Ryan Turell is in the Max Stern Athletic Center. But in a gym where he holds almost all the records, today he isn’t on the court.
It’s the semifinals of the Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament. Turell flew from his native Los Angeles back to New York City to see his old high school team, the Valley Torah High School Wolfpack, compete in what amounts to the Jewish high school basketball championship of North America.
Turell is a celebrity in this gym, the home of the Yeshiva University Maccabees. His games over the last four years brought roars from the crowd, a winning streak that topped out at 50 games, and, perhaps most interestingly, NBA scouts. The very idea that a kid in a kippah in Division III was garnering interest from the likes of teams from the biggest stage on earth was noteworthy, but interest alone isn’t Turell’s goal these days.
After the spotlight on him this season, Turell could’ve easily transferred to a top tier Division I program and used his last season of eligibility as a graduate student. Instead, he elected to declare for the 2022 NBA Draft. Was he tempted to try his hand in big time college basketball?
“I did not think about that,” Turell said with conviction. “That was not ever in the cards. For me personally, I thought that if I was going to come back to school it would be at YU. I loved YU. It’s an amazing place to be. I loved playing under Coach (Elliot) Steinmetz, and the MSAC and the Macs’ faithful… it’s like no other feeling. If it wasn’t going pro, it was going back to YU.”
As Turell watches his high school alma mater from the sidelines, Steinmetz sits behind him. In the middle of the game, the coach taps him on the shoulder and says, “Hey, Ryan. Check this out.” Steinmetz then shows Turell an email on his phone.
Surrounded by hundreds of people, Turell has a very pivotal moment. The email is Turell’s invitation to participate in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament.
* * *
The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (P.I.T.) has been around for almost 70 years and is the oldest amateur basketball tournament in the United States. Every year (except 2020 and 2021), the tournament committee looks over the applications and invites the 64 best college seniors to compete in a tournament with eight teams of eight players each.
Held in a high school gym in Portsmouth, Virginia, the tournament is played with NBA rules (24-second shot clock, 23’9” three-point line), but with a college game clock so the players don’t get overworked.
In the early days of the tournament, you might have seen a future NBA legend. Six members of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team played in The P.I.T. (Rick Barry, Dave Cowens, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and John Stockton). In recent years, joining the NBA before reaching a senior year of college has become much more common. Still, current NBA star Jimmy Butler was at The P.I.T. as recently as 2011.
Mostly, The P.I.T. is a place for NBA teams to scout players they might draft in the second round, sign to a summer league contract, or invite to training camp. The number of NBA personnel at The P.I.T. is usually around 200.
This is exactly the exposure that Turell wants and needs. Division III doesn’t include any television broadcasts, so getting the scouts in the gym is a big deal for his future prospects.
The invitation alone means that he’s being taken seriously.
* * *
Can Turell really make the NBA?
That’s the big question these days around the Jewish sports water coolers. But for Turell himself, it wasn’t even on his mind until pretty recently.
“Every kid has that dream of one day making the NBA,” said Turell about his childhood. “I was one of those kids, but as I got older, I realized that it may not be as big of an option as I once thought it was. But I decided to just take it day by day. My overall goal was to play overseas in Israel, but I just kept working and kept getting better everyday, got the attention of some NBA teams, and it all kind of took off from there.”
After the Macs’ season ended, Turell went into work mode. He has to try to be completely on his game for events like The P.I.T. if he is going to increase his chances of grabbing an NBA roster spot. He basically transitioned from being a team player, to focusing on doing what he needs to do to give himself the best chance he can.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a hard transition,” Turell said regarding his new full time job as an NBA Draft prospect. “At the end of the day it’s just work. It’s something that I’ve been doing over the summers and it’s something I’m used to by now. I’m just trying to get better.”
He knew that getting into The P.I.T. was a big deal. There are plenty of years where there isn’t a single non-Division I player selected. But instead of stressing out about it, the Division III National Player of the Year just tried to work and hope for the best.
“You can’t control everything in life,” he said. “What you can control is the work that you put in. So I was more focused on that and taking it one day at a time. That way, if I got invited to Portsmouth I’d be excited and ready to go.”
* * *
Coming off of a flight with two layovers, Turell arrived in Portsmouth. His first day at The P.I.T. was a whirlwind of events. First up was the combine where he was measured in multiple ways.
The physical measurements are first. His height, weight, standing reach, wingspan, and vertical leap are recorded. After that, he runs drills for agility, reaction, and sprinting.
“I didn’t really prep for it that much,” Turell said about the event. “I felt like I did a good job and I felt like I could improve on some things. It is what it is. I’m not gonna jump off the page for most scouts with my athleticism at the end of the day.”
Comparing Turell to the other players at The P.I.T. who were within one inch of his height in either direction, you would have to agree with him… mostly. The average player in that group has him by about 24 pounds, three inches of reach, and three and a half inches of wingspan. However, Turell’s numbers are almost equal in vertical leap, reaction, and sprinting. He even came in above average on the agility drill.
Next up was his team practice. With just eight players per team and one practice before playing in front of multiple scouts from every NBA franchise, the players and coaches have to get a feel for each other and their playing styles pretty fast.
“I felt like we had a group of guys that all wanted to win and all wanted each other to play well,” Turell said of his team, Sales Systems, Limited (teams are named after local businesses that sponsor The P.I.T.). “We all fed each other because we wanted to look good in front of scouts. We all kind of had the same goal in mind.”
Kenneth Harris, a local high school coach, was the coach for SSL. Though he had never heard of Turell, his son had and told his father about being excited to see Turell play in person. After seeing Turell in practice, Harris really wanted to see how Turell would perform, coming out of Division III.
After their practice, the team got ready to play in their first game of the tournament. The first game was rough for the SSL squad, but it was rougher for their opponents. A 92-80 victory for SSL was impressive given how poorly they shot. Turell made only one of his seven shots and the team was a total of 3/20 from behind the (NBA) three-point line.
Though Turell didn’t play well, Harris was impressed with his attitude.
“One thing (Turell) did do through all of that was be a great teammate,” Harris said. “He was talking the whole time and was very in tune to what was going on. That impressed me because, coming from Division III, I thought he would be a little timid with how he interacted. But if you didn’t know he was Division III, you wouldn’t know.”
* * *
Winning their first game meant that SSL would be playing the next night at 7:00. Not only was that night going to be a Friday, it was the first night of Passover.
Turell has chosen to play in games that fall out on Shabbat and holidays.
“I spoke to Rabbi Stulberger from Valley Torah,” said Turell about his halachic guidance. “I’ve been very close to him my whole life. I talked to Rabbi Ciment from YU who I’ve been really close to, being in his shiur for four years. I’ve also talked to Rabbi Green from YU who I’ve been really close to as well. I asked for their advice, they gave it to me.”
Other than playing basketball, Turell plans to observe Shabbat just like your average Orthodox Jew. And just like every other Orthodox Jew, Turell went through the classic experience of going to a place with little Jewish infrastructure and trying to work things out.
“I had to bring my own food, microwave, and all that,” Turell recounted regarding his accommodations in Portsmouth. “In regards to the games, because there were games on Shabbos and Yuntif, I had to stay by an AirBnB about a mile and a half away from the gym. That was the closest one they had. And we just walked to the games. It was something that I’ve done before with my dad. It was a really cool experience to kind of wind back that clock. It’s something that I plan to do if, b’ezras Hashem, I make the NBA.”
Obviously, Turell encountered many people in Portsmouth who weren’t exactly familiar with Orthodox Judaism.
“I got a bunch of different questions from fans, players, coaches, teammates… they were all super interested in it and fascinated by it,” Turell recounted. “The most common question was ‘How does your kippah stay on your head?’ Everyone had a different question and I was happy to answer them. It was kind of cool to share my background with them and what being Jewish is all about.”
* * *
Nowadays, almost every player with the physical abilities to make it to the top level of basketball decides to leave college earlier and enter the NBA draft (seniors usually make up fewer than 10 of the 60 picks in the draft). For those rare seniors who are still thinking about making it to the NBA, The P.I.T. is absolutely crucial.
Getting an invite to Portsmouth means that a player is being considered for the NBA. But playing well in Portsmouth is something else altogether. Some players coming from the best conferences in Division I make it to Portsmouth and can’t play at a level in which all the players on the floor are of a higher caliber. This was obviously going to be an issue for Turell. But in his second game, he adjusted much better than expected.
Turell scored 21 points and made five shots from behind the NBA three point line. He also pulled down five rebounds and dished out three assists as his team won by a score of 106-88 to reach the championship game to be played the next night.
“I really wanted to see how a Division III kid would perform,” Harris said of Turell. “This is the kid that everybody is talking about. He’s really showing that he can compete now. This is what he came to do. He came to perform and he showed up.”
The crowd really got into it as a couple of Turell’s shots from deep were off of some more difficult looks. Those included a side step on the wing and a pump fake to lose a trailing defender from the top of the key in transition. It’s those kinds of shots that make a prospect look like he belongs on the next level.
“I’m used to playing Division III basketball at the end of the day,” he said. “It took me a game to get used to the speed and used to the size. After that, I felt very used to it and ready to go.”
* * *
When the Turell family first saw the dates for The P.I.T., they had varying thoughts.
Ryan thought, “Uh oh. We’re going to have to figure something out if I get invited.” At the same time, his father, Brad Turell, thought, “Road trip! This is going to be fun!”
The idea of having just a small family seder in Portsmouth was left by the wayside as the Turells had a family friend in Teaneck, Moshe Weinberger, who knew somebody else who was headed to The P.I.T. When Weinberger told them that a non-Orthodox friend of his would be interested in attending their seder, the Turells did what the haggadah tells Jews to do…
They opened their door.
First, they contacted Rabbi Levi Brashevitsky of the Chabad of Tidewater in Norfolk. Though only a ten-minute drive from their AirBnB, the Chabad is more than a five-hour walk thanks to several bridges over the river that are made only for cars and not for pedestrians. Rabbi Brashevitsky helped them plan the seders.
The Turells then took to social media and posted a flier with the information for the seders. They would later pass that flier out at The P.I.T. to invite anybody who might be there for the tournament to join them.
When they left for the gym on Friday afternoon, everything was already set. Laurel Turell, Ryan’s mother, had set the table. They’d had a caterer provide more than enough food for their seders and lunches, and they’d brought plenty of wine and haggadahs from home.
After the game, they all walked the 30 minutes back to the house and people were waiting for them. There were people who had been to plenty of seders, and those for which this was their first. Lots of people have a reason to be in Portsmouth for The P.I.T., so the Turells gave them a place to go for two of the most important nights of the year.
Obviously, Ryan’s parents wanted him to focus on the games.
“I just left it up to my parents and the people helping out,” Ryan said. “They wanted me to focus on playing. They did a wonderful job. We had an amazing seder with people who for the most part aren’t traditionally at a seder table. It was honestly an amazing experience.”
* * *
SSL went into the championship game short-handed. They’d lost a player in the second game due to injury and they’d lose another in the beginning of the game. That left them with just six players for the majority of the game. While they trailed by double digits in the first half, they were able to cut it to just six at halftime.
After halftime, they mounted a short-handed comeback. Their defense led the way as they really clamped down on their opponents. However, that physical defense came with a bit of a price.
With 12 minutes left in the game, SSL was cut down to just five bodies after one of their players fouled out. That left them with no substitutes. This being their third game in three days, one might assume that the team would run out of gas. However, they were able to take the lead, keep it, and win the championship by a score of 106-94.
“We played with five (players) for the last twelve minutes. Then I had to walk home. Then I had to get a seder in. It was great,” Turell said with a laugh.
What’s it like trying to play games that might change your career prospects and then starting a Passover seder at around 10:00?
“It was pretty cool, but tiring,” said Turell jokingly. “You get home and you’re all sore. Thank G-d I played well in those two games, right? Those seders could’ve been a lot worse.”
Turell played well, tallying 14 points, four rebounds, and three assists. His energy on the floor was unmistakable and, in terms of personal victories, he’d proven he belonged at this level.
“The level of competition is really good,” Turell said with pride. “There were a lot of really good players out there. These are supposed to be the top 64 seniors in college basketball.”
By the end of the tournament, Harris said that Turell had “become a fan favorite.”
“We won it. It was a lot of fun,” Turell said with joy in his voice. “I’m a very competitive person.”
To make it this far, he has to be.
* * * * * *
A Post Tournament Analysis
Coming off of The P.I.T., what are Turell’s chances at playing on NBA hardwood?
Better than they were a few weeks ago.
“(I) came away really impressed with his ability to make shots,” said an anonymous NBA scout who was in Portsmouth. “If he can consistently do that, he will give himself a chance at the next level. (He) plays with a consistent motor and showed a good feel for the game. You can tell he plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
Ten years ago, Turell would have had a better chance to make the NBA. While shooting is more important than ever, that means that there are now dozens of players who are great shooters. What he needs to make it at the next level these days are high-level secondary skills as proverbial side dishes to the main course that is his shooting touch.
“One that I think I can do, and feel strongly about, is being a lockdown defender. Being someone that can guard the other team’s best player, get after it, and work hard on that end of the floor,” Turell said with a passion. “Teams always need defense and that’s something I believe I can do really well. What I’m doing to prepare myself is just getting into the best shape that I possibly can and getting stronger and leaner at the same time to be able to absorb the hits and still stay balanced.”
“Offensively, it would be playmaking. Being able to come off a screen, make a read, and make a nice play out of it.”
An interesting question for Turell is how hard he wants to push to try to make the NBA, as opposed to his original goal of playing professionally in Israel. While a career in Israel is certainly on the table, Turell may need some further development as an NBA prospect. That is something that the NBA G League (basically the American minor league) might be able to help him with.
“Playing in Israel has always been a dream of mine and regardless of what happens with the NBA, I would definitely still want to play in Israel,” Turell reaffirmed. “With the NBA interest, I’ve set my goal for now to try to make the NBA. We’ll see how it goes from there.
“I’m open to playing in the G League. I know it’s a really good developmental league. It’s a league that helps develop players. That might be what I need. We will cross that bridge when we get there.”
The path to the NBA is a tough one. What does it mean to wear a kippah while walking that path?
“I definitely feel more prideful when I put it on and it’s something that I feel can set a great example for kids,” Turell said. “To try to show the world that you don’t have to be afraid of who you are. You can achieve your goals and it doesn’t matter where you come from. I’m definitely prideful about it, plan to do it, and hopefully I inspire the next generation to be proud of who they are and chase their dreams.”
Turell knows that some people see him and think there’s no chance he’ll make it, but according to him, you can’t listen to the doubters.
“Don’t let people tell you that you can’t make it, Turell said defiantly. “There’s been many occasions where people have said ‘I’m not this. I’m not that.’ Or ‘He’s too this. He’s too that.’ At the end of the day, if you put the work in, you can achieve what you want to achieve.”
Turell knows what commitment to something is like. And while he is certainly not the only NBA prospect waking up at 5:45 every morning, he’s the only one who puts on tefillin before he goes to the gym.