Israeli Casspi set to make NBA history

Thursday will likely be a historic day for the NBA. Omri Casspi, a small forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv, is expected to become the first Israeli taken in the draft. With Portland nabbing the 22nd pick from Dallas, they move ahead of Sacramento (23rd), which had been eyeing Casspi. Observers are viewing this move as an attempt to grab the lanky 6-foot-9 Casspi for the Trail Blazers, the fourth seed in the 2009 playoffs.

From USA Today:

“It’s like a dream come true. It’s huge for me to accomplish one of my biggest goals of my career — to play in the NBA, to be the first one from my country and to feel like I am representing something,” Casspi said.

Casspi, 21, played four professional seasons in the Euroleague for Maccabi. He won several awards, including newcomer of the year and sixth man of the year after his second season. In 16 Euroleague games last season, he averaged 8.8 points and 3.1 rebounds in 17.3 minutes.

Playing for a team with national prestige has helped prepare Casspi for the NBA limelight. He’s expected to be picked in the mid- to late part of the first round.

“Basketball is huge in Israel,” said Casspi, 6-9, 222. “Every Euroleague game is a big thing in Israel. The (whole) country is following you. Everywhere you go everyone is talking to you and really respect you as a Maccabi player.”

Casspi had a chance to see this support carry over to the USA when Maccabi played a couple of games here and the Jewish community came to see the team.

“We were amazed by the fans and the big support Maccabi players and the Maccabi organization got,” Casspi said.

Casspi cited several differences in the international and NBA game, such as court size, but remains unfazed.

The larger NBA court allows for more spacing, while in Europe players can just camp out in the paint, Casspi said. The bigger court should help Casspi, who thrives on slashing to the basket on offense, NBA talent evaluator Ryan Blake said.

Casspi can “create off the dribble one-on-one with a quick first step and (he) can finish with either hand,” Blake said. “He knows how to use the screener well, he knows how to use the pick-and-roll. (He) can go left, use the screen and pull up, pass or finish in the hole.”

In predraft workouts, Casspi said he surprised some teams with his toughness and aggressiveness. He is a versatile player who has experience at every position except center.

“When he was first playing for Maccabi, they brought him out playing point guard,” Blake said. “That’s extremely important to note, because he’s a guy who’s played almost four (positions and) because he played some power forward overseas.”

Casspi, however, still is developing his shot. Blake said Casspi is not a great shooter “but has the potential to be a very good shooter.”

Casspi said he has been working on his shot to improve his game, not to tailor it to the NBA: “I will do whatever it takes to be the best Omri Casspi can be.”