Last year, Sacramento Kings rookie Omri Casspi was celebrating Yom HaAtzma’ut with friends and family in Israel. One year later, Omri has completed a whirlwind year having realized his dream of playing in the NBA. But just as surely as we recite at the Passover seder, (recalling Egyptian bondage and holding out promise for the future) “This year we are slaves. Next year may we be free people,” Casspi must be reciting his own wishes that “This year I played in the NBA; next year hopefully in the playoffs!”).

While the Kings finished with a disappointing record of 25-57, it was an improvement over the team’s 2008-09 record of only 17 wins. With a new coach (Paul Westphal) on board, and another rookie (Tyreke Evans) who became only the fourth player in NBA history to average 20 ppg, 5 rpg and 5 apg in their first season, it was a rebuilding year for the Kings – a year that proved to be a good situation for Casspi.

He came off the bench in the team’s first regular season game in Oklahoma City to rack up 15 points (7-9 FG, 0-1 3PT, 1-2 FT), three rebounds, one steal and one block in 19 minutes of play.

His largely unanticipated rookie success earned him a spot on the All Star Rookie Team. (See OMRI CASSPI: ISRAEL’S AMBASSADOR IN THE NBA elsewhere on this site). But, like all rookies, he had to cope with adjusting to the rigors of the NBA schedule.

When Omri spoke with prior to the All Star break, those challenges figured prominently in the discussion, as well as the matter of coping with the resulting fatigue. So when caught up with him on the occasion of the team’s final game of the 2009-2010 season, that question was once again brought up.

“Yes,” noted Casspi, who wears #18, “it became harder to prepare for games both from a physical and a mental standpoint as the season progressed, but in general I handled it pretty well. In the end, it’s basketball – it’s fun.”

“I think it was a great season. Playing in the NBA – being the first Israeli to do so – was the best feeling one could have… a feeling of honor - and to be representing Israel in the league adds a feeling of responsibility. Now I want to keep working and keep improving. Here is where I belong.”

  “I feel that just about everything about my game improved… my rebounding … my decision making when it comes to shooting. But I have a lot to work on and a lot of room for improvement. I am not planning to rest on my laurels - I will be looking forward to the coming season and do what I need to do to be ready.”

As the season progressed, some Israeli sportswriters noted that perhaps given that Casspi had fewer minutes, fewer starts and lower numbers in the second half of the season, did fatigue figure into that? His response was that “the coach changed the starting line-up in recent weeks.” As the season progressed, some Israeli sportswriters noted that perhaps Westphal would have been better advised to stick with the game plan (and starting line-up) that had proved so successful in the first half of the season.

Teammate Beno Udrih, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 2002-2003 season, recalls the frustrations that come with having to repeatedly prove oneself. “I was a starting point guard in Europe, but once you get to the NBA they don’t care what you did in Europe. Here you start all over again. You have to come in and start building your reputation all over again – if you want to succeed you have to stay focused and not let up for a second. Nothing is going to be given to you. The Europeans don’t usually get to play as much as he did coming right in, and even some rookies who went even higher than he did in the draft didn’t get to play as much as he did. They gave him a chance, and he proved to everybody that he can play here. He’s a talented player, and in general I think the pieces are in place for us to have a better season next year.”

And so, at this time next year we wish Omri to be – NOT in Jerusalem – but in the playoffs.

And for now – Happy Yom HaAtzma’ut!

Notes: Casspi ended the season averaging 10.4 ppg (.451 FG%, .373 3PT%, .672 FT%) 4.5 rpg, 1.2 apg, and 25.1 mpg in 76 games, having started in 31. He scored in double figures on 41 occasions, and tallied 20 or more points in seven games. His season high of 23 points came on New Year’s Day against the Lakers. Casspi’s immediate plans include a few weeks of R&R back home before returning to the States for summer league play. Then it is back to Israel for the National Team games. (Israel will face Italy and Montenegro in qualifying rounds play for the 2011 European Championship.)


Photo from Sacramento Kings website