Kings rookie Omri Casspi, the first ever Israeli player to earn playing time in the NBA, drew pregame praise from Phil Jackson entering L.A.’s second matchup with Sacramento in six days.
Moments later, we spent a few minutes with Casspi – who’s averaging 12.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists – in the Kings’ locker room prior to Friday evening’s tip at STAPLES Center.
MT: How has the NBA compared to what you thought it might be coming in?
Casspi: It’s like I thought it was going to be. The best players in the world competing every night, guys playing hard … the same as I thought.
MT: You played at the highest level of European basketball in intense atmospheres for your Israeli team, Maccabi Tel Aviv .. Is the biggest difference the individual skill levels of the players in the NBA?
Casspi: The players on my team are better, and the players on the other team are better. Just to compete against those guys night in and night out – Kobe, ‘Melo, LeBron – is a big challenge for me. I’m getting used to it.
MT: Several of the Lakers players, and Phil Jackson, were impressed with how you competed against them last week. Having seen a few other Kings games, that seems to be how you approach every contest.
Casspi: That’s just the way I play. I play hard and compete no matter who it’s against. It’s a big challenge to play the Lakers; for them it might just be another game to play the Kings, but wherever they go, people try to show up and play their best because it’s the Lakers and they are champions. I know because I’ve been in that position in my country. I believe we can win against any team, any where.
MT: Can you describe the NBA’s impact in your country?
Casspi: There are a lot more NBA games shown live in Israel, and more games in general. Obviously there’s a lot more attention now that I’m here. I hope (the Kings are the favorite team) there now.
MT: They better be. Who are the other favorite teams and players in Israel?
Casspi: They better be (laughs). In the 1990′s, it was the Bulls with Michael Jordan. Later it was the Lakers. There are a lot of Lakers fans and just fans in general because Israelis love basketball.
MT: There are seven foreign players combined between your and the Lakers’ roster. Pretty cool, right?
Casspi: It’s a great thing to see and be apart of. Hopefully this continues to open doors for more to come, including in Israel. There’s great basketball being played all over the world.
MT: Finally, what were your impressions of Kobe Bryant after playing against him last week?
Casspi: Even better than what I thought he was. He’s tough, man. He’s coming to play. He’s playing hard, and he’s relentless. He doesn’t stop. He keeps playing and playing and playing – he’s unbelievable to watch. He hasn’t missed a game in two years, right? He just doesn’t quit … I’m looking forward to competing against him once again, though.