SACRAMENTO -- The journey of an NBA player is complex. For those who adapt and evolve, there is the possibility of fulfilling potential. For those who don’t, there is a revolving door. Someone is always waiting in the wings to steal one of the 450 coveted roster spots in the league.
For the Kings’ Omri Casspi, the road just to get into the league was a longshot at best. And his fight to stick on an NBA roster has been epic.
Rarely do you see a player start in one city, bounce around the league and then return home for a second go. But Casspi has always been an exception to the rule. He has spent a career redefining and reinventing who he is as a player.
Now seven seasons into his career, Casspi has found a niche as a versatile reserve and team leader.
THE YOUNG PLAYER
Sacramento selected Casspi with the 23rd overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft. In dire need of a small forward, the 6-foot-9 wing stepped in and played major minutes in year one.
“Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect,” Casspi said. “I felt like, I don’t know if I’ll be able to play here. You always see those big names on TV and it’s been really hard to realize that you can be able to play in this league.”
The pressures placed on a young player are immense, but for Casspi, they were magnified ten-fold. Not only did he have to make the jump from a Euroleague basketball player to the NBA game, but he had so much more weight to carry than the average import.
“I think it was a real difficult transition for him to make, trying to play in the NBA and then dealing with all the off-the-court responsibilities,” Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear said.
Developing as a young NBA player is tough in and of itself, but the demands away from the hardwood for Casspi were brutal. As a 21-year-old kid, he would walk into every arena in the league and witness a sea of Israeli flags. He wasn’t playing just for himself or his teammates, he was carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire country.
“It was hard,” Casspi said. “It’s an experience though. I was fortunate enough to be the first Israeli ever to play. Sometimes it’s hard to say no. People were excited about it. They want to support you and I look at it as a good experience. Now I’m a lot more mature and I know my responsibility on and off the court.”
Casspi didn’t say no. He met with large groups of people before and after games both at home and on the road. He was an iconic figure to so many and he willingly gave his time and energy, at times to his own detriment.
“I think a lot of people forget that when he first came into the league, he had so much pressure on him,” Napear said. “Everywhere we went, he had to spend, honestly, an hour before the game, sometimes 45 minutes after the game because there was such a demand on him.”
“There were things that he had to go through, which a lot of times people didn’t understand,” color analyst Jerry Reynolds added. “Just being around it at the time, I don’t know how he did it. I think he got about three years experience in one.”
There were stretches that first season where you could see Casspi fade. When he eventually hit the rookie wall in late February, he spiraled for more than a month. You can only spend so much of your time trying to be everything to everyone before you break.
Casspi finished his rookie season averaging 10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 25.1 minutes a night. He showed a knack for hitting the three-ball and his lightning-quick first step had many believing that he could be a special player on the court.
LEAVING THE NEST
Sacramento was a young team from top to bottom during this stretch. Geoff Petrie, the Kings president of basketball operations at the time, was faced with major salary constraints by the failing Maloof family. Out of necessity, Petrie was forced to make calculated risks to fill holes in the roster without adding additional money to the team budget.
A draft day deal added John Salmons to the roster and Petrie looked to rebalance his roster before free agency began. With Salmons in tow, the Kings dealt Casspi, along with a future first-round pick, to Cleveland in the summer of 2011 for power forward J.J. Hickson -- a move that haunts the team to this day.
[RELATED: Kings trade Casspi to Cavs for Hickson]
It was a difficult blow to a player who had been welcomed in Sacramento with such open arms.
“When you’re going through ups and downs as a young guy, you kind of think the world is going to collapse,” Casspi said.
The post-LeBron James era in Cleveland was not a good situation for anyone. After a mediocre first season with the Cavs, Casspi played just 43 games in year two, averaging a career-low 4.0 points in 11.7 minutes per contest.
“I felt like those two years in Cleveland were a big turning point in my career,” Casspi said. “I really felt like I was undervalued and then from that point, I had to go get my respect and my confidence back.”
His career was at a crossroads. No longer on his rookie scale, Casspi’s NBA future was in question. In July of 2013, at 25-years-of-age, Casspi signed a league-minimum deal to join the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets were coming off a 45-win season and were looking for depth. Casspi filled a role on a team that would go on to win 54 games under former head coach Kevin McHale.
Casspi played 71 games for the Rockets during the 2013-14 season, posting 6.9 points in 18.1 minutes a game. But his evolution as a player was now taking shape. Gone were the inefficient mid-range jumpers and half-hearted defensive efforts.
“I think what got in my head was my year in Houston,” Casspi said. “They really preach open threes and layups and free throws. I took some time off after Houston, watched some tape and I realized that the game has just changed. Every team has one or two players that can take what we call bad shots, but everyone else has to follow the system.”
Casspi’s numbers from Houston confirm that he had figured out how to become a role player. Maybe he hadn’t fully realized his potential as a three-and-D player, but he now understood his place when it came to the NBA game.
“Everybody has to accept their role,” Casspi said. “I’m not going to be DeMarcus Cousins or James Harden. I want to play alongside those guys and I want to help to compete and to be able to win a championship. That’s what everybody has to do.”
It sounds simple, but it’s not. After being the best player on a high school team and then a college team, young players come into the NBA looking to be a star. For the majority, it doesn’t work out that way.
“There’s an awful lot of guys that we forget about that go away, that don’t figure it out, that can’t adjust to a particular role or what they need to do to be valuable in the league,” Reynolds said. “Those guys’ careers are cut short and that’s why Omri will have a 10 or 12 year career.”
What Casspi has accomplished is perhaps even more impressive than the average player. He wasn’t just the best player from his high school or college team, he was the best player in an entire country. Accepting a lesser role meant adjusting the expectations for himself and countless others.
The Houston experience helped mold Casspi, but it was short-lived. In the summer of 2014, he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans and then waived. He once again found himself unemployed and looking for a spot to land.
Late last summer, a window opened for Casspi to return to Sacramento, albeit on another NBA minimum contract. He jumped all over the opportunity to come back to where it all began.
Early in the season, Casspi searched for a role in Mike Malone’s system. He attacked the rim in what little opportunity he did get, but he shied away from the long-ball that had made him so valuable in Houston.
As the season developed and the Kings cycled through head coaches, Casspi gravitated back to the player he was in Houston and the results jumped off the page. During the Kings’ final 30 games under Karl, Casspi averaged 11.2 points on 46.2 percent shooting from three-point land. In Sacramento’s final eight games, Casspi bumped those numbers up to 19.9 points on 50 percent shooting from distance.
“He’s just a better all-around NBA player,” Napear said. “He’s improved his three-point shot more than significantly. He has a better understanding of the game. Whether you start him or whether he’s coming off the bench he’s a guy that you pretty much know what you’re going to get every night.”
Casspi played a variety of roles under Malone, Tyrone Corbin and George Karl. But each of the Kings three coaches asked him to provide a spark, regardless of whether he started or came off the bench.
“He’s always just a huge energy guy -- a bundle of energy,” Reynolds said. “Now he’s channeling that a little bit. I think he’s become a very productive player.”
It’s not hard to see the difference in Casspi’s game from his first stint in Sacramento until now. Even his demeanor on the court has improved greatly as he’s matured as a player.
“He used to be really hard on himself to a point that I thought it was detrimental, because he’s a perfectionist,” Napear said. “You want that, but I don’t think he channeled it the right way. At times, when things weren’t going well, he was so hard on himself that became more difficult to dig out of a hole.”
GROWING UP IN THE NBA
Casspi doesn’t dig holes for himself anymore. In fact, he has developed into a team leader and voice of reason both on and off the floor for Sacramento. In seven seasons, he has gone from a young man looking to please everyone to a veteran willing to do anything to help the team win.
“He was a wild boy when he first came in,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “Just to see him grow as a professional, as a man, he’s one of my good friends as well. If there’s one guy I know I can go into battle with, it’s Omri.”
That is high praise from Cousins. The two were close as young players, but they are even closer now. Cousins joined his friend and teammate on a trip to Israel this summer and the bond they share runs deep.
“It just opens your eyes,” Cousins said of his journey to Israel with Casspi. “Problems throughout the world, other cultures -- it’s a beautiful thing. I’m glad I could experience that.”
Cousins lived through the early years of Casspi’s career, but the secondary commitments of his teammate were likely lost on the All-Star big man. The Israel visit helped add perspective.
“He’s an icon to many people over there,” Cousins said. “The way he carries himself -- true professional. He carries himself like a grown man, the way I want to carry myself and the way a lot of people should carry themselves.”
Casspi and Cousins share an agent, and according to the big man, he lobbied both sides to ensure the forward’s return. The result was a two-year, $6-million deal this summer to remain in Sacramento, a place where he would love to finish his career.
“He’s going to bring it every night, he’s going to play hard every possession, he’s going to leave it all on the floor,” Cousins said. “I respect those types of players.
It’s been a journey and Casspi is just 27-years-old. From Sacramento to Cleveland to Houston and back to Sacramento, this is the life of an NBA player.
“There are a lot of ups and downs,” Casspi said. “I learned a lot about yourself, my family, my close circle. I’m happy to survive through the waves and be in a position now to help this team.”
He is comfortable in his own skin. When asked whether he would prefer to come off the bench or start, he just lays back in his chair and says: “Whatever helps the team win is fine with me.”
The ego of a young man is gone. The confidence of a mature adult is obvious.
Casspi has grown up in the NBA. Under an even brighter light than the typical player, he has survived a league that has chewed up and spit out plenty.
He has found a place to settle down and to make roots. He is engaged and plans to marry next summer after the season ends.
“I used to move around from apartment to apartment, and now I have a house, a home, pictures all over, a family,” Casspi said. “My fiance is with me, someone to talk about whatever, whenever -- somebody to go to the movies with. You can just really focus on what you need to do. I feel like my fiance really helped me to grow my game.”
Seldom does a player have a career come full circle like Casspi’s has. He still has plenty of time to leave his stamp on the game, but he is appreciative of everything he has lived through in his seven seasons in the league.
“Every day that goes by I’m fortunate to be in this position,” Casspi said. “Every time I step on that court, I play my heart out, not because of the money, not because of whatever. It’s because of my teammates, it’s because I love this game, and I’m really blessed to be in a position to play in the NBA.”