has all of the tools to be one of the Team’s better scorers. He has a good pace to his game, which allows him to initiate his drive and/or set up his solid jump shooting ability.

Because of the ubiquity of these players’ skill-sets, they find themselves being shuffled between the point and wing positions within Gottlieb’s ball screen heavy offense. This being said, Greenberg (St. Mary’s, NAIA – Kansas), Feinberg (Harvard), and Chasin (Ithaca) are true wings who have all gotten better during the short time period that the team has been together. Greenberg scored over 3300 points in college, and is an explosive scorer who comes ready to play and gives the defense fits. Despite sometimes trying to do too much, Chasin plays all out, and with no fear on both ends of the floor. His high-energy nature adds significant value to the overall performance of the team. Feinberg, a rising junior at Harvard, has shot lights out while in Israel. Interestingly, he shoots it especially well before 9 am Israeli time. Gottlieb attributes this to time change: “He is actually shooting on West Coast time.”

The team’s sharp shooter is Kobre, who played in the Spanish B-league last season and can make shots in bunches. The team leans on Warech’s extensive professional experience, and leadership abilities. The team’s consensus captain can play multiple positions and is hoping that his international playing experience will rub off on the rest of his teammates.

“I am hoping my knowledge of the international game will provide guidance and insight into how this game is played a little bit differently overseas to put us in the best position to be successful,” Warech said.

The team is anchored down low by pick and pop guy Jimmy McDonnell (Temple), along with Schneider (Amherst) and Janel (Connecticut College). McDonnell fits perfectly into Gottlieb’s pick and pop heavy offensive schemes, while Schneider and Janel are more traditional bigs who do much of their work down low. Janel, who moonlights as an acapella singer and reportedly has broken out in song at the most random times during the team’s training camp, brings the bass down low. Gottlieb said about Janel, “He looks like he could literally be in the Maccabiah family – he is broad bone thick and is our team’s unquestioned sneaky singing sensation, our go to translator, and one of the larger cranium’s in the history of Judeah.”

Maybe the best prospect on Team USA is Schneider. The 6-foot-10 big man has blossomed over the course of training camp, per Gottlieb.

“He probably has the greatest upside of all of our guys,” Gootlieb said. “He has incredibly long arms, and good timing. He is struggling a little bit with feel and lateral quickness, but he attacks the rim when he gets in for dunks. He blocks shots without fouling and wants to be coached.”

The Maccabiah experience lasts only 3.5 weeks. First is a 2-week period through two training camps, with one held in the US at Gottlieb’s house and the other at the Kfar Maccabiah Village in the Tel-Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. Team USA must gel during this time and be ready to face off against France in the first round of pool play. The Americans will need to survive their pool and finish either first or second out of five teams in order to advance to the medal rounds. From there, the four best teams will battle it out for the gold.

In past seasons, along with Team USA, Australia, Argentina, and Israel have all been some of the favorites to capture the tournament championship. Capturing gold will likely be a challenging road, one that Singer relishes along with the overall Israeli experience.

“The goal is obviously to come here and win Gold, but the overall experience means much more than that. We have an unbelievable chance to represent our country while embracing our heritage and showing everyone how proud we are to be Jewish.”

Considering the history and over-arching mission of the games, Maccabiah USA is playing for much more than just the chance to bring home the Gold.

Jake Rauchbach is the founder of The MindRight Pro Program and has coached numerous professional and collegiate basketball players. Rauchbach serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University’s men’s basketball team. He is currently serving as Team USA’s Open men’s basketball Assistant Coach at the 2017 World Maccabiah Games in Israel.

Twitter: @mindrightpro

After playing four years of college basketball at Drexel University, Jake Rauchbach coached at the collegiate level, founded The MindRight Pro Program and trained numerous professional and Olympic athletes. Now, Rauchbach writes about the NBA and college basketball for Basketball Insiders and serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University's men's basketball team.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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