Gal Mekel is a two-time champion of the Israeli Super League, and a charismatic two-time Most Valuable Player in that league.
He also is just the second player from Israel to ever play in the NBA, joining Houston Rockets small forward Omri Casspi, who was a first-round pick by the Sacramento Kings in 2009.
So, it stands to reason that Mekel is either the Michael Jordan of Israeli pro basketball, or the Scottie Pippen. A free agent point guard with the Dallas Mavericks, Mekel, who had seven assists in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s D-League select game, had to chuckle when that question was posed to him after Tuesday’s shootaround at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“No, I’m neither of them,” Mekel finally said. “I’m Gal Mekel. I’m trying to help my team win, and that’s it.”
This was a moment by Mekel that revealed his intellect. No, he’s not like Mike — or Scottie — and doesn’t want anyone putting that type of pressure on his shoulders.
However, early indications from the Las Vegas Summer League are that Mekel could be a keeper for the Mavs.
Mekel is not LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade or any of the other front-line NBA players who have earned riches putting the basketball through the hoop. But the Mavs believe the 6-foot-3 playmaker has an upside that will surprise.
“You can tell he’s played before at a high level,” forward Jae Crowder said. “He sees the floor, he’s a great passer and he sees some stuff that a lot of point guards have trouble seeing.
“He can pass with either hand, and that’s very rare with some point guards in the league.”
Crowder compares Mekel to Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, a flashy “Pistol” Pete Maravich-type point guard from Spain. While that comparison may be an exaggeration, Mekel has a very high basketball IQ that will pay dividends down the road for the Mavs.
“Gal is a smart player. He picks up things quick,” said Monte Mathis, the Mavs’ summer league head coach. “I’m just trying to get him to understand our defensive schemes and things like that, and being a guy that causes problems off pick-and-rolls offensively.”
Mekel is 25 years old — an old-timer for an NBA rookie — and could have been in the NBA at an earlier age. He spent the 2006-08 seasons at Wichita State before returning to Israel to play pro ball for Maccabi Tel Aviv way before the NBA fat-cats could get their hands on him.
“After my sophomore year I had a big offer from Maccabi Tel Aviv,” Mekel explained. “They offered me a three-year deal with a lot of money.
“Back then I was 19-20, so it was the right time to go. Plus, the [Wichita State] coach changed after my first year and a lot of players left the program, so I thought we were not going to be able to compete for something in the next two years that I’m there. Plus the offer that I got, so it was the right time to go.”
After careful inspection, the Mavs signed Mekel to a three-year, $2.3 million contract. They know there will be growing pains, as there are with most rookies.
But especially with a rookie from another country. And a rookie who has to chase point guards like Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose around the court.
“He’s a very smart, crafty defender,” Mathis said of Mekel. “He’s not the fastest guy in the gym, he’s not the quickest guy in the gym. But he really uses his smarts for his angles on defense and realizing what his opponent — the guy that he’s guarding — can do and how quick is he.”
Mekel averaged 12.5 points and four assists in the Mavs’ first two summer league games while shooting 10 of 19 from the floor. He’s also averaged 29 minutes a game, mainly because first-round draft pick Shane Larkin broke his right ankle in practice Friday and will be sidelined for almost three months.
“It’s a great opportunity [for Mekel] and he was going to have a great opportunity whether Shane played with us or not,” Mathis said. “But now it’s even more so because there’s added minutes to the mix and we just want to depend on him to be a leader out there and call things out and get us lined up and help everybody else out.”
One of seven siblings, Mekel is accustomed to helping everybody else out. Whether he can get meaningful minutes this season and assist the Mavs in their quest to reach the playoffs is another matter.
As for Crowder comparing Mekel to Rubio? Even Mekel has his doubts.
“Rubio is a great player,” Mekel said. “I played against him a few times back in Europe. It’s a nice compliment. Of course, I want to be successful like him in this league.”
Better to be like Rubio than to be like Mike, I guess.