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Meet Ronen Ginzburg, the unlikely thread in Tomas Satoransky and Chasson Randle’s paths to the NBA

CBF/Vaclav Mudra

A lot has been written about Tomas Satoransky’s experience (and, sometimes, frustrations) with the coaching staff as his role has changed on the Washington Wizards. However, we rarely talk about how his role as a key player with the Czech Republic has shaped his development into the player he is now.

Much of that guidance has come from Ronen (Neno) Ginzburg, the head coach of the Czech Republic national team. Like most national team coaches, he visits and touches base with his international (and domestic) players throughout the year. Recently, I was fortunate enough to sit down and interview Ginzburg during his annual visit to Washington. Watching a game alongside him was an experience I will not quickly forget. His real-time insights into deep layers of the game were eye-opening.

He began his career not far from DC, as a freshman at Mercyhurst College (which later became Mercyhurst University) in Erie, Pennsylvania. In the 1986-1987 season, the first season that the NCAA fully adopted the 3-point line, he was a top-ten Division II 3-point shooter and averaged close to 15 points per game. After a successful debut season at Mercyhurst, he returned to his native Israel to play in the first division of the Israeli League with Beitar Tel-Aviv, where he stayed until he retired in 1995 as the club’s third-highest all-time scorer.

Then he transitioned to coaching, starting with youth teams in the 1990’s before his first head coaching stint with Bnei Herzlia of the Israeli League. When Muli Katzurin, a well-known Israeli coach who previously coached the Israeli national team, moved to the Czech Republic in 2006 to become the head coach for Czech powerhouse Nymburk, he hired Ginzburg, whom he coached years earlier in Beitar Tel-Aviv, as his assistant coach. Two years later, he took over as head coach of the Polish national team, in addition to his club duties and brought Ginzburg on that staff as well.

Ginzburg credits his time with him as a key part of his development as a coach. “I [...] learned from him a lot about professional aspects of the game, as well as about dealing with players and front offices. And then, at some point, you develop your own identity.”

Nymburk was a constant championship grabber in the Czech league in those years but was still far behind in the European stage playing in the lesser and less competitive tournament of FIBA. During Katzurin’s tenure the team qualified for the Eurocup tournament (among the most important tournaments after the Euroleague).

Katzurin recalls: “Nymburk used to win games through offense, which was enough for the local league, but to succeed in Europe required defense. Our emphasis was on work ethic. Neno greatly improved our team play. Beyond basketball, players liked playing for him. He had a very good relationship with the players.”

When Katzurin left Nymburk in 2011, Ginzburg was promoted to head coach. In 2015, he coached a young Chasson Randle, who had just graduated from Stanford and was looking for a path to the NBA after going undrafted. He recently spoke with Israeli NBA magazine and credited Ginzburg for his role in his development into an NBA player. “Neno is a great person, he helped me a lot. I am happy to say I got to play for him. He introduced me to the European game, the way it’s played, the way you’re supposed to practice. He was tough on me and I appreciate that.”

Since 2013, Ginzburg has been the head coach of the Czech national team, where he has helped them reach new highs, including an all-time best seventh-place finish in EuroBasket 2015 and their first-ever qualification to the FIBA World Cup, where they will face Team USA, Japan, and Turkey in group play.

CBF/Vaclav Mudra

In late January, Ginzburg was named Coach of Year among all Czech national sport teams by the Czech Olympic Board, which earned high praise from those who know him. Randle said, “Very well deserved. Neno is a great coach.” Satoransky said, “It’s great that Czech basketball got recognized. Of course, Neno had a large part in that as well.” His mentor Katzurin said: “Neno has been in the Czech Republic for over a decade and has a big part in the improvement of Czech basketball. Qualifying to the World Cup is a very nice achievement. He is a modest, good guy and everybody loves his character.” Moti Daniel, who played forward for George Washington University in the mid-eighties and later starred at Maccabi Tel-Aviv, before taking over as the manager of the Israeli national team added “Neno has an unusual coaching philosophy, out of the box. He has the courage to do unusual things, and was, for instance, playing small-ball lineups long before it was common practice. On the one hand he is well-mannered and on the other hand he is tough; the players feel he isn’t weak, while on the other hand they don’t feel he is arrogant.”

Satoransky echoed the sentiment, when I spoke to him about his relationship with Neno after a win over the Detroit Pistons in January: “He doesn’t mind coming to the players and asking for advice and I respect that, having open doors. So we talk a lot. He’s a good coach to give confidence. I never considered myself as a shooter, but he’s always telling me that I am a shooter. I am always playing with a lot of confidence in the national team because I know I have freedom from him and that is the most important. He really cares a lot.”

I had another chance to talk to Ginzburg after another Wizards game in late January. In one of his last comments he told me: “Satoranksy’s greatness is his competitiveness. The sky is the limit for him here.” Looking at Ginzburg’s trajectory one gets a similar feeling for the future of his coaching career, especially given that in the NBA, as Peja Stojakovic, the assistant GM of the Sacramento Kings and three-time NBA All-Star told me after the Kings recent loss to the Wizards, “The doors are slowly opening for European coaches.”