Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Much-improved Omri Casspi giving Kings lift off bench

The Kings drafted Omri Casspi in 2009, and he had trouble carrying the weight of being the first Israeli in the NBA.
The Kings drafted Omri Casspi in 2009, and he had trouble carrying the weight of being the first Israeli in the NBA. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Omri Casspi was only gone for three years, and yet because so much has happened in the interim, it feels like a decade.

The franchise that drafted him was sold and revived and is moving closer to a new home in downtown Sacramento. The team he last played for – the Houston Rockets – introduced him to the NBA playoffs. The Kings rookie with the monster talent has morphed into an All-Star-caliber center. The coach who nurtured him during his early offseasons is back in his life, pushing, critiquing, mentoring.

Casspi, who signed a one-year contract in September, is a much-improved player. Since returning to the team that drafted him 23rd in 2009, the Israeli native has been all over the court, diving for loose balls, leaking out for dunks, sneaking inside and swiping tough rebounds, angling entry passes to DeMarcus Cousins, his new/old teammate with the All-Star-caliber skills.

Casspi is playing with such abandon, such wild-eyed fury, one local blogger characterized him as a man possessed. The small forward laughed. Instead, he likens himself to a 6-foot-9, 225-pound deer who runs all day and eludes capture at night.

“I want to be the guy that creates, runs the floor, rebounds, plays aggressive defense and makes the extra pass,” he said. “I have so much more confidence in my game now. Maybe it’s because I am older and wiser, but all I care about is winning, and about helping and being part of rebuilding the Kings. I am so happy to be back.”

His journey from Israel to the Kings, away from Sacramento and then back to the Kings, reflects his personality, the part about detours and running all over the place. As the first Israeli to make an NBA roster, Casspi arrived with a massive boulder on his wiry shoulders, with his tiny country of approximately 7.5 million residents seemingly monitoring every field goal, every assist, every turnover, every trade or signing. By his own admission, he became seduced by his own celebrity, and at times overwhelmed by the daily demands.

After two seasons of promising but erratic performances with the Kings, he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where his playing time diminished substantially. The one-time starter hit the free-agent market after appearing in only 43 games in the 2012-13 season, and he was further demoralized by his struggles that summer with the Israeli national team.

But whether he woke up or simply grew up, Casspi cites that offseason as a career-changer. He contacted David Thorpe, the Orlando-based coach and trainer he worked with early in his career and, after signing with the Rockets, began to make simple adjustments that led to dramatic improvement.

“As a first-year player, he didn’t know when to drive, when to pass, when to shoot, and he had a terrible coach,” Thorpe said, referring to former Kings coach Paul Westphal. “In Cleveland, he just seemed lost. By the time he reached out to me two summers ago, he had hit rock bottom. He was really down. We started working right away, and last year with the Rockets, (coach) Kevin McHale told him he could pass and had skills and believed in him as a player. That enormously helped Omri’s confidence.”

But he wasn’t home yet. The Rockets traded Casspi to New Orleans last summer to create salary cap flexibility. When he was waived almost immediately by the Pelicans, the Kings were among a handful of teams offering one-year minimum contracts.

The allure of Sacramento was obvious. Casspi, 26, enjoyed the community and was encouraged about the arena/ownership developments. And there was Cousins, with whom he shares an agent. While the combination proved irresistible for Casspi, it has been fortuitous for the Kings; if anything, the sixth-year player is exceeding expectations.

Used at both forward positions, the former Maccabi Tel Aviv star is averaging 7.1 points and 3.6 rebounds, is one of only five Kings averaging at least one assist, and is shooting 51 percent and an impressive 84 percent from the line in 16.9 minutes. His improved ballhandling is particularly noticeable when he rebounds and sprints downcourt at full speed, while controlling his dribble. The one surprising hiccup has been his three-point shooting; he has made 1 of 7 attempts – an anomaly, he says, because he keeps working at it.

Casspi said he has changed his diet and his lifestyle. Fewer carbs and fewer late nights, he says, though the ongoing conflict and the recent attacks in Jerusalem have led to sleepless nights. His father, Shimon, is visiting for a week, but his mother and two siblings are in Tel Aviv, within rocket range of the Gaza Strip.

“My dad and I went to San Francisco on Monday,” Casspi said while seated at his locker late Tuesday. “Pier 39, drove down Lombard Street. Brought back a lot of memories. We were there for my bar mitzvah when I was 14. Then later Monday night, I started getting texts about the killings, so I woke up my dad and told him about it. It was so sad, but war is a reality for us. You come to a conclusion that you’re used to it. It seems like we have wars every two years.”

With a shrug and a weary smile, Casspi collected his belongings. Basketball is his refuge, he said, sounding very much like former Kings and Serbian natives Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic.

“I try to focus only on the game,” he said, “but I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s really hard.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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