After disastrous decision to leave HS early, Tyler eyes NBA Draft (cont.)
Maccabi Haifa owner Jeffrey Rosen expressed desire to make his franchise the preferred destination for elite American prospects who want to head overseas rather than attend college. When asked how he would handle the situation differently in the future, Rosen said nothing about the way the organization should handle teenagers. Instead, he just said they should pick players more mature than Tyler.
As the months passed, Tyler's season turned disastrous, reaching bottom when he left the bench at halftime of a game, frustrated over his lack of playing time. Soon thereafter, team officials said he wouldn't dress for the rest of the season. A short time later, he bought a ticket back home to San Diego.
To all outside observers, Tyler's experiment appeared a grand failure.
Bob Hill, the former San Antonio Spurs coach, took a job coaching the Tokyo Apache in Japan's BJ-League, largely for the chance to work alongside his son Casey. The Apache signed Tyler and he went to San Antonio several weeks before moving to Japan, where he began receiving the individual instruction he'd rarely gotten in Israel.
"He was extremely raw," Casey Hill said of Tyler. "He just hadn't been taught the finer points of the game." In high school, Tyler dunked over inferior athletes at will. In Israel, he languished on the bench. In San Antonio and Japan, he finally learned fundamentals.
Bob and Casey approached Tyler from both sides. "Coach played the bad cop," Casey said, "and I played the good cop." They worked to refine his offensive game -- polishing his jumper, teaching him to effectively use a drop-step in the post -- and helped him see there was more to defense than standing around waiting for the chance to block shots.
"Coach [Bob] Hill just wanted the satisfaction of seeing a young man get better," Tyler said by phone earlier this month. "I couldn't have been in better hands. He became like a father figure to me."
They moved to Japan and Tyler emerged as a contributor. He still showed immaturity -- "He didn't handle criticism well at first," Casey said -- but every time Bob chided him, Casey stepped in with encouragement and gentler advice. In practice, Tyler toughened up by going against Robert Swift, a 7-foot-1 former NBA player who is now an MMA fighter. Coaches told Tyler they wanted him to become defensive beast, and he delivered, fueling his elite athleticism with solid effort on both ends. After he developed a drop-step, he instantly became an offensive force. "When he developed that move, he had an anchor to focus on, and he would just rip it and go, dunking on people all over the place," Casey said. Off the court, Tyler took to Japan quickly, exploring Tokyo and adapting to the ex-pat life unlike he ever did in Israel.
One night in March, Tyler exploded for 24 points and 14 rebounds. "He was a dominant force," Casey Hill said, "making jump shots, dunking on people, doing everything." The next day, a 9.0 earthquake brought Japan to its knees. The Apache never played another game.
In the lead-up to the draft, Tyler has impressed in interviews and workouts, and he gained attention at the combine by measuring 6-feet-10 ½ inches. His talent is apparent, but Tyler's NBA success will hinge on his ability to keep refining it. "The staff that drafts him needs to stay on him and continue to teach him exactly what it is they want from him," Bob Hill wrote in an email from Taiwan. "If that is done on a consistent basis, he will be fine."
Hill added: "Five years down the road, he could become an outstanding player, because he really wants this and has a very good motor."
Throughout the last two years, people around Tyler have questioned whether he loves the game, whether he's made decisions based on his ability to improve as a basketball player or his ability to become a star. "Jeremy comes from a world of putting the cart before the horse," Casey Hill said. "He's been looking at the NBA since before the NBA was even a possibility. He didn't realize how much work he had to do when he decided to go pro, but over time, he's cultivated a love for the work, a love for seeing the results that come from the work."
On a cool December night in Israel, Tyler sat idle on the bench, watching the clock tick down as his teammates put the finishing touches on a blowout win. "I'm fixing to lose it," Tyler told a teammate, furious he still hadn't entered the game. "I can't take this anymore."
And then, 50 feet away, they started singing.
There were dozens of them -- the teenagers and 20somethings that comprised Maccabi Haifa's most rambunctious cheering section, crowded together in the first few rows of the 3,000-seat arena's balcony. Some were shirtless, while others were clad in Maccabi Haifa green. Some beat drums, while others pumped their fists to the rhythm. Some jumped. Others danced.
But all of them sang.
"Jeremy, Jeremy Tyler," they cried, their Israeli accents turning the J into a Y. "Jeremy, Jeremy Tyler."
Sufficiently swayed, Ashkenazi inserted Tyler into the game. He responded with four minutes of dazzling and baffling play, ripping down rebounds and then watching as the ball slipped out of his hands, struggling to show consistency while the crowd kept singing his name. And then, just like that, it was over. Haifa won, proving Tyler's impact on the game frivolous.
In that moment, Tyler was months away from abandoning his team mid-game, a year away from emerging as a force in Japan, and light years, it seemed, away from proving himself worthy of the NBA.
He walked off the court, waved at the fans, and for a moment, he smiled.
"If I make it, this will show people, this is what you need to do," he said later. "If I don't make it, then it will show them, this is what you shouldn't do. So either way, yeah, it's a sign of being a trailblazer. And no matter what, it will always be the greatest story to tell."