Interview: Casspi can’t wait to get back on the court

Israel’s veteran NBA hoopster back with Kings, hoping to build off strong EuroBasket qualifying campaign.

Omri Casspi
Omri Casspi is raring to go.
Despite a hectic summer with the Israel national team, the 26-yearold forward joined Maccabi Tel Aviv in training last week to stay in shape ahead of the new NBA season. The 2014/15 campaign may still be almost two months away, but Casspi can’t wait to join up with his Sacramento Kings teammates.
Israel’s first NBA player will fly to the US on Thursday, first to Houston where he will make some final arrangements and work a little more under the watchful eye of a personal trainer before officially joining the Kings the following week.
Casspi and the Kings agreed to a one-year minimum deal back in late July. However, the move won’t be made official until the forward passes his medical in Sacramento, which didn’t take place at the time of the agreement as he didn’t want to miss the national team’s preparations for its Euro- Basket 2015 qualifiers.
Casspi shined for the blue-and-white, leading the team with 19.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this summer to help the side secure its progress to the European Championships with a game to spare, despite having to play its home games in Cyprus due to the security situation.
“I wasn’t surprised with how well the team played,” Casspi told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“With everything that was going on, we really gelled as a group and we fought together on the floor. I think new coach Erez Edelstein played a very big part in this success.
One of the most important parts was his new fast-break game-plan and the way in which he relayed his messages to the players.”
Israel ended last year’s EuroBasket tournament with a 1-4 record, failing to progress to the second round once more. Despite qualifying for its 12th consecutive European Championships this summer, the blue-and-white has reached the EuroBasket quarterfinals only once over that stretch, back in 2003. Casspi is confident the team can finally take a significant step forward next summer, but he isn’t getting too far ahead of himself.
“There is still one more year to go until the European Championships and a lot can happen over the next year,” he said.
“However, we looked good when we played together and we need to continue and do that. We can talk about doing well all we want, but we need to prove ourselves on the floor.”
Casspi missed Israel’s 2009 EuroBasket campaign to prepare for his rookie season in the NBA, but he has no intent on ever skipping national team duty again.
“I have at least 10 more years to play with the national team,” he said with a smile.
“I’m really enjoying myself and I’m not even considering taking a summer off. I love the national team. I will keep coming every summer. I’ll keep coming until I retire.”
Casspi only took a short break after the end of Israel’s campaign before joining former team Maccabi Tel Aviv in training last week to ensure he doesn’t miss a step.
“I practiced with Maccabi to maintain my fitness and sharpness and it was really fun,” he explained. “I took 3-4 days off to clear my head after playing with the national team, but I got fed up after that.
I’m in good shape and I didn’t want to lose that and start from scratch again. Maccabi invited me to train with them and we had some good intensive sessions.”
Casspi agreed to sign with Sacramento after being released by the New Orleans Pelicans just two weeks after he was traded to the team from the Houston Rockets. He was acquired in a three-team trade, but the Pelicans never had any intention of retaining his services.
Casspi was delighted at joining Houston last summer, at last receiving an opportunity with a playoff-bound team after four years at the struggling Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers.
A role as a contributing bench player looked to be ideal for Casspi’s skill-set, but it quickly became apparent that rather than becoming a vital part in a fine-tuned machine, the Israeli had turned into a dispensable cog.
After an encouraging start to his time in Texas, Casspi slowly but surely dropped down the rotation, failing to score in double- digits in the team’s final 20 games of the season.
He didn’t even play a single minute in Houston’s first-round playoff defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Nevertheless, the trade was an unexpected development.
“It is just part of the business,” he said. “It was a surprise, as no one really knew about it. I didn’t know, my agents didn’t know and the coach didn’t know. But it isn’t personal and today I think I’m in a better situation to play more minutes which is very important to me.”
Casspi averaged 6.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists over 71 games in Houston last season, reviving his career slightly after registering just 4.0 points and 2.7 rebounds in the mere 43 games in which he took part in Cleveland the previous year. However, he was still far off the career highs he recorded in his rookie season with Sacramento (10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 25.1 minutes per game).
He can’t guarantee he will put up similar numbers in the upcoming campaign, but Casspi is ecstatic to once more be a King.
“I had some other options, but there was something good about the energy in joining Sacramento,” he said. “I wanted to return. I know the people and the place and the players. Something about it was right and I hope it shows on court.”
Sacramento ended last season with a 28-54 record, missing out on the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year. In fact, the Kings haven’t won more than 28 games since the 2007/08 campaign. Nevertheless, with the likes of rising-star DeMarcus Cousins and veteran scorer Rudy Gay on the roster, Casspi believes this could be the year the Kings make it back to the post-season.
“First of all I want to win games. That is the most important thing,” he said. “I want to be in a situation in which we are challenging for a place in the playoffs and reach the playoffs. We have a young team which also has experience. We face a tough battle for a playoff spot in the West.
“Last season was the first time I experienced a playoff race and I only then began to understand how much it takes to reach the postseason. You have to try and win every game and make the most of every opportunity. We have talent and we have ability in Sacramento and I hope I can build on my form from the national team.”