Even four months later, Omri Casspi’s performance against the Golden State Warriors almost defies belief.
The career-high 36 points and improbable shooting duel with reigning MVP Stephen Curry in Oakland on December 28, 2015 was remarkable by any measure, and certainly by that which the first Israeli in the NBA had accustomed his fans.
The 27-year-old, who has been playing in the NBA since being selected with the 23rd pick in the 2009 draft, hit 13-of- 18 field goal attempts, including 9-of-12 from three-point range, while also taking six rebounds in 35 minutes on court. It wasn’t enough to help the Sacramento Kings avoid a 122-103 defeat against the defending champion, but it was the highlight of a season that has seen Casspi go from a minor role player to a significant one. That may not sound like much of an improvement, but it is meaningful progress in a league where nothing can be taken for granted.
Casspi scored 21 points in the second quarter alone, connecting on all six of his attempts from distance. The most memorable part of Casspi’s night came in the final three minutes and 15 seconds of the first half when he traded three-pointers with Curry to the amazement of everyone watching. Casspi scored four triples to Curry’s five, with the two combining for 29 of the game’s 31 points during that stretch.
Casspi never came close to repeating that display and his overall production dropped during the second half of the season after he missed two weeks in January with a back injury. Nevertheless, the two-year $6 million deal he was handed by Sacramento last summer is looking like a true bargain for the franchise, which had otherwise very few positives to show from this season.
Casspi and the Kings agreed to a oneyear minimum deal the previous summer after he was traded away by Houston and waived by the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Israeli forward, who also had a two-year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers after being traded from the Kings in 2011, ended this season with careerhigh averages in points (11.8 per game), rebounds (5.9), minutes (27.2) and three-point percentage (40.9%), ranking him 12th in the league in accuracy from beyond the arc.
Casspi ended up playing in 69 of the team’s 82 games, missing the last six with a thigh injury.
“I had a good season all in all,” said Casspi upon his arrival in Israel last Friday.
“The only disappointment is that we didn’t reach the playoffs and didn’t have a chance to challenge for the championship. We will learn from this season’s mistakes and will be better next season.”
ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein has no doubt this was the best season in Casspi’s career.
“On top of his career-best numbers in terms of scoring and rebounding, Casspi ranked as one of the top three or four defenders at the small forward for much of the season, not far behind Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, until the Kings’ season essentially fell apart,” Stein told The Jerusalem Post. “He also posted his second straight season as a 40-percent shooter from 3-point range ... and you know I’ve been saying for years that Omri would go to another level as a player if he could consistently shoot in the 40s. Look up how many small forwards have done that these last two seasons. It’s a short list.”
Casspi has a busy summer ahead of him. He will marry Shani Ruderman in June and later in the summer he plans to once more bring NBA players on a tour of Israel after the success of the initiative last year.
Casspi organized a visit for colleagues past and present as part of a joint initiative between NBA Cares, the league’s global community outreach initiative, and the Omri Casspi Foundation, an organization set up by the player aimed at presenting Israel in a positive light across the world.
Casspi will of course also dedicate much of his time to prepare for 2016/17 when he will be playing under a new coach at Sacramento following the sacking of George Karl. The veteran coach was fired after a tumultuous season which the team ended at 33-49, its best record since 2007/08 but well short of expectations.
“It was a big disappointment that coach Karl was fired. He is one of the greats and will be in the Hall of Fame,” noted Casspi. “We as players and as an organization didn’t do enough to win games and help him keep his job. We are a lot more talented than some of the teams that made the playoffs in the West. A lot of things happened this year that are difficult to explain. There is no reason we shouldn’t be in the playoffs next year.”
Casspi has learned that there are no guarantees in the NBA, but he expects to be back in Sacramento next season.
Should he be able to build on his growth in the past campaign, he will be in line for a big pay day when the salary cap spikes once more in 2017/18 due to the NBA’s new multi-billion TV deal.
“I have a contract for next season but you never know what might happen in free agency,” explained Casspi. “I do know that the team really wants me back. I’m enjoying myself and things are very good in Sacramento. We are waiting to see who the next coach will be and the system he will bring with him. I believe that I can play in almost any system.
I like to run and that is the direction the NBA is currently heading in so I’m pretty sure I will be in Sacramento next season and that I’ll have a good season.”
According to Stein, “the Kings are thrilled” to have Casspi and he expects them to face some strong competition to keep him in the future if he continues to play this way. While it remains to be seen what kind of team Sacramento has around Casspi next season and who the coach will be, Stein believes there are a couple of basic goals the Israeli should be setting himself. “A third straight season as a 40-percent shooter from 3-point range and more good defense on the wing are two good goals to start,” he said. “If he can keep doing that, Omri will solidify himself as one of the league’s better “3 and D” guys.”
It would be unrealistic to expect Casspi to repeat that performance against Golden State next season, or for that matter, ever again. But that unforgettable night proved once and for all that his career didn’t peak when he became the first Israel in the NBA some seven years ago. In fact, it showed how much of his potential remains unrealized, a tantalizing prospect for all of his fans.