(JTA) — Elliot Steinmetz knows something about firsts: last July, his son Jacob became the first known Orthodox baseball player to get picked in the MLB draft.
The elder Steinmetz is also the head coach of the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team, a squad of Modern Orthodox players that shocked the sports world with an unlikely 50-game winning streak that spanned multiple seasons.
The team’s leader was Ryan Turell, a 6-foot-7 guard who has entered the NBA draft, hoping to become the league’s first Orthodox player. Steinmetz knows it’s a lofty ambition — but he isn’t betting against his former star athlete.
“I would never ever doubt anything that kid puts in his mind, in terms of his goals. If he says he’s going to be an NBA player, I believe him,” Steinmetz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Turell, a lanky 22-year-old Los Angeles native, has a stacked resume: he was named this year’s Division III player of the year, due to his impressive 59% shooting percentage, including a 47% mark from three-point range (the NBA three-point average usually hovers around 35%). He also helped his team climb to the No. 1 ranking in the country for a time.
But the Y.U. Maccabees play in Division III, the bottom tier of NCAA collegiate athletics, meaning Turell has not been tested against top college competition. Few Division III players ever make the leap to the NBA, let alone get selected in the league’s two-round draft — a relatively short affair compared to those in other professional sport leagues (the MLB draft, for example, has 20 rounds, and used to have 40).
In 1980, back when the NBA had a much longer draft, David Kufeld became the only Y.U. player ever selected: He was chosen by the Portland Trailblazers in the 10th round with the 205th overall pick, before getting cut in the preseason.
NBA scouts don’t usually pay much attention to DIII games, but Yeshiva’s special streak drew national attention. The team’s games this season attracted overflow crowds and a number of NBA scouts, along with a few NBA executives, including New York Knicks President Leon Rose (a 2011 inductee into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame).
“Honestly, it’s been amazing to have all the support we’ve had on a Division III level, it’s just unheard of,” Turell told JTA. “It’s just really inspiring to see that you can inspire so many people through basketball.”
Boris Beric, who is co-owner of BPA Hoops, a scouting service that several NBA teams use, says Turell’s skills merit a look from scouts, but he does not expect Turell to be one of the 58 players drafted in June.
“He’s a really talented player. Guys who are big wings like he is, and can really shoot, that deserves pro scouts’ attention, but the NBA is really tricky,” Beric said. “I don’t think he’s a good enough athlete. He deserves to get pre-draft workouts with teams to see how he compares against Division I talent, the international talent, in that kind of setting.”
Beric added that he could see Turell thriving in Israel’s top league — something Turell said is a goal anyway, even if he made it to the NBA.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to go play in Israel, regardless of the NBA,” Turell said. “Even if I have a great career in the NBA, Israel is something I definitely want to do afterwards.”
In Turell’s dream NBA scenario, he plans on playing on Shabbat, as long as he can walk from his hotel to the game — just as his friend Jacob Steinmetz plans to do. Traveling and using electricity are prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath, but playing sports is not.
“I would plan on walking to the gym, staying in my hotel near the gym and just walking over,” Turell said.
(An update on how Jacob is doing with his new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, from his father: “He’s throwing hard, 94, 96 miles per hour, curveball looks good. They’ll probably keep him in rookie ball for the first couple months of the season and maybe ship him up to low A [the lowest minor league tier].”)
Beric said that even if he isn’t drafted, Turell could continue showcasing his talents by getting invited to a team’s summer league team or its fall training camp. As NBA teams have looked to increase their three-point percentages over the past decade, sharpshooters’ stock has risen.
“Get to summer league. Show your worth, and fight to get a training camp invite. That should be his main goal. I really think his path is becoming a shooting specialist,” Beric said. “A challenge for him is, he was the star at Yeshiva, where he got all of the touches, all of the shots. Is that scalable at a higher level when he’s only getting three shots a game? That’s really difficult for some players from college to the pros.”
Scouts and teams would like to see how he fares against players with Division I experience — and if Turell gets invited to the Portsmouth Invitational amateur tournament next month, which showcases some of the country’s better college seniors, he will get a chance to do that. Turell, who is back in California training, said that he has worked out in summers past with high quality players: “UCLA players [including Johnny Juzang, projected to be a second round draft pick], a bunch of overseas guys, and some NBA guys [including Bulls reserve forward Alfonzo McKinnie].”
“I felt comfortable at that speed. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you play at, it’s just basketball,” he argued.
The next few months will see Turell working on at least a few aspects of his game.
“You can never be a good enough shooter, obviously I just gotta keep shooting and really perfect the release, getting quicker, and being able to shoot with less space and room, with people contesting at me,” he said. “Defense is always key. I really want to work on my body and get myself in the best shape of my life, so I’m able to hold my own defensively.”
A veteran NBA scout who has worked for a number of NBA teams over the last 15 years agreed with Beric on Turell’s draft chances. But he noted a factor that could work in Turell’s favor: his narrative.
“There’s a little bit of a story element and narrative to it — an Orthodox Jewish kid and the fact that there’s never been one in the NBA,” said the scout, who wished to remain anonymous, as most do.
Jewish players are extremely rare in NBA history since the 1970s. A couple of Israelis, such as current Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija and former pro Omri Casspi, made the leap and earned relatively significant playing time in recent years. Dolph Schayes was a Jewish standout player in the early days of the modern NBA.
If character counts for an NBA organization, Coach Steinmetz added another layer of endorsement: “An absolute gem of a person. I’ve never been around a kid who’s so good at what he does and at the same time so humble and so in touch with the fact that there are kids, and even adults, who look up at him and want his time. He’s so nice and so uplifting.”
And Turell doesn’t avoid the talk from those who think he has no shot to ever play in the world’s best league.
“They just motivate me to work even harder,” he said.