04 October, 2022
14 May, 2023
0 Khadeen Carrington (JLM), 7 Brandon Brown (JLM)
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Finally: a closer look at Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Israel) - At long last, Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem have made it to the Basketball Champions League Final Four.

While many Jerusalem fans would have considered Oded Kattash's League Cup-winning team in 2018-19, or the double-winning team in the 2019-20 season amongst their best in recent times, neither managed to get over the hurdle and past the Quarter-Finals in the BCL - despite being considered favorites by many at the time.

That's not to say those teams didn't both possess outstanding rosters or weren't expertly coached, but perhaps the expectation weighed too heavily.

This year's group, led by Aleksandr Dzikic, has at times (despite already collecting another League Cup trophy) managed to fly under the radar, almost to the point of justifying an underdog tag.

Whereas favorites are often headlined by their offensive firepower and indeed, that 2019-20 team set a record for Offensive Efficiency at the time (118 points per 100 possessions), this Jerusalem team has done it with defense.

As you can see in the chart above, Jerusalem hold teams to just 100.6 points per 100 possessions, the best in the league this season.

Also remarkable about this stat is that they are getting better as the season goes on. At the turn of the year and after the final game of the Regular Season, they ranked sixth. After the end of the Round of 16 they were up to third.

Entering the Final Four, they sit atop the rankings defensively. With each passing game together this team takes another step further to establish its defensive identity. 

How they play

You might think it's easy to have a great defense when you have the second-ranked shot blocker in the league anchoring things at the rim.

And let's get things straight, Zach Hankins is playing out of his mind this season. A matchup against Akil Mitchell is no easy task for any center but, when it mattered most, in a decisive Game 3 in the Quarter-Finals against AEK, Hankins won the duel on both ends.


But everything Jerusalem do on the defensive end starts with the way they are able to pressure the ball. 

"Our ball pressure can change everything," said Aleks Dzikic. Often that starts with Or Cornelius. 


These aren't just empty quotes from his coach and teammates either. Cornelius can apply the clamps on a perimeter player and then switch onto a post player in the same possession. His versatility and focus on the defensive end absolutely set the tone.

  • Cornelius picks up the ball at the free-throw line.
  • Instantly makes an aggressive play to steal the ball and gain the psychological advantage. Establishing himself as the aggressor.
  • Forces several changes in direction and the ball handler is rushed into a sprint to beat him instead of entering the offense. 
  • His teammates don't over-help, trusting him to stay in front, then Mejeris takes the charge.

Cornelius is far from the only Jerusalem player that you will see with this intensity hounding the ball full-court. They do it as a unit and as we saw against AEK in Game 3 of the Quarter-Finals, when they are really playing their brand of basketball on the defensive end, it can have an extremely destructive effect on the opposition's offense.

"When we play our game as we can, we can make it difficult for you to stay with your gameplan," Dzikic explained, alluding to the way his team held AEK to under 60 points in both home games.

The clip below shows just how uncomfortable AEK were against Jerusalem's defensive pressure.

  • Between Brandon Brown and Siim-Sander Vene, Jerusalem force the ball handler to change direction four times before crossing half-court, almost forcing an eight-second violation.
  • Itay Segev recognizes that the play AEK wants to run is a screen for Jankovic in the post. He stunts in front of the pass to Jankovic until Cornelius can recover.
  • Jerusalem force the final post catch to be so far out, AEK are almost at the three-point line.
  • Cornelius wins the battle in the post.

If you are going to be a team that pressures the ball and also plays aggressively off the ball, you also have to accept or expect that you are going to get beat sometimes. There will be mistakes and there will be times you can't stay in front.

It's at those times that the team chemistry and determination to have each other's backs need to kick in. This Jerusalem squad has both in spades.

In the clip below we see Brown get caught fighting over a screen and he hits the deck. Cornelius and Itay Segev instantly get into "Scramble" mode and "X-Out" to completely nullify the threat.

Now, whilst the scramble rotations aren't always this instinctive and automatic, when this team is fully locked in like this, they really are a machine.

Whilst opponents can be confident that they are going to be harassed and harangued for 40 minutes by Jerusalem's defense, on the offensive end Jerusalem are less predictable.

You know you will have to face a steady diet of pick-and-roll between Speedy Smith and Zach Hankins but the actions you will see are harder to scout.

Details matter in this Jerusalem offense. Spacing is vital and players need to be in the spots, almost to exact footprints on the floor. Timing is also an integral detail in Dzikic's offense, simple actions become much more dangerous when they are executed in detail. 

  • "Logo" pick-and-roll action between Speedy Smith and Mareks Mejeris.
  • The defense prevents any initial advantage from the first ball screen.
  • Smith throws the pass and sprints into the "Get" action with Itay Segev.
  • Segev releases quickly from the screen and rolls fast.
  • Mejeris gets the timing right to empty the paint to the strong side corner, creating indecision in the help defense.
  • Carrington and Cornelius space to the weak side wing and corner. The top of the key and weakside slot are left empty.

One thing you can be confident of predicting from Jerusalem is Levi Randolph hunting for matchups in the post. Randolph's ability to get a bucket when Jerusalem need an easy one has been immeasurably valuable this season, especially after since the start of the Round of 16.

When you get this late into a competition and coaching staffs have scouted each other so comprehensively, it's very hard to bring something from the playbook that the other team hasn't prepared for.

At moments like that, being able to run a simple action for your best scorer to catch the ball in their spot and go to work, can be exactly what the doctor ordered.

  • Clip 1 against a smaller defender, Randolph uses a front-pivot spin and takes his defender under the rim.
  • Clip 2 against a bigger taller defender, Randolph faces up and uses his footspeed to set him up and spin back to the baseline.
  • Clip 3 against a like-for-like matchup, Randolph uses his shoulder to create separation and knocks down the fadeaway. 

Highlighting Randolph's ability in the post isn't to say that is his bread and butter.

The vast majority of Randolph's work is done in actions like the "Horns" set in the video below - operating as a secondary ball handler in the pick-and-roll or catching the ball in spot-up situations.

This is also the domain of Khadeen Carrington, another player that is now an invaluable part of Jerusalem's armory. 

When we observe that Jerusalem are unpredictable on offense, the set play in the video below helps to illustrate the point.

Coming out of a break in play, coach Dzikic drew up this option from one of their more regular entries, only this time with Brown coming off a double staggered screen to catch and create on the wing.

We mentioned how hard it is to hit teams with something they haven't seen before at this stage of the season. We had hardly seen this option from this set, if at all this season before this point.

  • Down screen for Mejeris to catch in the slot to enter the action.
  • "Miami" action for Carrington, hand-off into a ball screen but used to mask the staggered screen for Brown.
  • Carrington creates a double gap for Brown to work by spacing to the weak side wing.

To find the next time Jerusalem even scored from this entry, let alone use this option from it, we need to fast-forward all the way to the fourth quarter of Game 3 against AEK.


The Roster

When it comes to minutes and games played, this roster is now settled and well-established. Randolph, Hankins, and Smith play close to 30 minutes each and have done for all 15 games of the season.

Next down the line, you have Carrington and  Mejeris playing around 20-25 minutes, then Cornelius, Brown, Vene, and Blayzer playing between 12 to 17 minutes, and finally Itay Segev's underrated 10 minutes per game make up the main cogs in the machine.

One of the first things you notice about the roster is the length. Obviously, the whole show is built around 6'11" (2.11m) Hankins who is having an MVP-caliber season.

After that you see Mejeris, Vene, and Segev, all long and mobile, while Carrington and Randolph both often have the height advantage against their respective matchups and the same applies occasionally to Cornelius.

Even Speedy Smith, at 6'3" (1.90m) is tall for a point guard. This is a roster designed to disrupt passing lanes, contest shots, and not give up anything easy at the rim.

They are also not just long but mobile as well. It may have taken a few games for coach Dzikic to help this squad find its identity and make sense but now they have found it, this roster looks perfectly constructed to be a versatile and aggressive defensive force, with the right mix of veterans that know who they are and what they do well on the offensive end. 


It's difficult to say who the x-factor might be for this squad in Malaga. Randolph leads the team in scoring at 15 points per game, Speedy Smith leads them for assists at 6 per game, and Hankins is averaging a near double-double with 13.3 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Of course, you can also look at Carrington who is capable of big games as well but in a knockout situation, when teams have game-planned so heavily for your biggest weapons, sometimes you need another player to step up.

For Jerusalem, that player could well be Brandon Brown. The American is a player who has the ability to be the lead combo guard on a contender but has been equally happy to shine in his role off the bench for this team.

However, don't be surprised if you see him put up a game where he scores close to a point per minute in his 15 minutes off the bench. If we do see that, Jerusalem will be very tough to beat.

Up Next

Lenovo Tenerife. The defending champs in the Semi-Finals may be the toughest opponent Jerusalem could have been drawn against but, as a club and as a team, these are the games you live for.

The opportunity to beat the best in your competition is something that every competitor wants. These two haven't met since the 2018-19 season when Tenerife were victorious in a home/away format Quarter-Final match-up.

The only player from either squad still present is Tim Abromaitis.  The American had 21 points and 9 rebounds in the decisive home win for Tenerife. 

No doubt this time around will be a completely different affair. Hankins against Shermadini, Salin vs Randolph... Will coach Dzikic try to put Cornelius on Huertas or go like for like against Bolmaro?

There are so many questions to answer. It will be the first Semi-Final on the 12th of May so we don't have to wait long to find out.