With Mekel’s arrival, Casspi has Israeli company on the NBA court
HOUSTON — Midway through the first quarter, Omri Casspi entered the preseason game between his Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks. A minute later, the buzzer sounded summoning Mavs rookie guard Gal Mekel into the Oct. 21 contest.
Casspi took his first shot, a three-pointer that missed. On the ensuing possession, Mekel scored on a driving layup.
Order was following form: Four years ago, Casspi became the first Israeli to play in the National Basketball Association. And with the new season tipping off this week, Mekel will become the second.
A reprise will occur imminently — this time when it counts in the standings — when the Mavericks return to Houston’s Toyota Center on Friday night in the first of four regular-season meetings between the Southwest Division clubs.
There’s no telling if those games will feature the chanting, adoring, Israeli flag-waving fans who punctuated Casspi’s NBA tenure early on or whether the adulation bestowed upon an Israeli pro in America has fizzled out before Mekel can feel the love, too.
The players, both 25, say they expect the atmosphere to resemble the former. While their in-season games will likely draw plenty of Israeli media, JTA spoke exclusively last week with Casspi and Mekel.
“It’s a big thing, I think, for such a small country to have two [NBA] players. It’s something unique,” Mekel said at the Mavericks’ downtown hotel here as Casspi sat across from him. “I saw the excitement when Omri came into the league, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing that, so hopefully we’ll bring pride.”
Casspi acknowledged that he “got excited” upon seeing that Dallas was Houston’s second opponent this season.
At 6-9, Casspi towers six inches above Mekel, so they won’t be matched against each other unless there is a defensive switch. Their coaches and teammates note similar characteristics in both players — primarily their competitiveness, commitment to improve, determination on defense and team-first mentality.
Like nearly every NBA player, they possess basketball pedigree — Casspi as a 2009 first-round draft choice of the Sacramento Kings, Mekel as the two-time Most Valuable Player in the Israel Basketball League. But Casspi’s output has declined steadily in his four NBA seasons and Mekel is a rookie, so they both have much to prove playing as reserves for talented teams in the strong Western Conference.
With Houston, Casspi is light years from his previous clubs, the lowly Kings and the rebuilding, post-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets are loaded, featuring new center Dwight Howard, forwards James Harden and Chandler Parsons, and point guard Jeremy Lin.
Mekel’s accomplished teammates include forward Dirk Nowitzki, who led Dallas to an NBA title three seasons ago, along with frontcourt partner Shawn Marion and guards Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis.
Helping the Israelis fit in is the extraordinary diversity of both clubs, with players hailing from Germany, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Lithuania, Haiti, Turkey and Brazil — to say nothing of Lin, the son of Taiwanese immigrants who ignited “Linsanity” during his brief tenure with the New York Knicks two seasons ago.
Mavs center Samuel Dalembert, a Haitian, stands out even beyond his 6-11 frame. Having played with Casspi on the Kings, he is the only one to count both Israelis as teammates.
“I’m making history,” a laughing Dalembert said.
Casspi already has found a kindred spirit in Lin. On the team bus, on the road and at Sabbath dinner at Casspi’s apartment, the two have talked about their ethnic pressures and struggles in establishing themselves in the NBA.
Lin says he and Casspi have gone through “some of the same things.”
With the Rockets, coach Kevin McHale has shifted Casspi into the stretch-4 position: a power forward capable of rebounding and reliably draining shots while playing away from the basket. It’s a job McHale, an authority on forward play by virtue of his Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics, believes Casspi is equipped for because “he’s big and is not afraid to bang.”
In fact, McHale says he has eyed Casspi ever since the Israeli was an 18-year-old on his national team.
“He was aggressive, he moved, he had a good overall feel,” McHale said in his office. “I thought he had a really good rookie year, a really good start to his NBA career. For the last couple of years, I didn’t think it worked for him.”
When Casspi became a free agent, McHale said he and general manager Daryl Morey went after him.
“Omri fits in with our style and, hopefully, our style fits him. It has so far,” McHale said. “I really like him. I think he’s a guy who’ll help us.”
Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson called Casspi “the surprise of our team” for whom the position change is making all the difference.
“When he plays the 4, he shows what he can do,” Sampson said. “When he plays the 3 [small forward], he shows what he can’t do.”
Mekel has adapted, too, following injuries to guards Shane Larkin, also a rookie, and Devin Harris that thrust opportunity upon him. His learning curve was steep early in training camp, said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. He was mistake-prone on offense — going airborne before deciding whether to shoot or pass, trying to split defenders he couldn’t beat and turning over the ball often, a huge no-no for a point guard.
But in four starts, Carlisle said, Mekel “made progress each and every game.”
“He’s knowledgeable, rugged and a very good playmaker, and his shooting is improving every day,” the Mavs veteran coach said.
Entering the NBA, outside shooting was the area Mekel most needed to improve, said his Maccabi Haifa coach, Brad Greenberg. But he added that the team’s run to last year’s IBL championship really showcased Mekel’s solid skill set: penetrating to the basket, distributing the ball, playing tough defense and providing leadership.
A close State Cup championship loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv, which Haifa later defeated for the IBL title, “was when I realized he was pretty special,” Greenberg said.
“He scored, he made clutch plays,” he said. “He had a standout game in a high-pressure situation against a great team.”
Mekel and Casspi actually honed their skills as teammates on junior clubs, including Tel Aviv’s, before Mekel headed to Wichita State to play two years. Casspi would win an IBL championship with Tel Aviv in 2009; Mekel won it the following season with Hapoel Gilboa Galil.
They have remained friends. Casspi referred Mekel to his Florida-based trainer after Mekel signed with Dallas. And last summer in Israel, Mekel watched Casspi and the rest of the national team practice for the EuroBasket tournament.
Their chat with JTA was akin to a family reunion.
“Did my father tell you? He saw your aunt in Slovenia,” Casspi said of the early-September tournament.
The aunt and Mekel’s father will fly in from Ramat Aviv for the Mavs-Rockets game on Friday, but Casspi’s family will wait for a longer homestand so they can attend more games.
Throughout the season, “we’ll watch each other, look up to each other,” Casspi said.
“For me, it’s great to have somebody to … get tips from,” Mekel said. “All the things rookies go through, I have a guy I can ask, and have a friend to speak the language with.”
Casspi and Mekel were ready to conclude the interview and head off to dinner. Perhaps down the line, they may even get to break bread with more Israelis in the NBA.
“If we do well and represent the country well,” Mekel said, “we could open the door for other guys, like Omri opened the door for me.”