EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey - Omri Casspi is not your average European player. Yes, the Maccabi Tel Aviv player is a fine shooter and technically skilled for someone his size (2.05m), but he is well-known for his all-out playing style, aggressive defense, and tough mentality. It's these traits that have drawn Casspi praise from several NBA executives during his time in the U.S., as he attends workout after workout. "I'm tired," Casspi admitted, "but this is something you do, once, maybe twice, in your entire life, so I do it and try my hardest."
This past Friday, Casspi participated in a mass workout at the New Jersey Nets practice facility that featured 11 other players and hosted executives and officials from over 20 NBA teams, including legends Larry Bird of the Pacers and Donnie Walsh of the Knicks. Another two dozens players worked out Saturday and yesterday in the last large-scale look before the draft on June 25. Nets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said Casspi "did very well" and that he "is a big fan of his." Vandeweghe stressed that Casspi "is a much better shooter than people give him credit for ... he's extremely effective, active, and he does a lot of the dirty work - he's a very unique player." He also spoke about Casspi's ability to "be flexible and play multiple positions" depending on the team's system, ranging from shooting guard through power forward, but did say that Casspi would probably play the small forward position should he make the NBA.
Casspi already has an NBA player that he models his game after, and not surprisingly, it's also a multi-talented forward from the same region of the world. "Hedo Turkoglu is my favorite player," Casspi proclaimed with a smile, referring to the Turkish professional playing with the Orlando Magic.
During this particular workout, Nets officials said Casspi did particularly well in the 3-on-3 session. He was matched up against Gonzaga University forward Austin Daye, a very lanky player known for his shooting touch and size (2.11m). The two were very physical with each other and Daye actually had to get stitches in his mouth after taking a Casspi elbow. According to Daye, that's just part of the game. "I'm fine with it, and I got the worst of it." Daye is expected to go somewhere in the middle of the first round, so this was an excellent matchup for Casspi to gauge himself just a few weeks before the draft.
Casspi, who turns 21 next week, a few days before the draft, believes that his time at Maccabi has helped him a lot by allowing him to "play against top competition every week, the best players in Europe and NBA-level talent all the time" - as opposed to the American college players, who face athletes their own age and play a shorter season. The Rehovot native, who first suited up for Maccabi in the 2005-06 season and has been a regular fixture since 2007-08, has racked up 48 games in Europe over the past three years, averaging 8.8 points and 3.1 rebounds in 16 Euroleague games last season.
Casspi said he wanted NBA teams to get to know him through these workouts, not just as a player, but also as a person. "I'm not looking for a particular team or system, but I would like to go to a place where they believe in me, I can play and improve, and they value me as a player and a person," he explained.
Rumors link him with the Chicago Bulls, a team known for its young, aggressive, and physical players, and which has two first-round draft choices (16 and 26) and has seen Casspi work out several times. However, Casspi would not speculate about his chances with Chicago at the post-workout press conference. Instead, he politely said he would go wherever he's chosen and would play his best.
After watching other Israeli players such as Doron Sheffer, Oded Katash and Lior Eliyahu fail to make the last step up to the NBA, Casspi knows how big of a deal his journey has become. "The NBA is huge in Israel, and everyone is waiting for the first player," he said. "It would mean a lot to me, it's something I grew up with, and a big responsibility. I hope to do a good job, maintain a good name, and open the line up for other great Israeli players to make it to the NBA." Casspi said he's wishing for the best birthday present he can get - an NBA team to call his own.
(Steve Klein contributed to this report.)
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