Omri Casspi is on the cusp of basketball history.
Later today, the 21-year-old is expected to be selected late in the first round of the NBA draft, held at Madison Square Garden. If all goes as planned, he’ll get a guaranteed contract for at least two seasons and the opportunity to become the first Israeli basketball star to play in the league.
Casspi, a 6-foot-9-inch, 220-pound small forward from Yavne, a town south of Tel Aviv, has played three seasons for Maccabi T.A., a professional powerhouse in the highly competitive Euroleague. What the wiry forward brings to the game, said Uri Savir, co-editor of the Israeli basketball website Safsal, “is very unusual for a European player, let alone an Israeli. He’s a true killer on the court, plays with huge passion. His energies and aggressive play might be his greatest strengths for now.”
“His biggest aspect is his quickness,” added Joe Almodovar, vice president of basketball operations for rival Maccabi Haifa.
Casspi’s step into the spotlight at Madison Square Garden is the latest instance of the NBA’s global expansion. Team rosters for this past season featured 77 international players from 32 countries, including Poland, Senegal, and Iran. In addition to the well-known Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 Houston Rockets center, there’s Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks), Spain’s Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers), Canada’s Steve Nash, (Phoenix Suns), and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs).
But no Israeli has ever made it to the NBA, despite the country’s long love of basketball and a national squad that routinely contends for the European championship, which it has won five times since 1977. (Jordan Farmar, a backup guard with the Lakers, is the only Jew currently playing in the NBA; he has a Jewish mother, an African-American father, and an Israeli stepfather.)
“It really should’ve happened before, but bad luck, bad decisions, and other reasons prevented it,” says Savir. In 1979, he notes, Maccabi T.A. guard Mickey Berkowitz received offers to play in the NBA, but his team’s managers refused to let him out of his contract. In 1998, point guard Oded Katash, then also with Maccabi, reportedly agreed to a contract with the Knicks. But by the time the NBA lockout that year was resolved, Katash had returned to compete in Israel. (Other Israelis—Doron Sheffer, Lior Eliyahu, and Yotam Halperin—were selected in the second round of the NBA draft but never played in the league).
Some critics think Israel’s basketball culture notwithstanding, up-and-comers playing there don’t get enough court time, diminishing the likelihood that NBA scouts will notice them. “The coaches don’t like to play the young players because they want to win,” said Almodovar, “They rely on the older players and the foreign players, so the young kids don’t get the chance to develop.”
Moreover, there is arguably little incentive for Israeli athletes to aspire to the NBA. “Basketball players can make a lot of money and become famous just by staying at home,” says Ephraim Moxson, co-publisher of the Jewish Sports Review. “They don’t have to make it in the NBA to be successful.”
Casspi removed himself from NBA draft contention last year, in part because he said he was not ready for the rigors of professional ball in the United States. Instead, he worked on his game and became a regular starter with Maccabi, helping them capture the league title.
This year, in what is widely considered to be a weak draft, Casspi is projected to be a late pick. (A “mock draft” at NBADraft.net projects the Sacramento Kings will make Casspi the 23rd pick of the first round. UPDATED: The projection proved right; Casspi was picked by the Kings as predicted.) Then, Casspi and his new team must decide whether he is ready for the 2009-10 season in the United States or needs still more seasoning in his home country. “He still needs to develop his ball-handling skills and stabilize his jump shot,” Savir says. “He’s going to need to prove himself defensively.”
But even the possibility that he’ll be picked today in New York City delivers a jolt to Israeli basketball. “This will give other young Israeli players—like Gal Mekel–the incentive to think, ‘If he can make it to the NBA, I can make it, too,’” says Almodovar.