Kings draft pick:from Israel to Sacramento to the desert

Omri Casspi, the first Israeli ever selected in the first round of an NBA draft, received glowing comments from coaches and analysts after the Sacramento Kings took him with the 23rd pick June 25

Then two days later, the 6-foot-9 forward flew to California and was cheered by approximately 3,000 Kings fans at a meet-and-greet at a Sacramento city park, where team officials presented Casspi with his new jersey — No. 18.

Although the native of Yavne, Israel, still hadn’t signed a contract as of July 8, he remained in town and began practicing.

And now the Kings have sent Casspi to the desert — but in this case, it’s a good thing.

Casspi is off to Las Vegas, where he is set to play on the Kings’ squad in the annual NBA Summer League. The 10-day “season,” which begins Friday, July 10, is where young players gain experience.

“We drafted him so that he could come over and play and start to contribute,” Kings General Manager Geoff Petrie said, lest anyone think Casspi might not be in the Kings’ plans for the 2009-10 season, which starts in the fall. “We are looking forward to having him over here.”

Omri Casspi plays in a Euroleague Group B game in Tel Aviv in 2008. photo/ap/ariel schalit

Casspi, 21, played for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, averaging 12.6 points per game and leading the squad to the Israeli Super League title.

Coming off that victory, Casspi may encounter some culture shock playing for the Kings, who went 17-65 last season for the worst record in the NBA.

Although he is not the first Israeli-born player to be drafted by an NBA club, he is expected to become the first to play in the NBA; as a first-round pick, he is guaranteed a spot on the Kings’ roster and a multi-year contract. For how much? Well, the 23rd pick in the 2008 draft, Kosta Koufos out of Ohio State, signed a five-year deal worth about $9 million and played in 48 games with the Utah Jazz last season.

Three other Israelis, Doron Sheffer, Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin, were second-round picks in years past, but each got cut. Currently, the L.A. Lakers’ Jordan Farmar is the only Jewish player in the NBA.

Sacramento media outlets reported that Casspi was jet-lagged and overwhelmed after taking part in the welcoming ceremony June 27, which was the same date he departed Israel. The event included fireworks and music, and afterward he went shopping at the Kings’ team store.

“I didn’t expect all that,” Casspi told “I’m happy to be here and to see that the fans really like us and want us to succeed.”

In the summer league in Las Vegas, the Kings’ team will be playing five games over 10 days, meaning Casspi will be given plenty of opportunities to prove his worth.

“On the flight to San Francisco, we finally had some time to sleep and realize what happened,” Casspi told the Jerusalem Post. “I know a lot more about the Kings now. The city is great. The fans are amazing.”

Whether Casspi starts next season or comes in off the bench, the mere fact that he was a first-round pick signifies the growing popularity of basketball in Israel — and his selection was huge news there.

Israel’s Sport 5 television channel broadcast the draft live starting at 2:30 a.m. local time, and stationed a camera in the living room of Casspi’s parents’ house.

Casspi, “OC” to his teammates, originally told Sport 5 he wanted to wear No. 13, his Maccabi Tel Aviv number, with the Kings. But he was given No. 18 after another player requested 13.

Sacramento’s small Jewish population is reportedly excited about Casspi’s arrival. In fact, 21 members of the Mosaic Law Congregation left on a 10-day trip to Israel a few days ago that suddenly included a visit with Casspi’s family at their home outside Tel Aviv.

According to the Sacramento Bee, Casspi’s parents extended the invitation through a mutual friend — and everyone in the group was bringing Kings T-shirts, some with a new design: a Kings logo and Star of David intertwined.

J. intern Michael Lazarus contributed to this report.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.