Sinai Says: Can Caspi end the wait for an Israeli in the NBA?

Israel has long history of near misses. Can Omri Casspi change things?

Omri Casspi 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Omri Casspi 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel has a long history of near misses when it comes to the NBA. Miki Berkowitz would have become the country's first player in the best league in the world way back in 1979 had Maccabi Tel Aviv agreed to release him from his contract when the Atlanta Hawks came calling. Nadav Hanefeld may well have been the first in the early 90s had he played more than a single impressive season at the University of Connecticut. And Doron Sheffer was tipped by many to be a first round pick in the 1996 draft after three solid seasons at UConn, only to eventually be selected 36th by the Los Angeles Clippers. Oded Katash and the New York Knicks even verbally agreed to terms in the summer of 1998, but he was denied the chance to make history after an NBA lockout delayed the start of the season until February of the following year. Most recently Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were picked 44th and 53rd respectively in 2006, but don't seem any closer to the NBA today than they were three years ago. All of the above puts into context how significant next Thursday's draft at Madison Square Garden in New York may prove to be to Israeli basketball. Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Omri Casspi has long been touted as Israel's next big NBA hope, and now he's on the verge of living up to that billing. Casspi, who will celebrate his 21st birthday next Monday, is currently being projected to be a late first round to early second round pick in the draft. As Sheffer, Eliyahu and Halperin can testify, you can not overstate the importance of being selected in the first round and receiving a guaranteed contract to play in the NBA. A second round selection will leave a big question mark hanging over Casspi's NBA future, while being taken in the first round will all but guarantee he makes Israeli history. Most mock drafts currently predict Casspi will be selected with one of the final picks in the first round, with forecasting he will go 26th to the Chicago Bulls, estimating he will be selected 24th by the Portland Trail Blazers and CNNSI's Ian Thomsen projecting the Oklahoma City Thunder will take him with the 25th pick. The NBA draft is a fickle business so Sinai Says has turned to one of the top experts on the matter to hear how good of a chance Casspi really has. "I would say 60-40 as of right now," President and Director of Scouting at, Jonathan Givony, told me on Monday night. "He's getting really good feedback. All of the places he has been to are saying really good things about him. "But it's not the easiest to project. He's in really good shape and he's helped himself with the workouts, but nobody can say with any amount of certainty at this time that he's definitely going in the first round." Givony has heard many accolades about Casspi, but the Israeli is far from a complete player. "People like him a lot. They're saying he's really tough and that he's a better shooter than they thought. People just like his toughness first and foremost," Givony said. "But he's still an average athlete. He has to improve his ball handling. He has made a lot of strides defensively, but he needs to bulk up. He's not particularly strong or quick on the perimeter so he's going to have to get better in both aspects. "He's not going to be a go to guy offensively so he's going to have to be a lockdown defender if he wants to be on the court." Givony initially thought that the fact that Casspi hails from Israel is of no significance, but was surprised to hear otherwise from one of the NBA's most influential men. "I was talking to Donnie Nelson [GM and president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks] and he was saying how much it would mean to the basketball community for Israel to have an NBA player," Givony revealed. "They really look at Israel as the last great basketball country - in terms of the love that the country has for the sport - that hasn't had a representative yet and I think that some people would like to see that because it would be good for the sport. I think that means a lot." Despite the importance of being selected in the first round, Givony believes Casspi will still have a chance of playing in the NBA even if he goes in the second round. "He still has a realistic chance of making a team if he gets picked in the second round," he said. "If he goes in the second round and stays one more year in Europe that's a much more flexible situation. I don't think it would be the end of the world if he goes in the second round." Obviously, Casspi is still desperate to be taken in the first round next week. Only time will tell if he will be granted his wish, but Israeli basketball as a whole will be hoping he can finally end the country's long and agonizing wait for an NBA player, which began with Berkowitz some 30 years ago and could go on for many more years if Casspi fails to make it.