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Israeli cager Mekel signs with Pelicans

Point guard inks contract in New Orleans after losing previous opportunity over visa-related issue

Gal Mekel in his days as Dallas Mavericks #33 (photo credit: Courtesy NBA)
Gal Mekel in his days as Dallas Mavericks #33 (photo credit: Courtesy NBA)

Israeli basketball player Gal Mekel signed a two-year contract with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, a month after visa troubles kept him from signing with another team.

The 26-year-old two-time Israeli Super League MVP joins the Pelicans after a lackluster start in the league with the Dallas Mavericks last year.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams expressed interest in the 6′ 3″ (1.90m) point guard and praised his ability to share the ball. “I’ve done some research [on Mekel], talked to his former coach,” Williams said in a piece published Saturday by NBA.com. “Everything comes back that he’s more of a facilitator than a scorer. I like that he can pass, and he puts his passes on the button. He’s a big guard. I like the way he ran Dallas’s team in the preseason. Maybe he’s grown up as a player.”

Mekel, who came off the bench and scored 2.4 points and 2.0 assists per game last season in 31 appearances for the Dallas Mavericks, expressed excitement at joining the new squad currently ranked last in its division.

Gal Mekel, shown on defense during a preseason game in October 2013, is hoping to become a starter for Dallas following knee surgery that curtailed his rookie season. (photo credit: Hillel Kuttler)
Gal Mekel (right), shown on defense during a preseason game in October 2013. (photo credit: Hillel Kuttler)

“I’m very excited. I’ve been with the team only one day, but the guys are great, really welcoming,” Mekel said last week to reporters. “I was out [of basketball] for a few weeks. I’m really hungry to play and I really believe I can help this team. I had a great preseason and a great game against the Pelicans. At the point guard position, I can run a team, get guys open, help on defense and create shots. Be a true point guard.”

The Ramat Hasharon-born Mekel became the second Israeli ever to play in the NBA when he signed a three-year minimum contract with the Mavericks in 2013.

After being waved by Dallas, he nearly landed an opportunity to play with the Indiana Pacers this season. However, the club could not secure a work visa in time to secure a roster spot with the team.

Mekel is expected to come off the bench following the more-veteran Jrue Holiday and the highly touted Austin Rivers and battle for a roster spot with former college hotshot Jimmer Fredette; Mekel must be retained by the Pelicans until January 10, 2015, in order to have his salary guaranteed for the season.

Long path

Despite his up-side, Mekel has had a long path to the NBA, starting his amateur career playing basketball for the Wichita State University — a mid-sized university in Kansas that has been a national powerhouse under the guidance of Mekel’s former coach, Gregg Marshall.

After two moderately successful years playing college basketball, Mekel left school to pursue an opportunity with Israeli basketball giant Maccabi Tel Aviv. But he actually spent the majority of his time with the legendary club on loan to Hapoel Gilboa Galil, a smaller club in Israel’s north.

After being released from his contract, Mekel signed with Gilboa and helped lead the team to a championship in 2010 against his former squad. He received his first Israel Super League MVP award in 2011.

Mekel spent the following two seasons with Italian club Benetton Treviso, before returning to the Israeli league in 2012 and joining Maccabi Haifa, where, once again, he became league MVP and won the 2013 championship against Maccabi Tel Aviv.

His impressive performance garnered the interest of a number of NBA teams.

Mekel’s introduction to the NBA was preceded by Holon native Omri Casspi, a 26-year-old small forward currently playing for the Sacramento Kings, who, like Mekel, has been praised for his role as a contributor.

A five-year NBA veteran who has played with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets, Casspi has long been considered the face of Israeli basketball. He is a teammate of Mekel on the Israeli national team.

In addition to basketball, Mekel has also tried his hand at modeling. He is in a long-term relationship with Danyelle Sims, daughter of former Maccabi Tel Aviv legend, Willie Sims.

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