After the final buzzer of the day had sounded at the Las Vegas Summer League on Tuesday, I stood in the tunnels of the Thomas and Mack Center waiting to have a quick chat with Dallas Mavericks point guard Gal Mekel. As the minutes ticked by, I wondered whether or not I’d be late for my reservation at BURGR, a gourmet burger spot curated by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Mekel wasn’t giving me the superstar treatment of taking 30 minutes to get dressed, but a foul fest broke out during the game which prolonged the night.
Finally, I saw Mekel walking out of the lockerroom and towards the designated media area and prepared my iPhone recorder. But before I could get out my first question, an unsuspecting media member that I hadn’t noticed started a casual conversation with Mekel in his native language of Hebrew.
Mekel was born in Ramat HaSharon, a city centrally located on Israel’s central coastal strip, and has taken a unique route to the NBA. He came over to the United States and played two years at Wichita State University back in 2006 before leaving in 2008 to play pro basketball back in Isreal. He won the equivalent of the Rookie of the Year award in his first season in the Israeli Super League and has won two league titles and two MVPs between Israel and Italy since then.
After Mekel concluded his interview in Hebrew, he turned to me, grabbed me on the shoulder and with a smile asked: “Did you understand anything we just said?”
Mekel had just finished up his best summer league game so far. Against the D-League Select Team, which, by the way, may be the best team here, Mekel dished out nine assists, racked up three steals and scored seven points. Seven points won’t stick out at you, but with Mekel, the individual scoring column is always the least important; he’s a pass-first point guard, someone whose first reads off of pick-and-roll action are almost always related to finding an open teammate and not about finding enough space to get his own shot off.
As Mekel continued to burn the D-League defense by attacking their aggressive closeouts and getting into the lane to create for his teammates, D-League Select head coach Alex Jensen swiveled around in anger, yelling out to noone in particular “He’s not a shooter! He hasn’t taken a shot yet!”
Normally such a remark wouldn’t irk anyone on press row, but in this instance, one particular media member’s full attention shifted to Jensen as he critiqued Mekel. That media member would be ESPN analyst David Thorpe, who doubles as a coach and trainer at the IMG Sports Academy during the off-season and was interested in how Jensen’s scouting report on Mekel broke down. Thorpe began working with Mekel in September, and the jumpshot Jensen was dismissing was of primary importance during their sessions.
Thorpe is perhaps the main reason that Mekel is suiting up for the Mavericks right now, outside of Mekel’s own natural ability and drive, of course. Omri Casspi, the first Israeli born player to ever play in the NBA, called Thorpe last year and asked him to train his friend Gal. At the time, Thorpe had no prior knowledge of Mekel’s game outside of a few video clips and wanted to talk to Mekel to see if training him would be a good idea. After one call, Thorpe decided that he would work with Mekel based on the passion for growth that he exuded over the phone.
Mekel contacted Thorpe during a dry part of the year, when Thorpe’s NBA clients were off to training camp and when it was time for him to shift into writer mode. Even Thorpe’s assistant was gone at the time, leaving Thorpe and Mekel alone in an empty gym, the only thing in their company being the potential that Mekel was dying to reach. Mekel wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted to focus on improving, but Thorpe saw that his jumpshot needed some mechanical work and that his physical attributes could be enhanced with the right training and skill work.
“We wanted him to have more command of his dribble,” Thorpe told me. “We tried to get him to play more explosively, to play with more pace. And to learn how to use that pace; it’s one thing to be fast with the ball, it’s another thing to know how use that speed.”
While there were some specific aspects of Mekel’s game that Thorpe wanted to work with him on, he said it didn’t take him long to realize that Mekel was a special player.
“Three days,” Thorpe said when I asked how many days passed before he figured out Mekel could play in the league. “After three days, I told him ‘You are probably an NBA player.’”
It didn’t take me long to draw that same conclusion, either. Upon watching him here in Vegas for the first time, Mekel’s superior feel for the game was evident. The game just flows differently when he’s running the show. Mekel not only understands how important running through every option of an offensive set is, but wants to put his teammates in optimal situations; when his teammates are getting good looks off of his passes, that is when Mekel has the most fun on the floor.
“That’s what I do,” Mekel said when I asked him about his affinity for searching out his teammates. “I am the point guard and I need to get everybody going. That’s the whole key for me: to play happy and to bring energy.”
While Thorpe, myself and many other analysts and executives in Vegas have swooned over Mekel’s slick passing abilities and his expert navigation of pick-and-rolls, at the end of the day, our opinion matters little. Getting a vote of confidence from Mr. Shark Tank is what really counts, and it appears Mekel has a fan in Mark Cuban.
“There are basketball skills and then there are skills above the neck,” Cuban said. “In terms of understanding the game and basketball IQ, (Mekel) sees it before it happens, and that’s rare to find. You don’t see that a lot.”
Mekel’s shot is still a bit wonky — as Thorpe says, his guide hand is too involved in his shot — but he’s shown a pretty good inbetween game that is helping him bridge the gap between the paint and the three-point line. Mekel has torn apart a few unsuspecting defenders this week with a lightning quick crossover that helps him get by his defenders, and he has the size and strength to survive the war in the paint.
Speaking of size and strength, Mekel has good height for a point guard at 6’3″ and he has chiseled bulk that gives him a physical advantage over a lot of the smaller guards here. Thorpe believes that Mekel’s strength and solid defensive foundation will provide Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle with a lot of flexibility in the backcourt, with Mekel offering up the ability to guard most shooting guards and even some small forwards. Small forwards with limited off the dribble games and no post ability — your Shane Battier and Jeff Taylors of the world — wouldn’t be able to punish Mekel for his height disadvantage, which would allow Dallas to put out some guard heavy line-ups featuring Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and/or Monta Ellis alongside Mekel. “There are a lot of skinny threes in our league,” Thorpe said.
How soon Mekel will have a major role with the Mavs is unclear, but the 25-year old is already ready to assume some responsibilities in Dallas. With Shane Larkin out for up to three months with a broken ankle and Devin Harris, who Cuban said will likely be with the Mavs this season after their earlier contract negotiations were put on hold, recovering from toe surgery, Mekel will be one of two fully healthy point guards in training camp. And if he performs anything like he has this week, he’ll likely have made too good of an impression to be kept on the bench.
As my chat with Mekel winded down, I tried to get out one last question about what he was looking to improve on the most during his first season playing pro ball in the states. But instead of getting an answer out of Mekel, Thorpe popped his head in and said: “The list is endless.”
While Thorpe’s quip was taken in jest, Mekel is not quite a finished product. What he is is an incredibly gifted basketball mind with tremendous instincts and leadership qualities and the ideal physique and athleticism for the NBA game, someone capable of playing a meaningful role on a good team. What he can become is a better shooter (Thorpe, by the way, believes Mekel has the potential to be a great shooter) and a more careful passer, someone that can be one of the top tier point guards in the league.
Whether or not Mekel will ever be universally recognized as an elite lead guard is a question best answered a bit down the road, but you can rest assured that any shortcomings with Mekel won’t be the result of laziness or lethargy.
“His work ethic — on the scale of 1-10 — it’s a 10. It’s as high as you are going to get,” Thorpe said. “And he’s self-driven. I have great NBA players that I have trained, but they need me to push them. He doesn’t need me to; he pushes himself.”
And yet, despite all of the grueling physical sessions that Mekel pushed himself through, it was the inspiration and wisdom that Thorpe supplied the Israeli guard that mattered most during his training. Thorpe could have drilled Mekel to the point where he could crossover all those stationary chairs with his eyes closed, but it would have all been for not had Thorpe not planted the idea that he could play in the NBA in Mekel’s mind.
“Besides the fact that I think I got much better,” Mekel said in an interview with TrueHoop TV about working with Thorpe. “He made me dream big.”
For most folks, our dreams are forged when we are most naive, making the realization of our dreams that much more magical as we look back and remember that it all started with our imagination running wild during recess.
For Mekel, the dream of playing in the NBA is freshly formed and backed by the respected opinion of a successful coach like Thorpe. But that doesn’t mean he’ll enjoy the realization of that dream any less.
“In the life of an athlete, you have some ups and downs,” Mekel said. “The key, is to maximize the ups.”