Maccabi Tel Aviv swingman Yovel Zoosman was five years old in 2004—the last time his current team beat CSKA Moscow away from home.
On Friday, he was the MVP in the Israeli side’s first road win over the Russian powerhouse (93-76) in 15 years.
Before the match against CSKA, Zoosman (currently projected to be a second-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft) averaged a mere 2.6 points over 12 minutes per game. His role was tertiary at best, and his only truly memorable moment this season was a game-winning block in a victory over Darussafak Tekfen.
Yet against the seven-time EuroLeague champions, the Israeli player emerged as perhaps the most important man on the court.
Zoosman, 20, notched EuroLeague career-highs in points (15 with 4-of-4 on 2-pointers, 2-of-2 on 3-pointers), six rebounds and a 22 PIR in 27:48 minutes. Only seasoned center Alex Tyus played more (27:48).
Let’s put things into the right context before breaking down this game-winning performance: Maccabi came into this game with a 6–11 record in EuroLeague. Their 2018-2019 lackluster campaign and their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy, the “Yellows” faced an uphill battle against mighty CSKA (13-4 at the time).
Thus Zooman’s performance might be remarked as a decisive one if Maccabi makes the postseason against all odds, given their horrid EuroLeague regular season rough start.
It’s one thing to step up and have a breakthrough game and another to do so against an opponent of such a magnitude in a notoriously difficult arena with the playoffs at stake. (Prior to this match, CSKA had just two losses in 44 home games since 2016-2017 and the new EuroLeague format.)
Zoosman entered the game with the score 16–9 in the middle of the first period. First, he greased the wheels acting as a pick n’ roll initiator. He connected with Tyus, dropping the dime with a point guard’s skill that led to a slam.
Some plays later, Zoosman ran the transition, scored the layup and drew the foul for a three-point play that put Maccabi even closer.
After a couple fouls forced Zoosman to the bench, he returned in the second period to give an impactful two-way boost.
He immediately blocked a jump shot attempt by Nando De Colo, one of the most dangerous players outside the NBA, and then played top-notch defense against the French guard to force a tough hook shot miss.
His confidence pumped up, Zoosman showed out on the other end of the floor. He came off screens and banged back-to-back triples that increased Maccabi’s lead to 40–36.
He lost De Colo on two plays defensively but later forced him to second-guess a decision and commit a travel violation. Zoosman returned to the court four minutes into the second half and would stay in for the remainder of the game, executing his role to perfection. He dropped his 11th point by driving to the basket and laying the ball in after Daniel Hackett—one of the sturdiest defensive players in Europe—aggressively closed out on him.
By that point, CSKA’s defense had begun to take Zoosman more than seriously, and coach Dimitris Itoudis put some of his best defensive players (Cory Higgins, Will Clyburn, and Daniel Hackett) on him. In a team of many slashers and guys with notable one-on-one skills, Zoosman’s constant threat on the wings was key for Maccabi’s game.
He kept CSKA defenders busy and prevented them from giving help defense, allowing spaces for teammates like John DiBartolomeo to penetrate for precious points.
With the score 64–67 and entering a crucial stretch, Zoosman came from behind to tip the ball in and then grabbed a rebound amidst a sea of bodies. He later put Maccabi up by eight when he pulled for the mid-range jumper after disposing of De Colo to create all the space he needed. The latter contested the shot a bit, but the Israeli couldn’t miss.
Zoosman then deflected a pass that led to a bucket. During his team’s next possession, he snatched the ball from Hackett (despite a screen by specialist Kyle Hines) and delivered it directly to DeAndre Kane on the other end. Angelo Caloiaro tipped it in for a 12-point lead, 82–70.
No Maccabi player other than Zoosman played the entire fourth period, something that speaks volumes. He finished with an impressive team-high 22 in plus/minus and a 120.7 offensive rating.
What makes Zoosman’s performance so notable is that he also had a nearly herculean task on defense. He began on Higgins, CSKA’s top scorer, and second-best in EuroLeague (15 ppg.). The young Maccabi player forced his opponent to stay out of sync right from the start, keeping ideal distances to prevent him from both taking good jumpers or making some of his favorite drives to the basket. Higgins ultimately finished the match with a season-low 6 points (2-8 from the field), and Zoosman’s defense was pivotal in stopping him from getting into a rhythm.
Zoosman was next assigned to De Colo, mostly. Even though the French guard finished with 16 points, he scored seven of them while being guarded by Zoosman and overall shot 6-14 from the field in 31 minutes.
When the 2018-2019 EuroLeague season began, Zoosman was one of the frontrunners for the “Rising Star” trophy. He was MVP for the Israeli national team in its run to the U20 European Championship gold medal and was expected to turn heads in EuroLeague. However, he didn’t get many minutes, his numbers weren’t exactly eye-catching and, along the way, Goga Bitadze burst on the scene.
Now, Zoosman seems to have arrived. He scored 8 points in a win over Buducnost and, two days later, had this 15-point performance vs. CSKA.
He should be getting a more substantial role in the rotation of Maccabi and, if he remains consistent, he might present a strong argument against Bitadze.
If Maccabi makes the playoffs with him pumping up his output? The award is his.
Photo courtesy of EuroLeague.net: Stats: EuroLeague.net/Overbasket.com
When the Greek national team won the EuroBasket 1987, its accomplishment gave birth to a “basketball renaissance” in the country that also bred a generation of young people who simply couldn’t help but feel a special connection with the sport. One of those kids was yours truly, and this relationship went from “devouring” every piece of basketball information provided by magazines and anxiously waiting for NBA coverage on television, to experiencing hoops from a journalist’s point of view. Now the action for me happens on all things European basketball, especially EuroLeague. Yes, that’s where Luka Doncic was bouncing a ball, apparently behind closed doors, before coming to the NBA.