DimeMag

Omri Casspi Explains To Dime Why The Kings “Can Be A Force In The West”

When looking for a place to continue his NBA dream last summer, the answer seemed obvious to Omri Casspi: Why not go back to where it all began?

Two years after he’d been traded by the Kings, Casspi maintained ties to the community, and he stayed tight with friends like DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson. He had experienced his greatest NBA success during his time in Sacramento, and he always felt as if he had unfinished business.

Thankfully, the Kings reciprocated his interest with a contract offer, demonstrating to Casspi that you can indeed go home again. But when he got there, he found the atmosphere to have changed significantly – for the better.

With the Kings no longer in danger of being moved from Sacramento and a new arena on tap for 2016, the energy around the team is the best since the salad days of Chris Webber and White Chocolate. It’s no coincidence that they got off to a fast start that turned heads around the league, and last week’s three-year extension for cornerstone Rudy Gay was an investment in keeping the good times rolling.

“Right now, it just felt like the right energy and the right atmosphere for me to be in,” Casspi said in a phone conversation last Wednesday. “Sacramento always had a different vibe — it has my first NBA game, my first preseason and all of that. I was fortunate enough to come back.”

The Kings are just as fortunate that he did. Casspi returned to Sactown a way more efficient player than the wide-eyed neophyte who arrived as the first — and only — Israeli first-round pick in NBA history. Want evidence? Just watch him play.

Previously known as primarily a long-distance shooter, Casspi now spends most of his time relentlessly attacking the paint, and his energy and tenacity have not gone unnoticed.

Casspi’s zenith came on Tuesday night, when he started for an injured Gay and scored 22 points in a win over the Pelicans, who cut him over the summer in a salary cap move.

“He’s moving without the ball, he’s making plays for his teammates and he has a great understanding of the game,” Kings coach Michael Malone said recently. “We’re thrilled to have him and we need him to continue to play at a high level.”

For his part, Casspi views his newly aggressive modus operandi as a positive byproduct of his return to his old stomping grounds.

“More than anything, it’s just being comfortable — comfortable in the role, comfortable in the system, comfortable in the city,” Casspi said, “I like to be able to not just be a three-point shooter, to penetrate and get into the lane and create.

“It’s just fun, you know? It’s pretty simple.”

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Far more complicated are the politics that perpetually plague his homeland. While playing for the Israeli National Team this past summer, Casspi got a first-hand reminder of the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, complete with air-raid sirens and bomb shelters.

Casspi takes quite seriously his status as a Jewish role model; he’s seen the blue and white flags waved by fans at Kings games, and he knows his actions and opinions matter greatly.

“I’m trying to do what I can,” Casspi said, “to be the best representative for my country.”

As such, he’s doing his best to cultivate knowledge and awareness of the situation back home. Last year, he started the Omri Casspi Foundation, designed to bring basketball players and other luminaries to Israel so they can experience first-hand the country’s natural beauty and rich culture. Casspi hopes to foster a greater understanding among people with the ability and desire to help make a difference.

“I’m trying to show them our perspective, what Israel is all about, who we are and how we’re trying to achieve and grow as people,” Casspi said. “I’d like to kind of create some goodwill ambassadors, to get people with influence and a voice to see the country, see the vibe — see the people who want to have peace, and who want to move forward.”

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Though his family and friends in Israel are never far from Casspi’s mind, his profession helps keep him centered. Playing professional basketball is akin to living a boyhood dream for Casspi, who frequently talks hoops on Twitter and watches NBA League Pass to pick up moves and strategies. (Even during our conversation, he admitted to keeping one eye on the Cavs-Spurs game.)

Though he’s quite serious about his sport, it’s obvious Casspi is also having a fantastic time. Earlier this month, he was caught on camera helping Cousins adjust his headband on the bench, a textbook example of how tight-knit the Kings are.

“We looked at it right after the game and we’re already viral on Twitter, and it was just fun to see, because I didn’t know the camera was on,” Casspi said with a laugh. “Everybody’s on the same page; everyone’s trying to work hard and get better. It’s all about getting the right group of guys, good locker room people, where it’s fun to come to work every day.”

Of course, everything’s always more fun when you’re winning. And though there’s still plenty of season left, the Kings’ fast start has bred a strong feeling of optimism.

“I feel like it’s still very early, and we’ve got a long way to go as a team to get to the next level,” Casspi said. “But with DeMarcus and Rudy, it’s like you’re putting the right pieces into the puzzle, and the city’s really excited about it.

“We have the talent to be a force in the West. We’ve just got to keep working and keep getting better every time. But it’s really possible for us.”

After finding his way back to where he always believed he belonged, Casspi hopes to stick around for a while. Along with the rest of his teammates, he supported Gay by attending last week’s press conference to announce his extension. Might there be something similar in Casspi’s future?

“I love it here!” Casspi said, with a laugh. “Obviously it’s still early, so I’m trying not to think about that sort of stuff right now. I’m just trying to think of how I can help my team win the next basketball game.”

The thinking here is that if you’re in the right place and you’re doing the right things, the rest will simply take care of itself.

What do you think?

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