Gal Mekel makes a pickup appearance

I went to Koch Arena on Thursday to watch some pickup basketball and get a read on the Shockers as they approach Oct. 12, the first day of regular-season practice.

Here is my summary:

  • Ron Baker made a lot of shots
  • Carl Hall dominated
  • A lot of arguing

Fortunately, former Shocker Gal Mekel showed up to make things more interesting. He worked out with Utah Jazz last week and made a strong impression. Visa problems, he said, will keep him from going to the training camp (which started earlier this week), so Mekel will head back to Europe. He played for Italian club Benetton Treviso last year and is looking for a new gig. After a successful three-season run in his native Israel (before his time in Italy), he would prefer to play elsewhere.

“I’m waiting for the right offer,” he said. “I can go back (to Israel), I have a lot of offers. But I really have achieved everything. I had an amazing three years. Anything I would do (in Israel), would be hard to top that.”

After the pickup games, Mekel said he wished he had 30 percent of his current understanding of basketball back during his two seasons (2006-07 and 2007-08) at WSU. The college game, with its structure and tightly packed defenses, doesn’t fit his pro-style game. He needed a coach willing to put the ball in his hands and live with turnovers and high-risk passes to get the rewards of easy baskets and open shots. Most college coaches aren’t following that plan. A coaching change didn’t help. I’m not sure Mark Turgeon knew what he was getting when he landed Mekel. Mekel, trying to find playing time on an experienced team, played a small role as a freshman.

Then Gregg Marshall came along in Mekel’s second season and those transitions are always tough.  It would have been interesting to see if Mekel would have fit in better as WSU’s talent improved and he grew to understand college basketball more. He was never going to turn into Marshall’s dream guard, but he might have been able to figure out ways to use his plentiful skills. As a sophomore under Marshall, Mekel started and averaged 9.3 points. After the season, he returned to Israel to play professionally.

One of the reasons Hall played so well is that he played on Mekel’s team. It is easy to see why NBA teams want to give Mekel a look. While quickness remains a liability, he is an expert running the pick and roll. On Thursday, Hall got a lot of easy shots as the roll guy and, on occasion, the pop guy. Mekel had several of the flashy moments that Shocker fans remember – a lob to Kadeem Coleby for a dunk and a crossover move through the lane that left about three defenders watching. It looks as if he has added a bit of arch to his jumper and it went in regularly. In all, Mekel is quite entertaining to watch and, just as he did at WSU, he takes the game seriously. He directed traffic and pulled players aside to talk strategy during the game.

Some other quick impressions:

  • Baker didn’t play long, but he looked sharp in the two games I watched. He shot the ball well and scored on a backdoor layup on a nice pass from Malcolm Armstead. Later, he hit Hall with a bounce pass on the break for  a dunk. Baker played a lot of point guard in the pickup game because Demetric Williams is recovering from ankle surgery and Fred VanVleet is resting a sore ankle. That won’t be Baker’s role, but he looked very comfortable handling the ball.
  • Chadrack Lufile runs the floor very well for a man who is 6-foot-9, 250 pounds. My impression every time I drop in on the Shockers is that they have a lot of fast guys. As long as they remain organized and don’t turn the ball over, the Shockers should be able to play fast and score on the break.  Nick Wiggins is a blur. Malcolm Armstead moves the ball up court quickly. Cleanthony Early seems to be at his best in the open court, when he can use his quickness and size to get to the basket.
  • Hall is a lot more assertive and diversified on offense as a senior, at least in pickup games. Like many juco transfers, he can reasonably be expected to take a step in his second season in the program.
  • Tekele Cotton sometimes seems out of place in pickup games because he never says a word and most of the Shockers chirp away. You don’t notice him, until he starts making plays.