New King Casspi heads to Sacramento

21-year-old Mac TA forward becomes first Israeli ever selected in first round, at No. 23.

omri casspi 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
omri casspi 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The long and agonizing wait is almost over. Omri Casspi was selected 23rd by the Sacramento Kings in Thursday night's NBA Draft at Madison Square Garden in New York, making him the first Israeli ever to be picked in the first round of the draft and all but ensuring he will eventually become the first of his countrymen to play in the NBA. The 21-year-old Maccabi Tel Aviv forward wept in joy in his parent's living room in Yavne, where he was watching the draft with family and friends, when NBA Commissioner David Stern proclaimed his name. Just 24 hours later, he flew out to Sacramento to begin the greatest adventure of his life. "I'm so happy that I will eventually become the first Israeli in the NBA," Casspi said on Friday after an emotional night. "I was very excited and nervous in the week leading up to the draft and I'm so happy to have reached this moment. I can't explain how it feels to hear your name being called. "It's a dream come true." Israel has experienced plenty of near misses when it comes to the NBA. Miki Berkowitz almost signed for the Atlanta Hawks in 1979, with Nadav Henefeld and Doron Sheffer both coming close to playing in the best league in the world in the 1990's after achieving success at the University of Connecticut. Oded Katash and the New York Knicks verbally agreed to terms in the summer of 1998, but an NBA lockout delayed the start of the season until February of the following year, denying him the chance to make history. Just three years ago, Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were picked 44th and 53rd, respectively, in the draft, but neither has really come close to making an NBA roster. However, it now finally seems that Israeli basketball will be granted its longtime wish, with Casspi's first round selection giving him a guaranteed two-year contract at Sacramento, although it remains a possibility that the Kings will eventually choose to send the forward back to Israel for another season before bringing him to California. For his part, Casspi is willing to return to Israel for another year, although his preference is clearly to play in the NBA this coming season. He can definitely feel encouraged by the words of Sacramento's President of Basketball Operations Geoff Petrie when asked if the forward is ready to play immediately. "I think as a competitor and with his size, he's a big, long, very athletic player who is a very tough player. He has a pretty good skill set. I think he can play some minutes, yes. How many we'll have to see. I don't like getting into talking about minutes because I'm not the guy who's going to decide that," Petrie said. Sacramento's new head coach Paul Westphal, was also delighted with the selection of Casspi. "He's very athletic. He's long, he's a 6[foot], 9[inch] small forward who's very mobile and a good ball handler, and more than anything, he is tough," Westphal said. "We were looking at some other tough guys at that three spot to pick with that choice and our scouts who really studied him and watched him play, I asked them, 'Was he tough?' and they said, 'Yeah, he's really tough.' And you can just see it. He's somebody who can guard, and I think as he learns the league, he will be able to guard and matchup very well with the athletic threes in this league. He's a good runner, a good rebounder, and I think he's a player who has a lot of versatility." Casspi, who became an integral player at Maccabi this season, helping the team regain the league title, believes the Kings, which are coming off a franchise-worst 17-65 season, are a perfect fit for him. "This is a great situation for me," Casspi said. "They want to rebuild in the coming seasons and they told me they believe in me, which is very important to me. "I'm sure every player in the roster will be given a chance and when my chance comes I will prove I deserve to play. I think Sacramento is an excellent place to grow as a player and to start my NBA career." The Israel international, who will now likely miss this summer's European Championships, plans to work on his body strength in coming weeks and can't wait to begin his NBA career. "I'm going to be playing against the best players in the NBA and I need to first and foremost be ready to defend them, which requires me to work on my strength," Casspi said. "I will be giving my all at every training session and game. I'm going to take it one step at a time. I've realized one dream and now my new dream is to continue to improve as a player."