Omri Casspi proved beyond a doubt that he has a place among the world’s best in the NBA last season.
Now, he has to do it all over again.
Not only did the 22-year-old forward make history by becoming the first Israeli to play in the NBA, but he went on to exceed all expectations in his rookie season.
Casspi played in 77 of the Sacramento Kings’ 82 games, starting in 40 of them and averaging 25.1 minutes per game. He averaged 10.3 points, scoring 44.6 percent from two-point range, 36.9% from beyond the arc and 67.2% from the free-throw line.
Casspi, who was among the nine rookies selected to take part in the NBA’s All- Star Rookie Challenge, also grabbed 4.5 rebounds per game, and despite only being chosen with the 23rd pick of the draft, he ended the season ranked among the top 10 rookies in scoring (8), rebounding (6), threepointers made (7) and minutes played (9).
However, as impressive as each of those statistics is, it guarantees Casspi absolutely nothing in his sophomore season, which gets underway on Wednesday night with a game at the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The league’s extreme competitiveness and fickle nature ensure that Casspi still has to earn every single minute of action on the floor.
The fact that the Kings exercised their contract option on the Israeli for the 2011-12 season shows they certainly see plenty of promise in Casspi, but just like last year, he will begin the season on the bench and will have to make the very most of every chance he gets.
Donté Greene beat out Casspi for the starting small forward position, but the former Maccabi Tel Aviv player will get his opportunities to show coach Paul Westphal he deserves starters’ minutes and can be more than a role player for the Kings.
Casspi played in six of Sacramento’s preseason games and put up his strongest performance on October 19 in the last warm-up encounter he took part in, scoring 17 points on 7 of 11 from the field, while adding eight rebounds in 31 minutes.
“I just felt like I need to be me within the team system,” Casspi said after the game. “I felt exactly like how I want to play during the season. Rebound, play defense, make hard fouls and make open shots. I’m trying to do the things the coach wants me to do and have confidence on offense. I’m just happy.”
Casspi is coming off an excellent campaign for the Israel national team in which he helped the blue-and-white advance to next summer’s EuroBasket tournament while leading the side with 16.9 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“I just came from the national team, where I was the go-to guy, and I was the guy that they ran the most plays for, so it’s a little different,” Casspi said of readjusting to his role with the Kings. “Obviously, the main goal in our offense is Tyreke Evans. Besides that, everything is open for everybody, and you take whatever you get. If you get an open shot, knock it down and keep moving the ball.”
Casspi even sees a positive side to beginning games on the bench.
“Obviously, I want to start, and the best player needs to start, but the coach will decide what’s best for the team,” Casspi added. “If I’m coming off the bench, they’re going to have a lot more plays for me because I’ll come in with the second team and Tyreke will probably be out resting. But that’s up to the coach. I’m open-minded.”
Before joining up with the national team, Casspi spent time in Las Vegas working out with trainer Joe Abunassar to help improve his conditioning.
After a very successful first month to last season in which he averaged 10.7 points and 4.1 rebounds in 12 games, Casspi broke into Sacramento’s starting lineup last December, starting in seven of 14 games and posting 14.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest.
However, he wore down physically as the season progressed, scoring less with every month that passed. From 12.2 points per game in January he dropped to 10.5 in February and 5.3 in March before averaging 7.8 in six games in April.
“I learned a lot and I think I grew a lot as a player,” Casspi said of
his busy summer. “I’m a lot more mature and understand things different
now, and hopefully you’re going to see it throughout the season.” Casspi
is the type of player that works on his weaknesses rather than try and
hide them, and if last season’s progress is any indication, it’s more
than likely that his shooting, dribbling and defense will all improve in
the coming campaign.
With Francisco García and Antoine Wright – as well as Greene – fighting
alongside him for playing time at small forward, Casspi has sure got his
work cut out for him.
However, if last season taught us anything, it’s that anyone who doubts Casspi does so at their own peril.
I know I certainly no longer do.
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