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HAIFA, Israel -- He took the detour heard around the world, and he's been hearing since from a growing global chorus that he's on the wrong track. But despite three turbulent months in Israel, Jeremy Tyler says he's undeterred in his quest for the promised land of the first round of the 2011 NBA draft.
|Jeremy Tyler left high school before his senior year to play profesionally overseas.|
"There's never a day that I regret my decision," Tyler, 18, said this week.
After averaging 28.7 points per game as a junior at San Diego High, Tyler became the first U.S. player to leave high school early for a professional contract abroad. Tyler, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound center, signed a one-year, $140,000 deal with Maccabi Haifa of the Israeli Basketball Super League.
Tyler withdrew an oral commitment he had made to attend Louisville next year. Instead of eventually playing for Rick Pitino, he is coached by Avi Ashkenazi, who led Maccabi Haifa to the Israeli league's championship game last year. Ashkenazi told ESPN last month in the preseason that he had no illusions about the player or the project but that the local media were fueling outsized expectations for Tyler to make an immediate splash.
"They need patience; they need to wait, to give him a chance. It'll take a few months, it'll not be like that," Ashkenazi said, snapping his fingers for effect.
The captain of Tyler's new team, veteran center Ido Kozikaro, also preached patience, drawing a clear distinction between Tyler's ability and his initial aptitude. "He has huge potential to be a monster at basketball because he's very athletic, can shoot from outside and has a lot of things in the package," Kozikaro said. "But at the same time, he's very young in his thinking, and that's the thing he needs to improve."
Ashkenazi & Co. stressed to Tyler and the public that it's unrealistic to assume any exchange rate for big numbers posted in a lightly regarded high school league. Elad Hasin, the assistant coach who works most closely with Tyler, said, "In high school, nobody even bothered him when he went to the basket."
|Tyler withdrew an oral commitment he'd made to attend Louisville next year.|
As for the schoolboy superstar's early opinion of himself, Hasin said, "I cannot say we knocked it down from 10 to 0, but I think from 10 to 7."
After an up-and-down preseason and highly publicized struggles adjusting to life on his own 7,500 miles from home, Tyler's early regular season has been a virtual bust. Through three league games, he has played a total of only 20 minutes and scored just two points, both on free throws.
Maccabi Haifa owner Jeffrey Rosen, one of two American owners in the Israeli league, says the plan for Tyler is to build slowly toward late in the season. "We'd love for Jeremy to be playing 15-20 minutes a game down the stretch. He'll be seasoned by then."
"It takes time to show Coach so he can believe in me," Tyler says. "It's new for me, to be dressed and ready but not play. It's frustrating, but I learn from it."
Makhtar Ndiaye, an agent with the company that represents Tyler, has been in Israel for more than two weeks and has a different perspective.
"I don't think he realized how hard it would be," Ndiaye says. "We did."
Ndiaye, the first player from Senegal to reach the NBA, says he can identify with the pressures Tyler is experiencing as a pioneer in his own right. "It's an honor and a burden, and you're under the microscope."
"Sometimes Jeremy doesn't realize the effect of what he's saying," Ndiaye says. "He's a kid finding his way. He's a kid who needs guidance, and all parties need to step up [to support him]."
Tyler's father, James, says he, his brother and his older son plan to come to Israel next month and give him a sense of "normalcy." Tyler's father also spent time in Israel with him in the preseason and vows to make sure his son works as hard as possible the rest of the way.
"He's always been the go-to guy," the father says of the son. "Once it sinks in that everybody's just as good and talented, he'll be OK."
|Tyler warms up before Maccabi Haifa's game against Rishon Letzion on Nov. 2.|
Tyler's resolve was tested and questioned this past weekend when he was kicked out of his third regular-season game and featured in a New York Times story that painted a bleak picture of his commitment and his rapport with his coach and teammates.
With a little more than three minutes left in a blowout loss Saturday, Tyler and 6-9 Moti Moscovitz of Gilboa Galil exchanged shoves. Then, according to Tyler, "He [Moscovitz] grabbed my jersey, and I accidentally head-butted him when he pulled me closer to him."
Tyler was ejected, which also meant an automatic suspension for the next game. Moscovitz received two free throws and no penalty.
Teammate Davon Jefferson, who played a year at Southern California and is Tyler's longtime friend, corroborated his account. "I don't think he did anything wrong, and the refs were real ridiculous," Jefferson said. "The other guy faked it with a flop, and Jeremy's a foreigner and a rookie."
However, Ndiaye, who attended the game -- and is an agent for Jefferson, as well as for another Maccabi Haifa player -- said, "He [Tyler] got provoked and responded in a way he shouldn't have, and he will learn from it."
And Ashkenazi says Tyler deserved the punishment. "He's not experienced enough," Ashkenazi said, "to know what not to do when a guy gets into his face."
Adding insult to ejection, the Times article said Ashkenazi has called Tyler lazy and out of shape and that Tyler was skeptical of his coaches' knowledge and methods. And Tyler's father was quoted criticizing the motives of Tyler's girlfriend, her mother and a documentarian who contracted with Tyler and has been filming his exploits since his high school days.
Tyler expressed hurt and disappointment at his father's comments and said he has no knowledge of any plans for him to return to Israel. Tyler said by phone Sunday that he and his father have not spoken since the Times story came out.
Ashkenazi says the Times piece is "not representative" of current conditions and that Tyler has progressed in the past couple of weeks -- during Ndiaye's stay -- despite Saturday's incident. "I can't now call him lazy," Ashkenazi said. He added that, at practice, Tyler apologized to the team for what happened Saturday.
|Tyler, top right, celebrates with teammates after Maccabi Haifa's victory against Rishon Letzion.|
With every Tyler misstep, he and the team face speculation about the future of their relationship.
"There are no magical solutions," Ashkenazi says. "We will manage the ups and downs, and we hope it'll be a terrific marriage."
Ashkenazi, says Tyler's father, reminds him of Pitino in that "he's diligent and there's no backsliding with him."
For his part, Tyler dismisses reported differences with his coach.
"The best thing about coach Ashkenazi is he doesn't hold grudges," Tyler says. "He's real cool like that, and I respect him for that."
Rosen, who is marketing the team in the U.S. with game telecasts on the Internet and a TV magazine show featuring Tyler in the premiere, says, "It's way too early to pull the rug from under Jeremy or label him." Using an academic analogy for the early emigre from high school, Rosen adds, "He hasn't taken midterms, let alone finals."
The only case considered similar to Tyler's is that of guard Brandon Jennings, who is flourishing so far in the NBA. Jennings played pro ball in Europe after finishing high school, and he spent much more time on the bench than in the games.
Jennings, the No. 10 draft pick, scored 55 points Saturday to lead the Milwaukee Bucks in a 129-125 win against the Golden State Warriors. He did so after being shut out in the first quarter. The performance broke the franchise rookie record for points scored in a game that Kareem Abdul-Jabar -- then Lew Alcindor -- set on Feb. 21, 1970.
Tyler said Sunday that he had heard about Jennings' performance and was happy for him and "glad that he went out and performed and showed it wasn't a dumb decision [to play in Europe last year]. I salute him.
"By coming over here [to the European League] and being last into the game helped develop his mental toughness," Tyler said. "It [Jennings' success] definitely gives me even more hope and motivation to keep working hard and I'll be successful like him."
Sonny Vaccaro, an adviser to Tyler as well as to Jennings, says the big difference between the two as they began play overseas was that "Jennings had a résumé and Jeremy had a false sense of his accomplishments." Tyler didn't have as tough or as much competition in high school as Jennings did, Vaccaro says, but he adds, "Don't let it be said he [Tyler] can't play. He can. He's an 18-year-old and is going through stuff."
Vaccaro says Tyler, unlike Jennings, has no shoe deals or endorsement contracts.
On Tyler's struggles up to now, Vaccaro says an NBA general manager told him, "Everybody expected this, and the most important thing is to play hard when he's out there, as Jennings did." Vaccaro says the GM added, "He [Tyler] won't know it, but we'll see him competing. Jennings proved it in practice. Tell him to play the game and don't go home."
If Tyler were to leave Maccabi Haifa, the NBA Development League would not be an option until next season because only players whose high school class has graduated are eligible to play in the NBDL.
James Tyler says he's quite pleased with Maccabi Haifa's handling of his son and expects everything to work out, but if it doesn't, "Jeremy could come home, go back to the drawing board, train like a maniac, and come back bigger, stronger and faster."William Weinbaum is a producer in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, who also produced the TV feature on Tyler. Weinbaum's work appears on "Outside the Lines."