Is the next ‘Jewish Jordan’ playing his way into the NBA?

Yeshiva University’s 22-year-old Ryan Turell is likely the best player in Division III college basketball.

By Alan Zeitlin,

Maccabee Ryan Turell gave his teammates and fans a Hanukkah present of 21 buckets, shooting 21-30 and scoring 51 points in a 78-56 win over Manhattanville College on Nov. 28.

“I think my teammates gave me the Hanukkah present by getting me the ball,” the 22-year-old senior guard for Yeshiva University’s basketball team told JNS by phone.

Turell, 22, now holds the record for most points in a game for YU. He made a staggering eight three-point shots, including one he launched from beyond NBA three-point range.

“My dad told me I had 44 with three minutes left, so I wanted to try to get 50,” he said. “That one I shot, I knew I could hit it. It probably wasn’t a great shot in our offense. But I was feeling it that day.”

Turell, who is likely the best player in Division III, was named United States Basketball Writers Association Division III National Player of the Week on Tuesday.

Yeshiva (9-0) beat Farmingdale State 80-66 on Wednesday night and has won 45 straight games. While the team usually wins easily against Manhattanville, YU trailed by six points at halftime and was down by 10 at one point. The team was missing three-point marksman Eitan Halpert and key sixth man Ethan Lasko, a transfer who was once on the squad for Indiana for University. Turell said he wasn’t nervous, and that he had confidence in himself and his team.

As if there wasn’t enough pressure of having the current longest winning streak in all of men’s college basketball and the second-best all-time in Division III, the team is now ranked No. 1 in Division III for the first time in school history.

“We like pressure,” said Turell. “Pressure is where we want to be. It means you are doing something right. All our guys have put in the work. We have a lot more to do. We can be better. But I like our chances.”

YU head coach Elliot Steinmetz said the offensive explosion was par for the course.

“I’m not surprised,” he told JNS via e-mail. “He’s that talented, and we all know it. He got hot, and guys looked to get him the ball in spots. He’s a selfless kid who worked hard and stayed within the offense to produce.”

As for Turell, he has already won so many awards, he said, that it doesn’t even faze him. He said being interviewed by ESPN was a great experience, and that the reporters were “extremely professional.” The Los Angeles Times reported that at least two NBA teams were scouting him, and if selected in the June draft, it is believed that he would be the first Orthodox Jew drafted into the NBA.

The 6-foot-7-inch Valley Torah graduate said as clichéd as it might sound, the players are focusing on each game and not getting ahead of themselves. But he said to have a top ranking was especially sweet.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s kind of a dream that I had and the vision shared with Coach [Elliot] Steinmetz when he recruited me. The goal wasn’t just to be good. It was to be the best and win the national championship.”

Turell plays mostly small forward or shooting guard and said he had verbally agreed to play at Division I Army. But he was concerned that it would be hard to get kosher food and that the experience wouldn’t be conducive to the lifestyle he wanted to live.

“We called the rabbi there anonymously,” he recalled. “He kind of told us, ‘If you’re an Orthodox Jew, this isn’t the place for you.’ ”

He then chose to come to YU.

‘Whoa, I didn’t know he could get up like that’

Turell has 1,622 points career points. He’s shooting 59.6 percent this season and 46.6 percent from three-point land knocking down 27 of 58 trifectas. He’s provided some thrilling dunks, and there are YouTube clips of him from a dunk contest from 2018 he nearly won when he was in high school and had several perfect dunks before losing in an overtime round.

Asked about being called “The Jewish Jordan” or “The Jewish Jordan II” (Tamir Goodman, a player who was going to play at Maryland, but he unfortunately didn’t, has the initial moniker) he said it’s a nice compliment but not a big deal.

“I can’t control what people call me or what they say,” he said. “I don’t think too much about it. Obviously, it’s nice to be called that. But what matters is what I do on the court.”

Turell said that he’s played against some Division I players and felt there were some presumptions made about him based on how he looked.

“You definitely have to earn their respect,” he said. “They look at you like you’re a Division III player—you’re white and you wear a yarmulke. So they just assume that you’re not as good, but after a few times you play with them, they respect you. When they see you dunk, they say ‘Whoa, I didn’t know he could get up like that.’ ”

Goodman’s high school coach, Harold Katz, is often in contact with Turell and has given him advice.

Turell said “he calls me after every game and gives me his two cents. He’s one of the best-kept secrets in basketball. He has so much knowledge of the game.”

Turell said Steinmetz and assistant coach Mike Sweetney, who used to play power forward for the New York Knicks, have both trained him to focus on his game and be aggressive, instead of worrying about what an opposing team might do. At times they double-team him and he passes to open shooters.

The senior said he came to YU at 160 pounds, and after lifting weights, he is now 195 pounds, acknowledging that “I knew I needed to bulk up to get to the next level.”

‘Do what you can and hope for the best’

It’s rare for someone to go from Division III to the NBA. Miami Heat forward Duncan Robinson did so though he transferred to a Division I school before he entered the draft. Turell said that at a possible NBA combine with scouts and executives, he knows exactly what they’ll be looking for.

“I think they know I can shoot, pass and dribble,” he said. “I think what they’ll be looking at most is whether or not I can guard NBA talent.”

He said he is a big fan of LeBron James and Ja Morant, but right now, his focus is on winning every game with YU. He praised teammate Gabriel Leifer, 22, who has the all-time record of assists for YU with 520 and recently became the fourth Maccabee to have more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Leifer was granted eligibility to come back as a graduate student because the last two post-seasons were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. He returned even though he is married and has a full-time job.

“I’m glad he came back this year,” said Turell. “We need him for this title run. He’s a sensational passer; he gets every rebound. He is a super teammate. He’s humble and always looking to pass the ball.”

Leifer said playing with Turell makes the game much easier for him, while point guard Ofek Reef said it’s impressive to see what Turell can do.

“When he gets the ball, it’s almost impossible to stop him from scoring,” said Reef.

Turell said he his favorite college class is marketing, and that he also enjoys studying Gemara because of rabbinic commentary on different scenarios where one learns what someone should do if something were to happen. He is also a fan of karaoke, and sang country, rock and rap songs with his brother Jack for four hours on a recent occasion.

As for not being able to play in the post-season due to it being canceled as a result of the ongoing pandemic, Turell said he wished everyone good health. But regarding the team not being able to play in the post-season, he was philosophical.

“I guess it was a bad time to be good,” he said. “But in life, you can’t control everything. You have to do what you can and hope for the best.”

He noted that the streak helped them keep mental focus when they would otherwise have nothing to play for.

While many young men would be embarrassed at the site of their mother shouting to rile up a crowd (as she does at home games at the Max Stern Athletic Center), Turell shooed that thought away.

“She’s been screaming like that since I was in the first grade and I could barely bring the ball up the court,” he said. “She’s great, and everyone loves her. She’s full of energy.”

Does Turell think his team will win the Division III championship?

“We should have a good shot,” he replied. “We have the talent. We just have to make sure the focus and the chemistry are there every game.”

As for a chance at being the first known Orthodox player to be drafted into the NBA, he said right now he is focusing on winning at YU, but added that it’s obviously on his mind.

Said Turell: “It would definitely be a dream come true.”