Despite Previous Success, Israeli Star Not a Lock for Nba

If Israeli basketball star Oded Katash is to make it in the NBA, he’ll first have to overcome a few liabilities — and his country’s non-existent presence in the world’s premier basketball league.

Katash, a 6-foot-4-inch point guard from Givatayim, a suburb of Tel Aviv, verbally agreed to terms with the New York Knicks just before a dispute between NBA players and owners led to a July 1 lockout. During the lockout, teams are prohibited from conducting business, workouts or other formal communication with players or media.

Katash has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Israeli and European basketball worlds. A participant in Maccabi’s youth program, he was sent to Maccabi Darom, a team in the country’s second-tier league, when he was only in his mid-teens. At the beginning of the 1993-1994 season, when he was 19, he moved on to Maccabi Ramat Gan. His ambidexterity and long, angular physique instantly improved that team, which had been an also-ran.

For the 1995-1996 season, he joined Maccabi Tel Aviv. After an injury to the starting point guard, Katash became a starter — and he has excelled.

Indeed, the 23-year-old Katash, who would join an increasing number of foreign- born players in the NBA, is coming off a great year with Maccabi Tel Aviv in which he averaged 19.6 points, 3.9 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals in the European League.

Last summer at the European Championships, Katash’s 22 points per game for the Israeli National Team was the best average among all tournament scorers. And last winter, he was one of the 20 top players picked for the first-ever European All-Star game.

Katash is known for his great penetrating ability, quick release on his shot, ball-handling and accurate shooting. But like other European stars, he needs to improve his weight conditioning and defense if he is to compete in the NBA.

It’s likely that if Katash makes the team, he’ll have to spend some time as a backup. That wouldn’t be the only sacrifice he would have to make. He would also have to accept a salary that would reportedly be in the $350,000-$400,000 range — considerably less than what he makes with Maccabi.

If he makes it, Katash would become the first Israeli to play in the NBA.

The last Israeli player with serious hopes to make the NBA was Doron Sheffer, who starred for the University of Connecticut from 1993 to 1996. He was selected in the second round of the 1996 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, but decided to return home after not being offered a guaranteed contract.

Three other Israeli players in the past have attended summer free-agent camps with respective NBA clubs: Doron Jamchee with the Washington Bullets in 1990, Nadav Henefeld with the Boston Celtics in 1993 and Adi Gordon with the Seattle Supersonics in 1993. Israeli basketball legend Mickey Berkowitz had offers from the Atlanta Hawks and New Jersey Nets in the early 1980s, but a contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv stood in the way.

Katash’s possible entry into the NBA comes at a time when the career of the NBA’s only Jewish player for over a decade, journeyman center Danny Schayes, may be coming to an end. Ironically, the last time two Jews were active in the NBA at the same time was the 1984-85 season, when Schayes was playing for the Denver Nuggets and current Knicks General Manager Ernie Grunfeld was closing out his playing career for the New York club.

Katash’s agent Marc Fleisher said the Knicks were interested in Katash because he would improve their team, and not because he might increase fan support among the large Jewish and Israeli populations in the New York metropolitan region.

“The New York Knicks sell out every game, regardless of whether they have a Jewish player on the team or not,” Fleisher, of Entersport Management, in New Canaan, Conn., said in an interview.

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