Sinai Says: Casspi, Mekel poised for compelling campaigns

The two are ready to embark on their NBA seasons with Dallas and Houston respectively.

Gal Mekel with the mavs 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gal Mekel with the mavs 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel will play their first games of the 2013/14 NBA season on Wednesday night.
At last.
The start of the new NBA season couldn’t have come soon enough for the pair of 25-year-old Israelis.
After three frustrating seasons following a bright rookie campaign, Casspi is finally in the position to prosper following his signing with the Houston Rockets this summer.
Mekel, meanwhile, has an opportunity to make an impact with the Dallas Mavericks despite being undrafted and virtually coming out of nowhere to ink a three-year deal.
Even while Casspi averaged just 4.0 points on 39 percent from the field in 43 appearances for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, the Rockets recognized what he could bring to their team and his preseason form has exceeded all expectations.
In seven preseason games, Casspi has averaged 13.2 points, hitting 55 percent of his field-goal attempts and connecting on 33 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, while grabbing 5.1 rebounds per contest.
Following the acquisition of Dwight Howard, the Rockets are looking like a real force in the West. James Harden already proved last season that he is one of the best players in the NBA and coach Kevin McHale has a deep and versatile roster which seems capable of going far in the playoffs.
Casspi fits perfectly into McHale’s uptempo system and senior NBA writer, Marc Stein, believes the Israeli forward has found a perfect landing spot in Houston.
“I’ve been trying to tell anyone who’d listen for years that the NBA would see the best of Omri Casspi when he finally made his way to an elite team that could use him as a role player and play to his strengths,” Stein told The Jerusalem Post.
“That’s exactly what’s happening in Houston. But you have to give the Rockets extra credit, because they saw Omri as a potential power forward.
He’s barely played that position in his first four seasons and certainly isn’t a traditional power forward, but it works in the Rockets’ wide-open offense. They saw it before any of us.”
McHale has also been pleased with Casspi’s improvement on defense.
“He’s getting better [defensively] all the time,” the coach said earlier this month. “[He] has been rebounding the ball so well and hustling all the time.
“There is nothing not to like about what I have seen from him so far.”
Preseason performances often need to be taken with a grain of salt due to their relatively meaningless nature.
Nevertheless, Stein is confident that Casspi’s form in recent weeks will translate to the regular season.
“I don’t think the preseason success was a mirage. I’m convinced he’s going to be a consistent contributor for the Rockets,” he said.
“Getting drafted by Sacramento in the first round and becoming the first Israeli to actually play in the NBA were obviously huge achievements, but for the first time since he left Maccabi, Omri’s in the right situation with a winning organization. And you can immediately see the difference that makes in his game.”
Stein explained exactly what makes Casspi and Houston such an ideal match.
“The Rockets obviously never imagined that Omri’s preseason would be as good as it was, but they really did think he’d fit into their system perfectly,” he said. “You need shooters around Dwight Howard to give Dwight the space he needs down low, but those shooters also need to be able to defend, rebound, run the floor and make quick decisions off the catch to make Houston’s game plan work.
“Omri can do all those things and, as a bonus, is long enough and hardnosed enough defensively to masquerade as a power forward. He’s really hard for bigger fours to keep up with and works well alongside the Rockets’ traditional big men [Howard and Omer Asik.]” While Mekel’s circumstances are quite different than Casspi’s, he surely would have jumped up and down with glee had, as recently as six months ago, you offered him his current position with the Mavs.
Mekel started in Dallas’ first four preseason games as the team’s three other top point guards, Jose Calderon (hamstring), Devin Harris (toe) and rookie Shane Larkin (ankle) were all out nursing injuries.
Mekel, who led Maccabi Haifa to the BSL championship last season, was relegated to the bench after Calderon returned for the final four preseason games, but still received significant minutes as a sub.
Mekel averaged 6.1 points and 4.8 assists during the preseason, with his biggest concern being the 3.2 turnovers he registered per game.
Nevertheless, Stein is optimistic regarding Mekel’s chances of settling in the NBA.
“I’m obviously excited beyond words to see an Israeli playing in the city where I’m based and I’m pleased to report that Mekel is ahead of schedule,” said Stein. “The Mavs signed him to be a long-range player they could develop over time and here he is already starting his first NBA season as a backup to a great role model in Jose Calderon.”
Despite the turnovers, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is extremely pleased with the progress being made by Mekel.
“He’s probably learned more in the past three weeks of basketball than he’s ever done in his life,” Carlisle said last week. “Just because the game is so different and so new, and the athletes are so much quicker and faster.
“If you look at the stats he’s got a lot of turnovers. But he’s made big improvements and I just see him getting better and better.”
The eventual return of Harris will in all likelihood cost Mekel precious time on court, but until that happens, the Israeli will have every opportunity to prove his worth.
“Gal’s minutes might end up being sliced somewhat when Devin Harris makes it back from a foot injury in December or January, but all the October injuries in the Mavs’ backcourt created a great opportunity for Mekel to play more minutes and get more reps in the preseason than Dallas was ever planning,” Stein explained.
“And I think all that exhibition experience is going to pay off and speed up Gal’s transition to the NBA game, which is always a challenge for players coming over from Europe, especially point guards.”
It promises to be an intriguing season for the Israelis in the NBA, or as Stein put it: “My advice to Israelis who love basketball and will be traveling to the States in the near future: Get yourself to Texas.”
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