Will Omri Casspi become the first significant Israeli NBA player?
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Will Omri Casspi become the first significant Israeli NBA player?

Omri Casspi, who is set to be taken somewhere late in the first round of the NBA draft tonight, could end Israel’s drought of players playing in the world’s best basketball league.

USA Today has a feature today on the 6-9 Israeli, who has played four years in the Euroleague with Maccabi Tel Aviv:

Basketball is huge in Israel," said Casspi, 6-9, 222. "Every Euroleague game is a big thing in Israel. The (whole) country is following you. Everywhere you go everyone is talking to you and really respect you as a Maccabi player."

Casspi had a chance to see this support carry over to the USA when Maccabi played a couple of games here and the Jewish community came to see the team.

"We were amazed by the fans and the big support Maccabi players and the Maccabi organization got," Casspi said.

Casspi cited several differences in the international and NBA game, such as court size, but remains unfazed.

The larger NBA court allows for more spacing, while in Europe players can just camp out in the paint, Casspi said. The bigger court should help Casspi, who thrives on slashing to the basket on offense, NBA talent evaluator Ryan Blake said.

Casspi can "create off the dribble one-on-one with a quick first step and (he) can finish with either hand," Blake said. "He knows how to use the screener well, he knows how to use the pick-and-roll. (He) can go left, use the screen and pull up, pass or finish in the hole."

In predraft workouts, Casspi said he surprised some teams with his toughness and aggressiveness. He is a versatile player who has experience at every position except center.

The Jerusalem Post wonders aloud if basketball karma will let NBA success for an Israeli happen.

Israel has a long history of near misses when it comes to the NBA. Miki Berkowitz would have become the country’s first player in the best league in the world way back in 1979 had Maccabi Tel Aviv agreed to release him from his contract when the Atlanta Hawks came calling.

Nadav Hanefeld may well have been the first in the early 90s had he played more than a single impressive season at the University of Connecticut.

And Doron Sheffer was tipped by many to be a first round pick in the 1996 draft after three solid seasons at UConn, only to eventually be selected 36th by the Los Angeles Clippers.

Oded Katash and the New York Knicks even verbally agreed to terms in the summer of 1998, but he was denied the chance to make history after an NBA lockout delayed the start of the season until February of the following year.

Most recently Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were picked 44th and 53rd respectively in 2006, but don’t seem any closer to the NBA today than they were three years ago.

All of the above puts into context how significant next Thursday’s draft at Madison Square Garden in New York may prove to be to Israeli basketball.

According to Rotoworld, the Portland Trailblazers are targeting Casspi, and may have just traded three picks to move up two spots in the draft to nab him. The Portland Oregonian has a bit more on that speculation.