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Casspi set to make history as first Israeli in NBA

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)

As a child growing up in Israel, Omri Casspi would do whatever he could to get any glimpse of the NBA.

"I remember waking up early in the morning to watch Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s," said Casspi, not knowing if he would ever get a chance to play there.

That day has almost arrived and now young Israeli kids will want to be like Omri. Casspi is set to make his NBA debut on Wednesday when the Sacramento Kings take on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

When Casspi steps onto the court, he will be the first Israeli ever to play in the NBA, a designation that comes with as much fanfare as it does pressure to succeed. Players from more than 60 other countries have made it to the NBA before Israel has its first.

"I'm behind that now," he said. "I'm comfortable now. I played for the biggest club in Israel. Of course, it's a responsibility, but at the end of the day, it's still basketball."

That's what Casspi does well and it's why he was the first Israeli ever taken in the first round of the draft when the Kings chose him 23rd overall in June.

That set off an emotional celebration in Israel, where many fans watched a live feed from Casspi's living room at 2:30 a.m. local time when he was finally taken. Casspi broke into tears with the realization that a lifelong dream had come true as a friend poured Champagne over his head.

His debut will be broadcast live in Israel, starting at 2 a.m. local time.

"I call him the Michael Jordan of Israel, being the first guy from there drafted in the first round," Kings teammate Jason Thompson said. "He has a high motor, consistent jump shot, and is real wiry with bounce. When he gets a lot of reps and feels more comfortable playing games, he'll be a really good player."

There is excitement for Casspi in Jewish communities in the United States as well. Fans in Sacramento wearing jerseys with Casspi's name spelled in Hebrew came out for a rally after the draft and the Knicks have already designated the Kings' visit to New York in February as Jewish Heritage Night.

Casspi, 21, is a 6-foot-9 athletic shooting forward who led Israel's most famous team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, to a league championship this past season. He averaged 12.6 points per game and was named to the all-league team. He also starts for the Israel national basketball team.

Casspi struggled in the Las Vegas summer league, adjusting to a new league, new culture and more talented players than he was used to playing against.

Casspi's adjustment on the court went well in the preseason. He was the ninth leading scorer among all rookies, averaging 11.7 points per game, shooting 55 percent from the field and 52 percent from 3-point range.

"There's a lot of differences with the players, the physicality and the quickness," he said. "It took me some time to adjust. But I feel comfortable now. I feel like coach gave me confidence and my teammates also."

Coach Paul Westphal understands how difficult the adjustment is, even though he believes the quality of play in the Israeli league is superior to U.S. colleges.

But while American players have grown up watching scores of NBA games each year, learning favorite moves and tendencies of various players, everything is new for Casspi.

"He's naturally been a little more tentative," Westphal said. "He's had more to adjust to than anybody on our team. As he lets his aggressiveness take over, as he gets more relaxed and has a better understanding of what things are like, he'll get better and better. He's already done that. He's improved every day."

Then there's the off-court adjustment, where Casspi has to adjust to a new country as well as a new professional challenge.

Casspi's adjustment is helped by the fact that he brought his 25-year-old brother, Eitan, to Sacramento with him, giving him a sounding board whenever he needs it.

"It's great," he said. "I finish practice late at night and get home and see family and can talk with him. It helps me a lot. I don't miss my family as much. It gives me someone to talk to when I need to."

His biggest concern this summer was finding quality hummus to eat in the United States. While that search is ongoing, Thompson and his other teammates are trying to introduce him to their own favorite foods.

"I'm trying to get him to eat cheesesteaks with me being from the Philly area," Thompson said. "My home cooking is a little different than the home cooking he is used to. Next summer, I want to go to Israel and check it out."

Tagged: Kings

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