|11 January 2010|
Yarone Arbel, Tel Aviv
Israel's sensation Omri Casspi is building a name for himself with the Sacramento Kings in the NBA.
The first-ever Israeli player to be picked in the first round of the draft and to play in the league, Casspi has adapted much quicker to the world's elite competition than most predicted and is one of the top players already in his team.
The 21-year-old is ranked second among all NBA rookies with impressive season averages of 13.2 points and 4.7 rebounds.
In four straight games starting with a December 30 clash with the Philadelphia 76ers, Casspi had 21, 23, 22 and 24 points.
The 2.03m forward is also ranked fifth in the league in three-point accuracy at 45.5% (50 for 110).
The great and somewhat surprising success has created an obvious hype in Israel, where basketball has always been hugely popular.
Casspi's success has been the main news in the sports world, in fact, on a daily basis.
The former Maccabi Tel Aviv player was recently a guest on the maccabifans.co.il message board and answered fans' questions.
He spoke about his thoughts and feelings during his current run with the Kings, his days in Maccabi and also his future with the Israeli national team.
"Before I moved to the NBA, I thought about the fact I still hadn't won any European title, which could be a huge highlight in my career," he said.
"Actually, if I hadn't won the Israeli league title with Maccabi last year, I surely wouldn't have declared my name for the draft."
Those who follow FIBA Europe's youth events noticed Casspi at the U16 European Championship and saw his development and dominance in every year that followed.
Last summer, something changed.
Casspi did win the title with Maccabi, yet decided to skip EuroBasket 2009 with the Israeli national team to focus on his new path.
Israel failed to win a game and finished below the 11th spot for only the second time in history.
He has assured newly appointed head coach Arik Shivek that he will be with Israel this summer in the qualifying games for EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania.
"The season in the NBA ends before the games in Europe so I'll be able to work both on my game and to be ready for next year and join the national team," Casspi said.
"I will work hard in the summer and be ready for the national team as well.
"I'm very excited about the upcoming campaign and there's not the least bit of a chance I won't be there."
In 2006, two Israeli players - Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu - were selected in the NBA draft in the second round but never made it to the league.
Halperin is now playing for Greek powerhouse Olympiacos and Eliyahu for Caja Laboral Vitoria in Spain.
Together with Casspi, the national team of Israel appears to have a bright future.
"I believe in the upcoming campaign we will have a great squad, and we'll be able to take on any national team that we'll have to face," Casspi said.
Probably the two qualities that have helped Casspi most are his work ethic and unbeatable toughness.
"I love basketball very much and whenever I step on the court, I give my maximum effort to win against any team and any player," he said.
"Personally, I think every player should look inside when he goes to sleep at night and ask himself if he has done the maximum possible to become a better basketball player.
"That's what I've been doing from a very young age and I'm confident that if every player in Israel will do the same, we will have better players than 'Omri Casspi' in the future."