Eliyahu hoping to become first Israeli in NBA

Friday July 13, 2007 5:00 PM

Hoop Dreams

Eliyahu hoping to become first Israeli player in NBA

Damien Pierce
Rockets.com Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Since arriving in Houston for mini-camp almost a month ago, Lior Eliyahu has been hoping to have the kind of summer that would convince the Rockets that he's ready for the NBA.

The forward's goal of becoming the first Israeli-born player to reach the league hasn't been swayed during his week in Las Vegas.

"It would be a big thing in Israel," Eliyahu said. "It would be special to be the first one from a country with seven million people. It's a big honor for me to be here. I'm just taking everything step by step."

The Rockets haven't determined whether the 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward will be able to make the roster for next season. After making a deal to acquire Argentina star Luis Scola and reserve center Jackie Butler from the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, the Rockets have 14 players under contract. They could still sign Chuck Hayes, Dikembe Mutombo, second-round pick Carl Landry and Scola to bring the number to 18 by training camp.

Eliyahu, who doesn't turn 22 until September, isn't sure if he'll get a chance to compete for a roster spot in training camp. During the past month, he's had an opportunity to make his case by working out with Mike James in Houston and participating in this week's NBA summer league in Las Vegas.

So far, the Rockets have impressed by Eliyahu's raw game. The Israeli forward has averaged 7.5 points and 2.0 rebounds in 13.5 minutes. He has had some trouble matching up with bigger and stronger post players in the summer league, but he's extremely athletic with a quick first step on the perimeter. He played mostly small forward in the summer league.

"He told me that never really played the three before," Rockets summer league coach Elston Turner said. "We've been playing him at both the four and three this week. He got some good experience from that and the initial signs are that he's talented. He's long and athletic. He just needs to learn how to play the NBA game and be more physical."

Eliyahu acknowledges that he's got to get stronger to become a regular contributor in the NBA. Because of that, he knows it's going to be a tough to make the Rockets' roster.

"I've never worked so hard as I have here," Eliyahu said. "The size of the guys here is very different and the game is very different from the one that I've been playing in Europe. It's an adjustment."

The Rockets' second-round pick from the 2006 NBA Draft doesn't have any obligations that would force him to remain in Israel. During the past year, he completed a three-year commitment to the Israeli Army. He said that he doesn't have a contract that binds him to Hapoel Galil Elyon of the Israeli Premier League, where he has been playing since the 2003-04 season. He averaged a team-best 16.5 points and six rebounds last season. After the summer league, he will return to Israel to train with the national team.

Still, Eliyahu could remain in Israel next season, where he can play more and develop his body.

Despite his strong desire to play in the NBA, Eliyahu wouldn't complain about spending another season at home. He wouldn't be disappointed if this trip to the United States ultimately turns out to be a good opportunity to measure his game against NBA players.

"I'm in a good situation because I can either play in Tel Aviv or come here," Eliyahu said. "I actually don't know if it's better for me to develop another year in Israel or to come here. I know I need to add more power and muscles. I do need to develop my body more, but I think the best place to do it is here. They have great trainers and workout rooms here so I could really get stronger here."

Eliyahu said his progress is being closely followed back home. He'd love to become the first Israeli to wear an NBA jersey, but he's not getting too far ahead of himself.

"I'm trying not to think about making the team," Eliyahu said. "Right now, I'm just trying to work hard and do what the coaches ask. I'm working hard to get better."