As a child growing up in Israel, Yam Madar was enchanted by the Celtics and their young point guard, Rajon Rondo, whose competitive fire and dazzling passes offered a blueprint for what Madar hoped to become. He searched for clips of Boston’s 2008 championship team wherever he could find them.
“I wanted to watch guys that can affect the team and bring the team wins in so many ways,” Madar said in a telephone interview. “When you get older, you really begin to study things.”
Madar developed into one of the best young players in his country. He has played in the Israeli Basketball Premier League since he was 17 and last year emerged as a legitimate NBA prospect.
In November, a couple of days before the draft, he sat with his family and agent and considered the possibilities. He was considered a mid-to-late second-round pick, so he grabbed a pen and paper and began writing down selections in his range as he considered potential landing spots. Then he circled No. 47. It was the second-round pick of the Celtics, the team he had grown up studying.
Madar is not sure why he highlighted Boston. He’d had a good interview with the team’s brass, but they’d given no indication that they intended to select him.
On draft night, Madar and about 15 family members gathered at his parents’ home in Beit Dagan, which sits about 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. Because of the time difference, the clock crept toward 6 a.m. there as the draft moved deep into the second round. But everyone in the viewing party remained eager and engaged. Then Madar’s agent called and said that the Celtics would select him 47th.
Madar was sitting in a tan lounge chair as he simply told his family that they should watch the television. But they knew what was coming. When the pick was announced, they screamed in joy and sprinkled homemade confetti on Madar’s head. When he spoke to Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge later, Madar told Ainge he could stay with his parents on his next visit overseas.
Boston’s roster was crowded and Madar was just 19, so it was made clear that he would remain in Israel for at least one year.
But now, the point guard will get a chance to show that he is ready for the next step. He arrived in Boston last weekend and on Tuesday met with the Celtics’ decision-makers for the first time. He is expected to join their summer league team in Las Vegas next month, but the situation remains a bit complicated.
An arbitrator in Israel ruled last week that Madar remains under contract with his current team, Hapoel Tel Aviv, for one more season. So he would have to reach an agreement on a buyout if he decides to leave. But first he will have to prove to the Celtics that he deserves an NBA contract.
“I don’t know anything in my life that has come guaranteed,” Madar said. “Every place I’m coming, I’m coming to work and coming to earn my place on the team. That’s something I know how to do. Working hard is something I know how to do.”
‘Your son is a pro’
Beit Dagan is a town of about 10,000. Even though it is in the shadows of the nation’s second-largest city, the rural setting made it feel more distant. He would play on outdoor courts at all hours and dream about what might be next.
In 2013, Madar went to a basketball camp in Israel run by Yogev Berdugo, who played briefly at Hofstra and Brandeis before eventually launching a basketball training business. After the camp, Madar’s parents signed up their son for a private lesson with Berdugo. And halfway through the first session, Berdugo walked over to Madar’s mother, Ma’ayan.
“I said to her, ‘Your son is a pro,’ ” Berdugo recalled. “She laughed and said, ‘Yogev, he’s 12. But I like your confidence. You’re a dreamer.’ At the very beginning it was clear to me he was a world-class talent. I just didn’t understand how some people didn’t see it.”
Madar traveled to Berdugo’s six-week camp in New London, N.H., that summer, and it convinced Berdugo that his first impression was correct.
“The work that I put in, no one else really did,” Madar said. “I think that’s what separated me from the other guys that I played with. You couldn’t tell at that age I would be something different. I’m not 7 foot tall and wasn’t super athletic at a young age. The work put me at the place I am today.”
Yam Madar and Yogev Berdugo. July 9, 2021 at NBPA in NYC. “Poetry in Motion” | 1 of 1 | @overtime @campstepitup @TheCelticsWire @celticsblog @NBCSCeltics @celticslife @BDCCeltics @Timi_093 @chrisgrenham @AdamHimmelsbach @mikeykauf @TheNBPA @TheAthleticBOS pic.twitter.com/82gA55jeKZ— Yogev Berdugo (@YogevBerdugo) July 13, 2021
When it became clear that Madar had a future in pro basketball, he prepared however he could. He studied English more closely in school because he believed one day he would need to communicate with American teammates. He would wake up at 3 a.m. to watch NBA games and watch star guards such as Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving.
Madar joined Hapoel Tel Aviv’s under-18 team but was frequently called up to play with the first division team, too. These squads can include as many as eight non-Israeli players. But there is a rule that at least one Israeli must be on the court at all times. This edict would seem to benefit Madar, but he doesn’t like it.
“I think you need to earn your minutes,” he said. “If you’re going to play somewhere else in Europe, no one is going to protect your minutes or your place there.”
Heaps of potential
Ainge and Celtics international scout Benas Matkevicius first saw Madar play at the FIBA Under-20 European Championships in 2019. Like most people, they initially noticed his daring, sizzling passes and general flair.
“He lives on the edge,” Matkevicius said with a chuckle.
But they also saw heaps of potential as Madar surprisingly helped guide his team to the gold medal.
“We believed in his competitive spirit,” Ainge said. “Kids like that with a tremendous will and competitiveness usually continue to get better. We believed he would develop because of that passion.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made it challenging for the Celtics to see Madar in person after that, but they kept close tabs on him as he emerged as a force for Hapoel Tel Aviv. And last November, Boston selected Madar in the draft.
The Celtics told Madar that to succeed in the NBA he would need to improve his shooting. The point guard worked extensively with Berdugo to clean up his footwork, and this year he improved his 3-point accuracy from 27 to 41 percent while averaging 17.1 points and 5.2 assists per game.
Madar said he was contacted by representatives from numerous high-level European clubs that were interested in signing him, but he made his preference known.
“I’m excited to start in Boston,” he said. “I’m not planning on going somewhere else. My focus is the NBA.
“I’m very excited to be joining stars like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. I just want to work with them, because I’ve seen how they mastered their craft and got better. Those are the kind of players I want to work with.”
There is something alluring and mysterious about an international prospect whose career is mostly seen in sometimes well-edited YouTube clips. Anything seems possible.
But the Celtics’ success in the international market over the last few years has been uneven. First-round picks Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele never panned out, and free agent big man Vincent Poirier struggled, too. Daniel Theis was the only recent success story.
Nevertheless, the Celtics remain hopeful that Madar will buck this trend. Matkevicius said that Madar’s game should be well-suited to the fast-paced, well-spaced NBA game.
Berdugo, his trainer, is a bit biased, but he has seen Madar play longer than anyone and believes the possibilities are endless.
“I think he’s going to fill up NBA arenas,” Berdugo said. “I truly believe this. But listen, the flash won’t stick if you don’t have substance. But I think his substance will get him there, and the flash will be fun to watch.”