By Stefan Djordjevic / email@example.com
Hapoel Holon has been a regular in the Basketball Champions League for the past three years. However, the team couldn’t get over the hump so far and advance to the playoff stage despite getting very close twice.
The new season brings new opportunities and coach Stefano Dedas, who joined Hapoel Holon in 2019, has set his eyes on the playoff ticket. It’s a different challenge this time around as the format has been changed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the team will have to secure one of the two spots that lead deeper into the competition.
Their rivals in Group C – AEK, Tsmoki-Minsk, and Cholet.
“The fact the team has never qualified for the next stage in the BCL is a big motivation for me,” Dedas told Holonia Fans before the start of the season. “We have six games, the group stage is shorter. AEK is very strong, Cholet is an experienced French team and Minsk doesn’t have big names, but it’s an experienced VTB team which is always dangerous. AEK looks favorite to finish in the first place because we saw that they are a very strong team, and there is one additional spot that we compete for with Cholet and Minsk. We and Cholet have equal chance to finish in 2nd place and qualify, so the first game against Cholet is very important. We need to win or to lose by a small margin that we can cover in the next game in Holon.”
So far, so good. Well, as predicted by the coach at the very least. The team lost its opener against AEK on the road in a close affair (100-96) but they bounced back with a double-digit win over Cholet at home (83-73).
One of the main reasons for Hapoel Holon’s strong start to the season (they also reached the Israeli Cup Final where they’ll face Maccabi Tel Aviv) has been CJ Harris.
The 29-year-old American combo guard banked 27 and 25 points respectively in the two BCL games and has established himself as the leader of this squad.
He shot 6-7 for two and 2-4 for three against Cholet while being perfect from the free-throw line (7-7) and adding four assists and three steals on his way to 27 PIR.
Harris was quite pleased with how the whole squad performed in the crucial home win.
“We wanted to take our time and execute and really focus on defense this game. I think we did a great job at that, finding the mismatches, running the offense, and playing hard on defense. It’s very important. With the new format, we only have four or five games left and it’s important to get this win, especially at home. We did a great job of locking in and taking care of business. Anytime you play at home you want to take care of the home court. I think we want to build on this game, do all the things we did well and fix what we didn’t do well. We’ll be ready for that next game as well,” he said at the post-game press conference.
CJ Harris started off his career in Europe, to be more precise in Germany with Ludwigwburg and the following year with Ulm.
He needed some time to adjust, as is usually the case, but quickly started showing what he is capable of as he continued his career with Riga, Rosa Radom, Sakarya and Pau-Orthez.
Riga won the 2015 Latvian League while Rosa Radom lifted the 2016 Polish Cup trophy with CJ Harris earning the MVP award.
Harris hit a bit of a wall in the 2019-20 season as he played only nine games with Turk Telekom which he joined late, in January. It was with the Turkish team that he debuted in the BCL, playing two games though it was far from the role he’s been having this year.
Coach Dedas showed that he is capable of finding talented players, bringing them over to Holon, and finding a perfect role for them.
His coaching style often produces high-scoring duels and the guards potent in scoring find themselves very easily in it. In fact, Holon logged a couple of record-breaking games these past years including the one against Torun last season when they banked in a total of 122 points.
Last year, Manny Harris became one of the top players in the league. Another Harris, this time CJ, is well on his way to do the same and perhaps lead the team to even greater heights.
“My idea was first to bring two combo-guards that can handle the ball, score, and shot but I wasn’t looking for a pure point guard because of (Yogev) Ohayon, to leave some space for him to be the main player. So we brought (Tyrus) McGee and CJ Harris, two players with different characteristics: McGee is more physical, more athletic, a stronger player and Harris is more talented and uses intelligence more than athleticism. One completes the other,” the coach explained.
So far, coach Dedas seemed to have been right about everything he preached but the season has just started and many challenges lie ahead.
The first one will be getting past Tsmoki-Minsk in another clash Hapoel Holon will play at home on November 17th to complete the first round of games. The second part of the BCL group stage will follow along with much more domestic league obligations than up to this point and it remains to be seen how coach Dedas, as well as the players, will cope with it and balance it out.
Photo Credit: Basketball Champions League