Oct. 28—MORGANTOWN — It is always eye-opening in sports when a rookie comes out of the gate with the unexpected.
There is instantly a feeling of witnessing history from the ground floor, a notion of being able to say, “I was there to see the beginning of greatness.”
There are two sides to that story. There is Tom Brady and then there is Tuffy Rhodes.
Brady needs no explanation, while Rhodes was the former Chicago Cubs rookie, who in 1994 hit three home runs against the New York Mets on opening day only to struggle the rest of the way and never live up to those early expectations.
Which brings us to WVU freshman Ofri Naveh, a young 6-foot-6 forward from Israel, who made an explosive debut in the Mountaineers’ 85-78 exhibition victory on Friday against George Mason.
In 27 minutes, Naveh shot 3 of 6 from the floor, scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds.
“You bring this kid over who is just 17 or 18 years old to play at this high level, ” began WVU forward Quinn Slazinski, who had 21 points in the game. “Since the first day of practice, we knew he was special. That kid comes to practice to get better every single day.
“I was talking to him after the game and I said, ‘Listen, if you keep continuing to get better and keep playing hard, your life is going to be very very fun.’ “
It’s obviously too early to tell if Naveh’s career is going to resemble more of Brady’s or Rhodes’ arc, but when the game was on the line, the freshman performed well.
WVU trailed by as much as 10 points late in the first half. When the Mountaineers began to make a run in the second half, it was Naveh who was on the floor scoring and rebounding.
“He’s a young guy, but he knows the game, ” WVU center Jesse Edwards said. “He knows how to play. He’s got the skills to be one of the better freshmen in this country.”
Naveh’s big moment came midway in the second half, when he dribbled past Baraka Okojie at the top of the key and drove right through the middle of the lane and finished with a fantastic dunk to tie the game at 59.
Welcome to college basketball, Naveh.
“I’m not going to give him too much credit, ” Slazinski joked. “I’ve never seen that before. He pulled that out of nowhere.
“He’s 6-6, very mobile, and obviously he can make moves like that.”
There is more to Naveh’s story in that he is in the United States for the first time as a college freshman and there is still a language barrier he is overcoming.
“He’s a special kid and a special basketball player, ” WVU head coach Josh Eilert said. “He’s got one of the best basketball IQs I’ve seen in a freshman.
“The questions he asks, sometimes I don’t understand what he’s saying. Once I figure it out, they’re really good questions. We’re working through that to get that language barrier broken down.”
Naveh, a native of Neot Golan, near the borders of both Syria and Jordan, is away from home at a time when Israel is at war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“I check with him every day to make sure he’s in a good mental-head space, ” Eilert said. “It is a lot for him. His family is safe. He’s got an older sister who is with the family. They’re in northern Israel, so it’s not quite as intense, but it’s certainly challenging for him.”
The rest is just basketball. Naveh is one of five internationally-born players on the WVU roster, but the way he moved and played on Friday, it looks like he could fit right in with American basketball.
“He’s unorthodox, ” Slazinski said. “He’s hard to guard. We walk into practice every day and Ofri is doing splits to warm up and we can’t even touch our toes. He works on stuff like that and it’s paying off for him.”