Sam Cassell: Gaining Recognition

Sam Cassell's superb season is bringing attention to his stellar career

by Charles Hallman

Like fine wine, Sam Cassell is only getting better.

The veteran backcourt man knows he can't stay stride-for-stride with many of today's younger players, but his veteran savvy has given the Timberwolves exemplary guard play, leading to his first-ever selection to the NBA All-Star Game.

Now in his mid-30s, Cassell says he once sought out former Utah Jazz guard John Stockton on his secret for longevity. "I asked him how does he do it, and he said, 'Sam, I try not to gain a lot of weight in the offseason. I don't want to come into camp over 200 pounds.' "

The 185-pound Cassell took Stockton's advice, and it's helped him average more than 38 minutes per game this season. "I take care of my body a little bit more," the guard pointed out. "To say the older you get, the slower you get and lose some of your abilities — I beg to differ with that."

And he gets fresher as the game wears on: Cassell has owned the fourth quarters this season, shooting 54 percent from the field in the final stanza of the past 38 games. He has had 13 games this season in which he scored 10-plus fourth-quarter points, and is averaging around nine points in the decisive quarter.

Cassell says that his fourth-quarter skills were honed during his first two pro seasons in Houston, where he was a valuable reserve on two Rockets championships (1994 and 1995). "I played in the second and fourth quarters," Cassell recalled.

Cassell is a valuable starter, a member of the Wolves' three-pronged attack — the "Big Three," with Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell. The Minnesota trio is the NBA's most prolific threesome this season, contributing a league-high 67 percent of their team's points each game. Cassell has six 30-point games this season and has led the team in scoring 15 times, in addition to recording 15 point/assist double-doubles. He had a string of 71 consecutive free throws made, tying Larry Bird for the sixth-longest free throw streak in NBA history. On Dec. 29, Cassell received his third career Player of the Week honor.

Throughout his career, Cassell, who has played on six NBA clubs, has often been viewed as someone who operates on his own agenda. It may appear this way, but nothing is further from the truth. "People read things about a person and that's how (fans) get to know them," he explained. "You want to know something, just ask me. I'm a nice guy when you get to know me."

Cassell has kept true to his mother's teachings: do your best and don't make excuses if you fall short. This credo stayed with the Baltimore native at Florida State, where he led his team in assists, steals, three-pointers and free throws. It also made him into an NBA player, something that many didn't see happening. "Before the (1993) draft, I only worked out for one team, and that was the Houston Rockets," Cassell recalled.

The Rockets were impressed and chose Cassell as their top selection in the 1993 Draft, 24th overall, and for two seasons he was an important cog in Houston's two title runs. However, after two seasons Cassell became a traveling man. He was sent to Phoenix as part of the Charles Barkley trade. "The only thing I regret is that Houston didn't give me the opportunity to be a starter," he says.

Phoenix did, but three months into the 1996-97 season, Cassell was traded to Dallas. Two months after that, he was shipped to New Jersey. Two years later, Cassell again was sent packing, this time to Milwaukee, where he played for four-plus seasons.

No matter where he plays, Cassell produces — he has a career 16 points-per-game average. "Maybe not Hall of Fame stats, but they are pretty good to me," he noted. "People think that I don't work hard, that I don't work on my game. People don't give me the credit I think I deserve."

As a Timberwolf, Cassell has been a perfect fit, something outsiders never envisioned. Many thought his demeanor might stick out like a square peg, but the guard dismissed all such notions. "I'm a team guy," says the Wolves' assist leader.

He has adapted well to coach Flip Saunders' system of executing with few errors — Cassell leads the team in assist-to-turnover ratio.

"He's been very receptive to coaching," Saunders said, "and very receptive to playing within the team concept." The coach also admitted that there is a give-and-take approach to their coach/player relationship, and the Wolves this season have gotten the best of it as a result. "He plays the same way that he's always played," Saunders added. "Anytime you're an older, veteran player, you become a smarter player. He lived and died his career on the ability to make mid-range shots."

"I brought something to Flip's system that he never had," noted Cassell, who is not afraid to take the big shot when the game is on the line, and take full responsibility if he fails. "You have to be the goat sometimes in order to be the hero. I've been the goat sometimes, but I like being the hero. I just get it done — no ifs, ands or buts, I just get it done."

Cassell believes that at his current pace, he can play at least four more seasons. "I have Kevin and Spree. Troy (Hudson) gives me time to rest. I've got so many weapons that I don't have to wear myself out."

Finally, Cassell wants "that feeling" again: "When you get further and further in the playoffs, then you are playing at 9:00 Eastern (time) — the Finals. Everybody watches the Finals. That's the feeling when all eyes are watching you," Cassell concludes.

And Sam Cassell wants nothing more than to share that feeling with his Wolves teammates this season.

Related Links
Sam Cassell photo gallery
Cassell's playerfile
Feb. 3: Cassell named Western Conference All-Star reserve
Dec. 29: Cassell named Western Conference Player of the Week
June 27: Wolves acquire Cassell and Ervin Johnson from Milwaukee
Feature story: Passionate Point Man
2003-04 Timberwolves feature stories