Prediction: after this weekend, Omri Casspi—the Sacramento Kings forward who is the first Israeli to play in the NBA—will be a little bit more of a household name.
Back home (in Sacramento, not Tel Aviv), they’re starting to realize that the rookie is actually really good:
He has been a starter, been benched, forced his way back into the rotation. He throws down two-handed dunks that rattle backboards, then snarls for effect. He asks to defend Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and surprisingly, doesn’t embarrass himself.
He is emboldened by his growing celebrity, and by the perception that he is better than advertised, certainly better than most players drafted 23rd.
The league is taking note: he got a private meeting with NBA Commissioner David Stern; the New York Knicks cannily used a Kings visit to stage their Jewish Heritage Night—the results of which were “Omri Casspi” chants and a Kings win. Oh, and yes: a Sacramento-area couple named their newborn Omri.
Also notable: before a game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Casspi shook hands with Hamed Haddadi, who hails from Iran. “This is something we decided before the game,” Casspi told one reporter. “If we can make anything small, a shake of a hand and we can be friends and give a hand for peace, then we do it.”
Coming off the Knicks game, which may have been his most high-profile yet, Casspi has a big weekend ahead of him: it’s NBA All-Star Weekend, and Casspi plays tonight in the Rookie Challenge (in which top rookies play top second-year players).
Seriously, if I know anything about how the media works, you can bank on the combination of the Knicks game and All-Star Weekend generating real media attention (although he already got a Sports Illustrated profile!). There’s also the fact that the guy is averaging 12 points, five rebounds while not always starting, and he’s only going to get better.
Finally, Casspi seems to have a good head on his shoulders and to understand the obligations that, without any real effort or even, necessarily, willingness on his part, have been thrust upon him: “There is a lot of responsibility to being the first,” he told one interviewer. “I am not only representing myself, but I am representing basketball in Israel. I am also representing my country and the Jewish people in the States.”
Related: Omri Casspi Is Ready For Primetime [Tablet Magazine]