Omri Casspi’s trip through Toronto last month largely passed under the radar. UJA Federation didn’t hold a post-Chanukah event for the Israeli basketball player. And the Raptors, playing Casspi’s Sacramento Kings, didn’t schedule a Jewish heritage night. The excitement of Casspi’s first years on North American soil has subsided.
“I enjoyed it at the time,” Casspi told The CJN about an hour before a Dec. 20 game the Kings won 104-94. “I enjoy every once in a while when they have Jewish heritage nights. Seeing the fans is always great. I don’t think it was a distraction. Maybe when you’re younger it takes some focus, but as you grow older and are a little more experienced, you can just focus on the game of basketball.”
To call Casspi’s first season in the National Basketball Association his 15 minutes of fame would be untrue. He developed his game in the Israeli league, where he became a go-to scorer. When the Kings drafted him in 2009, it marked the first time an Israeli was selected in the first round. He then became the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
Still, the small forward struggled after leaving the Kings at the end of the 2010-11 season – first with the Cleveland Cavaliers and less so with the Houston Rockets. He returned to Sacramento last year, playing well before signing a two-year contract in the off-season.
Now, despite being the only Israeli player in the NBA, he has received more headlines for his game than for his ethnicity or nationality. At 27, he is recording career highs across the board. His 12-plus points per game eclipse the 10.3 mark of his rookie year.
But it’s his shooting percentage that has drawn the most raves: 51 per cent from the field, including 46 per cent from three-point range. On Dec. 28, Casspi scored a career-high 36 points, though it wasn’t enough to secure a win against all-star and 2015 MVP Stephen Curry and the reigning NBA champions Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
And while the bulk of Casspi’s minutes have come off the bench, the small forward has started 13 games as Willey Cauley-Stein recovers from injury.
“It’s a little bit of everything, I think,” he said when asked to explain his improvement this year. “Experience comes into play – I’m learning my game, learning the NBA. I have a few years under my belt, with different coaches. I’m finally playing for the system that I wanted to play my whole career, with the right spacing and the right passing and making plays. It makes me feel better on the basketball court.”
In basketball parlance, Casspi is a “glue guy,” a player whose value to the team can’t completely be described in numbers. Think former Raptor Amir Johnson or, on this year’s team, DeMarre Carroll, a high-character, shut-down defender. Casspi frustrates opponents and number crunchers with other miscellany: speed, passing, feel for the game’s rhythms, recognition of teammates’ tendencies and how to adjust to them.
Last summer, Casspi escorted an Israel trip for a group of players from around the league, including teammates Demarcus Cousins and Caron Butler. Organized by Casspi’s foundation, the week-long trip squeezed sightseeing and NBA Cares events into an itinerary covering Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea.
“I just wanted to do something to show my colleagues, celebrities around the world, to have good publicity for my country,” he said. “Goodwill ambassadors are something you always need, especially people who have such a big following. For them to see a different market was awesome.”
The trip received media coverage in the general press, but also drew fire for its perceived politics. Some pointed to the private jet provided by pro-Israel casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Casspi, who still plays for the national team and has tweeted in support of Israel, remains nonplussed.
“I knew in advance [about the criticism],” he said. “It didn’t really affect me. I felt like there was nothing political with it. Demarcus invited me to his house; I invited him to mine. It shouldn’t be any different, even though we’re in a conflict region. I’m planning on doing the same thing next year with different players – maybe some the same.”
Between trips home, his family visits North America regularly, most recently over Chanukah. While he hopes to see other Israeli players join the NBA soon – compatriot Gal Mekel was waived by the Dallas Mavericks in 2014 after a season – he refused to name the most likely candidate.
“You never know. It’s just a matter of guys who want to work hard, put in the work, getting better every year. You know, this league is good.”