Credit: Zumapress.com - Scanpix
Credit Zumapress.com - Scanpix

Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv will begin this year’s Euroleague adventure at home against Bayern Munich on Thursday.

Last season, Maccabi won the Israeli league title but failed to qualify for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague playoffs, finishing at the 13th place at the end of the regular season.

The summer brought several new faces, including former NBA players Derrick Williams and James Nunnally, and some old friends too, Jalen Reynolds, who had already played with Maccabi two seasons ago.

Maccabi’s pre-season was heavily influenced by Covid, with the team being forced to cancel the majority of the games due to several Covid cases inside the team. In addition to that, Maccabi has now lost its big man Ante Zizic for at least six weeks.

But despite these issues, Maccabi is not gonna shy away from the expectations. It has always been a very ambitious club, and that won’t change this season.

BasketNews had the chance to speak with Scottie Wilbekin, who begins his fourth year with the club, about the upcoming season and its goals.

The Florida alumn averaged 13.8 points, 3.9 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game in the last Euroleague season. A 7DAYS EuroCup champion and MVP with Darussafaka, since he arrived in Tel Aviv, Wilbekin has become a key player for the Israeli powerhouse.

With Maccabi, Wilbekin has already won three Israeli league titles and was named MVP of the last finals. Now he wants to reach something that he hasn’t experienced yet since his arrival in Tel Aviv: the EuroLeague playoffs.

So far, Wilbekin hasn’t been a part of the playoffs team yet. Something that he wants to change as soon as possible.

So after three years in Tel Aviv, what kind of connection with the country and the fans does Wilbekin have?

“The connection that I feel like you said, it’s like home for me,” Wilbekin told BasketNews. “I feel confident here, I’m comfortable here, I like the city, the people in Tel Aviv, the fans. Before arriving here, Istanbul felt like home for a while.”

“Now I’m about to enter what it would be a senior year if I were still in college, so yeah, this definitely feels like home now,” he added.

Last season wasn’t easy for Maccabi - out of 20 defeats, ten of them ended with a margin of 5 or fewer points. Wilbekin admits that the ability to close out games will be one of the biggest focuses before the upcoming season.

“Executing better down the stretch and in close situations, that’s definitely gonna be a focus for us. Especially at the beginning of the season because we began our EuroLeague campaign losing many close games last year. We just want to make sure we’re not gonna do the same this season,” Macabbi’s leader said.

This season Wilbekin will also be playing with a familiar face. The American guard already shared the court with Reynolds in the Maccabi team, while Nunnally and Williams were teammates in Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul.

Wilbekin believes that these kinds of connections will benefit Maccabi.

“Anytime that you’ve played with somebody already, it helps. It’s like you’re starting off with a little bit of an advantage in terms of building chemistry, so hopefully, we can just turn that into a full roster of guys who are in tune with each other and are meshing,” told Wilbekin.

After arriving in Europe in 2015, Wilbekin met many great coaches, including David Blatt and Ioannis Sfairopoulos.

Asked if he could name one thing he learned from these coaches, Wilbekin admitted that it’s a pretty difficult task.

“It’s hard to pick only one thing,” Wilbekin said. “They both helped me a lot in improving as a player. I had coach Blatt for two years, coach Ioannis for two and a half, about to be three. So it’s hard to pick only one thing, I try to learn as much as I can from them.”

As for the goals before the upcoming season, Wilbekin has one very clear target on his radar - finally making the EuroLeague’s playoffs.

“I wanna have a better year statistically, in terms of percentages, that’s what I’d like to improve. And as a team, of course, just be more successful than we were last season, make the playoffs and then, from there, keep going,” Wilbekin finished.

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