Omri Casspi’s fiery energy and competitive spirit – the familiar, triumphant fist-pumps and animated facial expressions emanating during clutch performances – are as prevalent as ever, galvanizing his teammates and sending the home crowd into a furious frenzy.
“I’ve always been a passionate guy and I love to play this way,” says Casspi. “I just love the game – whether you have 20,000 people around or it’s practice. I’m doing it not for the money – I’m just doing it because I love it.”
Whether it’s delivering tough buckets in traffic, diving for a loose ball or coming up with timely deflections, the energetic sparkplug has continued to personify relentlessness each time he steps on the court, making the most of every opportunity.
“(Being) aggressive is the most important thing – play my game, run, try to cut, be ready to shoot when (the team) needs it,” he explains. “When I’m coming off the bench, I’m trying to provide that energy, change the game and do stuff I need to do, (such as) offensive rebound, run the floor, play hard and sacrifice my body for the team.”
Yet, 25 games into his second Sacramento stint, it’s evident the 6-foot-9 forward – sporting light gray slacks and a white button-down, along with his customary, neatly-trimmed beard in the locker room – is a remarkably different player than the 21-year-old rookie who became an instant fan favorite. In addition to serving as one of the team’s most viable on-court scoring threats upon being drafted 23rd overall in 2009, Casspi became a worldwide sensation who admirably carried the hoop dreams of an entire country on his shoulders.
“I think before, maybe you’re kind of in awe as you’re trying to make a transition into the League, and he was under such a microscope because of the fact he was coming from Israel and he was the first (to play) in the NBA – that’s an awful lot,” says longtime Kings Radio Broadcaster Gary Gerould. “But now, as he’s grown in the League, I think he understands his contribution is going to be an energy-type of a guy. I love the way he moves without the basketball, and I think it’s something this team really needs.”
After two seasons as a part-time starter in Cleveland followed by a one-year stint as a key backup on the Playoff-bound Houston Rockets, Casspi has embraced his newfound role with the Kings, bringing veteran savvy and a noticeably more developed game to a rapidly improving but still largely inexperienced roster.
“I think I’ve changed a lot – I have so much more confidence now,” says Casspi, who earned invites to the 2010 NBA All-Star Weekend Rising Stars Challenge and now-defunct H-O-R-S-E Competition. “I feel a lot more comfortable with my game now and what I (need to) do. Every night I go in and step on the court, I’m trying to be the best basketball player I can be and do the best I can for my team to win.
“I learned a lot (in Houston) – just confidence-wise – understanding the game, knowing what winning basketball is, how they shared (and) moved the ball, how they spaced the floor, how to cut. (I had) great role models.”
Although at first glance, Casspi’s 7.9 points-per-game average in 2014-15 may not jump off the page – placing slightly above his career output (7.7) but short of the 10.3 points per outing he notched during his breakout rookie campaign – the 2006 Israeli Cup Champion is in the midst of his most proficient and effective season, setting a career-high PER (16.9) by attacking the basket at the expense of long perimeter jumpshots.
Renowned as an international three-point specialist, No. 18 showcased his long-range marksmanship over his first two seasons, connecting on 37.1 percent from behind the arc while launching 4.5 triples per 36 minutes. According to NBA.com/Stats, 36.9 percent of Casspi’s field goal attempts came from downtown – compared to 26.4 percent in the restricted area – while the forward earned only 2.7 trips to the foul line per 36 minutes.
“To a certain extent, my (outside) shot was (my bread and butter),” he says. “Something I worked on a lot this summer is just staying low and getting to the rim, trying to get the best shot I can get. I felt like I should base my game as more of a guy who attacks and really creates. I feel like when I get into the paint, good things happen.”
Fast forward to 2014-15, and Casspi’s shot distribution chart indeed paints a strikingly contrasting picture from his rookie and sophomore years, as glaring areas of mid- and long-range inefficiency have all but vanished.
Only 19 of Casspi’s 126 field goal attempts (15.1 percent) have come from beyond nine feet, as he’s pulled up for 1.3 three-pointers per 36 minutes – by far the lowest rate of his career. The sixth-year forward has correspondingly converted a steady 70.8 percent of his shots in the restricted area.
The Sacramento draftee’s true-shooting percentage (.618) not only represents a career high – easily eclipsing the .529 mark he posted in his first season – but ranks 13th in the NBA among players with over 400 minutes played, per basketball-reference.com.
“(My thought process is) just go – don’t settle for threes,” he reveals. “If you can shoot four shots at 60 or 65 percent or four shots at 35 or 37 percent, there’s a big difference. I’m trying to get the best shot I can for my team.”
Even more impressively, Casspi – using his physicality and aggression in the paint – has drawn whistles at an extraordinary pace, ranking second on the team in free-throw attempts per 36 minutes (6.0). After entering the season with a career free-throw-attempt rate of .248, according to basketball-reference.com, Casspi currently sports a team-leading .603 rate (min. 100 FGA) – ahead of DeMarcus Cousins (.500) and Rudy Gay (.353) – while netting a career-high 78.9 percent at the line.
“He’s a much better basketball player and his fundamental skills are so much better,” says Kings TV Color Analyst Jerry Reynolds. “When we had him as a rookie, he really couldn’t do much off the dribble, and he was kind of out of control. Now, he’s so fast and competitive, but he can make plays. He can go 90 miles per hour and still do something, and he can run with the very best in this league.”
Assertive and omnipresent on-court, No. 18 has routinely crashed the boards and led fastbreaks, pushing the tempo and making a habit of launching high-arching floaters over outstretched arms of hapless defenders.
“(Casspi brings) a lot of energy on both ends of the floor,” says Kings Head Coach Tyrone Corbin. “He’s a really smart cutter on the offensive end – when a guy like DeMarcus is posting up, he knows how to cut to the basket, slice and get an opportunity at the basket. He’s able to get down the floor early in transition and get some early opportunities there, so we need his energy and effort to continue to push the pace on offense.”
Making his first start of the season in place of the injured Gay on Nov. 25, Casspi delivered 22 points – his highest output since notching a career-high 24 points on Jan. 5, 2010 – to help lead the shorthanded Kings past the Pelicans, and has played meaningful fourth-quarter minutes in many of the contests in which he’s been active.
“Omri’s a big confidence guy, and I can tell he’s playing more confident with (the Kings) and getting more of a role and more minutes,” says Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons, who played alongside Casspi on the Rockets last season. “(Omri) can play, and play at a high level … I’m glad to see him take advantage of his opportunity in Sac.”
Casspi’s improved ball-handling – a primary area of focus during a career-defining offseason – and ability to play multiple positions has allowed the team to plug the versatile reserve at either forward slot, as well as periodically slide him to shooting guard depending on matchups.
“I love it, especially when Rudy and I sometimes play (small forward) and (power forward),” says Casspi. “I played a lot of (power forward) last year in Houston when they’d go small, and (the Kings) go small a lot, too … I’m comfortable at both positions, because our offense is set (so) that everybody cuts, moves, has the ball, doesn’t hold the ball and gets good shots.”
As the Israeli-born standout gets reacquainted with his first NBA home, he’s aiming to not only stay poised and consistent but driven to thrive alongside his emerging teammates.
“(I have) the mindset of getting better, but hopefully we, as a team, keep growing,” he says. “We have some young guys, we have some older guys, but (we’re finding) that balance of helping one another and trying to be the best team we can be with one another. I think we’re talented enough to make the Playoffs and make the next steps … the base is right there to be a really special team.”