Last week the Sacramento Kings tipped off their official preseason practices for the 2009-10 season, a fact that most years would go unnoticed anywhere outside the Californian capital. However this year is not like most.
The Kings' preseason practices garnered much attention in Israel, as will nearly everything that happens at the team for the coming months. The reason of course is that Omri Casspi, a 21-year-old forward that last played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, is set to become the first Israeli-born player in the NBA.
Now I am here to warn you: Don't buy into the hype! I know that I am in the minority on this one, but from the moment I heard NBA commissioner David Stern connect the words "Sacramento Kings" with "select Omri Casspi from Rehovot (He actually said Rehoboth), Israel," I feared that everyone involved would regret the choice.
And by everybody I mean Omri Casspi, his fans, Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Kings and their fans.
The reasons I predict failure are so numerous that it will be difficult to present them all with supporting facts in this column, but I'll give it a try.
1) Casspi simply is not ready for the NBA
He steps into the NBA, which is a league with athletes faster and stronger than those he competed against in the Euroleague, however Casspi was no more than a role player for Maccabi in the Euroleague. He was not a top option on offense for Maccabi and his biggest contributions came in terms of his hustle and hutzpa. One wonders if that will be enough.
2) The adjustment to the NBA (and life in general overseas) can be difficult if you're not a star
There is a long list of players to move to the NBA from the Euroleague. For the most part, those that had not shown themselves to be true stars in Europe did not prove to be anything more than marginal NBA players.
Two forwards that left for the NBA with similar numbers to Casspi (8.8 points, 7.1 index, 17 minutes per game) in their final Euroleague seasons are Viktor Khryapa (5.3, 7.3, 18) and Mickael Gelabale (7.9, 8.3, 23). Neither was successful. Today, Khryapa has resurrected his career in the Euroleague with CSKA Moscow, while Gelabale is still trying to make his way in the NBA with non-guaranteed contract to training camp.
Among the players that have made the successful switch, the likes of Pau Gasol, Andrei Kirilenko, Rudy Fernandez and Manu Ginobili were all far more accomplished players in the Euroleague that Casspi has proven to date.
3) The Kings are not the best fit for him
Casspi joins a team that is in rebuilding mode. To wit, on the night that it selected him, Sacremento also tabbed a teenager (who has since turned 20) to be its starting point guard. Though its starting small forward, Argentinean Andres Nocioni - another former Euroleaguer - may be the ideal role model for Casspi, they already have his backup in second-year player Donte Greene. One has to seriously wonder how much playing time Casspi will get in such a crowded roster. And if he's not playing much, his ability to further develop his skills will by stymied in a league where practices are infrequent during the season because of a schedule that can demand playing as many as four games in five days.
4) Casspi is not always a team player
Many will expect Casspi to bring with him the team-game and relating intangibles that European basketball is so famous for. But that's not really his game. The selfish display he put on in an Israeli league game last season because NBA scouts were in attendance and the fact that he decided to skip representing Israel at the European Championships this summer in order to prepare himself for the NBA don't earn him much respect from me. Incidentally Israel's best Euroleague players, Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin - who both earn significantly more in Europe than Casspi will in the NBA - did turn up.
5) The pressure on the young Israeli forward will be enormous
Though Casspi's role (or lack thereof) on the team may not be large, the media following is certain to be. That may only make it more difficult for such an aggressive player to adjust to such a minor role. With the expectations of Casspi and his supporters so high, how will he react if he falls short?
Let's sum it up like thisâ€¦ Best-case scenario, Casspi becomes a role player in the NBA and last a few years with occasional bright spots. But Maccabi and Israeli basketball loses its brightest young star.
Worse-case scenario, Casspi sits on the end of the bench, finishes out his contract and returns to Israel in two or three years as a shadow of himself. Maccabi and Israeli basketball loses its brightest young star.
Either way, basketball fans in Israel lose out. And the way I see it, so does Omri Casspi.
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