GOLD STRIKING: Princeton University men’s basketball player Blake Peters, left, and Tiger assistant coach Skye Ettin celebrate after helping the United States win the gold medal in men’s open basketball on last month at the 2022 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Sophomore Peters had a strong tournament, finishing the event scoring 10 points with three rebounds and two steals as the United States rallied to defeat France 81-70 in the medal game. gold. (Photo provided by Skye Ettin)
By Justin Feill
BLake Peters returned from the 2002 Maccabiah Games in late July with a gold medal and renewed confidence.
Peters, who will be a second-year guard for the Princeton University men’s basketball team in the 2022-23 season, had 10 points, three rebounds and a pair of steals to help the United United win the title match, 81-70, over France. Princeton assistant coach Skye Ettin celebrated alongside Peters on the American coaching staff.
“It was a really humbling experience,” said Peters, 6’1, 190 pounds, from Evanston, Illinois. “I will obviously never have the opportunity to play for the Olympic team, so it was the thing that I could achieve that. I am very proud of my country and where I come from. And I am very proud of my identity as a Jewish basketball player. So playing there and representing a whole bunch of people groups was a great experience. And I did that with my assistant coach at Princeton, Skye Ettin, and a great group of guys. I just thought we represented the country and the Jewish community well, and it was an amazing experience.”
The gold medal experience – Peters’ first time playing at international level – gives him a boost of confidence as he returns to Princeton after playing sparingly in his freshman year. Peters and the Tigers’ rising sophomores, juniors and seniors will travel to Spain for an overseas trip in August to kick off this year.
“I already know the way international basketball is played and how physical it is, especially off the ball,” Peters said. “I don’t think you can appreciate it until you’ve played international basketball. It’s grown man strength. It’s very different from college strength, it’s something you I noticed immediately. I have big ambitions for the season. I didn’t play much last year. We had a great team. This year I’m definitely looking to be bigger. Just get back to competition and making winning plays on Maccabiah, getting back into the rhythm of the game is important.When we get back to Princeton, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Peters appeared in 14 games last year for the Tigers totaling 18 points and 12 rebounds after setting the all-time record (1,585 points) at Evanston Township High. He played a total of 64 minutes with highs of five points and five rebounds.
“It’s never fun being on the bench,” Peters said. “Playing is definitely more fun. But you learn a lot. With my experience playing at Princeton last year and getting back on the court with Maccabiah, it’s really going to pay dividends this year.
Peters helped the Tigers win the Ivy League regular season title with his behind-the-scenes work. In practice, he was a key part of the scouting team that prepared Princeton’s main rotation of players for Ivy’s opponents. It also helped improve Peters’ game.
“I was babysitting Jaelin Llewellyn and Ethan Wright frequently,” Peters said. “They are top basketball players who will turn pro one day. So especially defensively, being familiar with very high level basketball players helped me translate to Maccabiah. There wasn’t a single player who was better or came close to being top caliber players like Jaelin and Ethan.
In Israel, Peters consistently scored in double figures for the United States at the Maccabiah Games. He had 11 points and three rebounds in a tournament opener win over Argentina. In the Americans’ first encounter with France in the Stage 1 pool game, Peters had 18 points and six rebounds. Against host Israel, Peters had seven 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 24 points. He also scored 10 points in a decisive win over Canada. The United States didn’t panic as they outscored France, 37-35, at halftime in the gold medal game before remounting their defense to claim victory.
“We beat France in the group stage,” Peters said. “It’s a great team. Most of them are pros who are probably between 25 and 30 years old, so obviously they are very experienced. That league game, in the first half, they just wanted a little more. At halftime we went into the locker room and discussed what we should do defensively. The whole tournament is what made us win games. Our goal was to keep teams below 0.75 points per possession. We track stats similar to Princeton. So it’s basically that they score once every three or four possessions. Once we locked in defense, got into the assist position more, had a bit more ball pressure, I think we ended up pressing them a bit more in the second half and we sped them up a lot, which certainly helped.
Peters seamlessly transitioned to the American defense orchestrated by Ettin, who used Princeton principles and strategy. The offensive end felt less like Princeton style, and more like what Peters played in high school.
“In 2021, I didn’t even know Skye was coaching Maccabiah,” Peters said. “I had already planned to go to Duke to try. I happened to go to Princeton for elite camp and Skye was talking to me, and we both found out that we were both doing Maccabiah. I went to Duke and gave it a try, and I think about six months later the team was finalized.
Peters was on the Maccabiah radar after meeting national U16 coach Michael Weinstein, another Evanston product. Peters had to play
Maccabiah in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Games back a year and forced Peters up to open team level. The team met for a three-day minicamp at Kean University before departing for Israel.
“Once we got to Israel, the first week was basically another training camp,” Peters said. “We were waking up really early in the morning, we were going to practice at 6.30am. We got involved with the Israel U19 national team at one point. We got involved with our U18 team Maccabiah. We actually had a decent amount of preparation. a lot of those days were also spent just team bonding around the hotel to get to know each other a little better.
It was all part of an experience he won’t forget. Besides playing in his first international tournament, he was also making his first trip to Israel.
“I think they do a good job of connecting you to Israel and Judaism and all that’s involved on a deeper level,” Peters said. “But you’re also here to win a gold medal so there’s a good balance between the two.”
It’s been a whirlwind summer for Peters. He was home less than a week after finishing his freshman year at Princeton when he traveled to New York for a seven-week internship.
“I didn’t really have any coaches there,” Peters said. “It was really up to me to train on my own and do my lifts, so this whole experience taught me a lot about myself and playing as an adult for a few months.”
This led to his final preparation and trip to the Maccabiah Games before a few weeks back home, and then the team’s trip to Princeton in Spain. Peters has tried to take advantage of every opportunity he has to play and hone his skills. It starts at the defensive end, where he hopes to spearhead a lockdown mentality. He knew how to improve every year on the defensive side.
“It’s something I’ve always had to focus on,” Peters said. “By the time I was a senior in high school, I was guarding the other team’s best player in every game, which I was very proud of. Last year, guarding Jaelin and Ethan every day was like a difficult task to begin with – they may have a different opinion – but I thought I was getting better as the year progressed.
On the offensive end, Peters has also benefited immensely from his freshman year at Princeton. And as he showed at the Maccabiah Games, he can shoot as well as anyone when attacking. Playing with the Tigers helped him become a tougher player to keep.
“On the offensive side, the biggest problem is that in high school it’s very stagnant, and you don’t play with a shot clock, so the game is a lot faster in college,” Peters said.
“I got really good at cutting and really used my foot speed to get to my spots. I’m not going to take five or six dribbles and break people up. It’s incredibly hard to do in college with top guards and defenders. It’s really perfecting my shot and being able to fake cuts for lay-ups and playing with a lot of balance and being a solid point guard. These are all skills that I developed working on my own this summer and last season and playing with Maccabiah too. When I get on the pitch next year, I hope people can see that.
This week Peters will have his next chance to play and develop his game. Princeton will repeat a trip to Spain he last took in 2012, leaving on August 18 with stops in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona. Schools are allowed one off-season overseas trip every four years, and Peters is confident winning Maccabiah gold and looking forward to playing with returning Princeton players.
“We’ll treat the week and a half before we leave like a mini training camp and we’ll get back to business as usual,” Peters said. “Hopefully this will put us on the right track. It’ll be fun.”