San Francisco Chronicle

Cut­ting to rim gives for­ward a de­cided edge

- By Con­nor Le­tourneau

Omri Casspi reck­ons he has the eas­i­est job in the NBA. On a War­riors team loaded with All-Stars, the journeyman for­ward is free to curl off screens, race to­ward the rim and make layups.

“It’s mostly the sys­tem, man,” Casspi said. “I’m just play­ing hard. I’m re­ally not do­ing any­thing spe­cial.”

His coaches and team­mates dis­agree. In a league begin­ning to pri­or­i­tize off-ball move­ment over iso­la­tion plays, they be­lieve Casspi is one of the best at an in­creas­ingly val­ued skill: cut­ting to the rim.

He is a mid­dling ath­lete by NBA stan­dards, but Casspi is a mas­ter at run­ning hard to­ward the bas­ket the mo­ment his de­fender turns away from him. It helps that, with Stephen Curry, Klay Thomp­son and Kevin Du­rant com­mand­ing op­po­nents’ at­ten­tion, Casspi tends to have plenty of

room to op­er­ate. By the time the de­fense can re­act, the ball is al­ready rolling off Casspi’s fin­ger­tips.

Nearly 84 per­cent of his shots this sea­son have come within 10 feet of the bas­ket, and less than a quar­ter of them have re­quired him to hold the ball for at least two sec­onds. On 59.8 per­cent of his at­tempts, Casspi hasn’t needed to drib­ble.

“In to­day’s NBA, it’s es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “Most teams in the league, our­selves in­cluded, have no idea how to guard a back-cut in the mod­ern NBA.”

Casspi is shoot­ing 60.5 per­cent from the field, nearly 16 points above his ca­reer av­er­age. The back-door cuts have been so ef­fec­tive that he hasn’t needed to do much else. Casspi is shoot­ing 60 per­cent from beyond the arc, but his 0.6 three­p­oint tries per game are a ca­reer low.

With Dray­mond Green side­lined the past four games by a sore right shoul­der, Casspi has av­er­aged 13.5 points, nine re­bounds and 2.3 as­sists in 26.8 min­utes. All of that from a player on a one-year, vet­eran-min­i­mum deal worth $2.1 mil­lion.

“When you see him work out one-on-one, you wouldn’t think he’s the great­est ath­lete,” Thomp­son said. “But when you get out there in a 5-on-5 set­ting, he’s so good. He’s al­ways in mo­tion, and he just knows how to play the game.”

A Holon, Is­rael, na­tive, Casspi learned early with the Mac­cabi Tel Aviv youth team that off-ball move­ment was the only way to ad­vance to the se­nior club. His coaches barked at him when­ever he took more than a drib­ble or two. In the Is­raeli League, where play­ers were far craftier than they were ath­letic, games were pred­i­cated on curl­ing off screens, max­i­miz­ing an­gles and mak­ing the ex­tra pass.

Dur­ing pre-draft work­outs for NBA teams in 2009, Casspi was dis­ap­pointed when frontof­fice ex­ec­u­tives asked him to go one-on-one with other prospects at the top of the key or in the post. His play­ing style ne­ces­si­tated a team frame­work. A catch-and-shoot mae­stro, Casspi was il­lit­er­ate on the iso­la­tion moves pop­u­lar in the NBA at the time.

His fears were eased when he went No. 23 over­all to Sacra­mento, which counted long­time Prince­ton head coach Pete Car­ril as a con­sul­tant. A form of Car­ril’s famed mo­tion sys­tem, which calls for fre­quent back­door cuts and ball re­ver­sal, was used by for­mer Sacra­mento head coach Rick Adel­man with much suc­cess early in the decade.

There should be no sur­prise that two of Casspi’s best sea­sons (2009-11) came play­ing in the Kings’ mod­i­fied ver­sion of Car­ril’s Prince­ton of­fense. Casspi also thrived in 2015-16 un­der head coach Ge­orge Karl, whose pace-and-space sys­tem em­pha­sized off-ball move­ment.

The prob­lem was that those teams were stocked with play­ers more ac­cus­tomed to iso­la­tion plays. Casspi of­ten ran un­touched to­ward the rim, only to watch a team­mate hoist a con­tested jumper.

Over the past three years, as the War­riors reached three NBA Fi­nals and won two cham­pi­onships, Casspi re­peat­edly heard from friends that he should try to join Golden State. Kerr’s move­ment-heavy seemed the ideal fit for Casspi’s play­ing style. In July, he turned down a one-year, $4.5 mil­lion of­fer from a likely lot­tery-bound team to sign with the War­riors for less than half as much.

Af­ter spend­ing the sum­mer with the Is­raeli na­tional team, he ar­rived at train­ing camp in game shape. It took only a prac­tice or two of watch­ing Casspi cut hard to the rim for Kerr to re­al­ize that Golden State had landed a ro­ta­tion-cal­iber player at a bar­gain.

Now, with Green out, Casspi has got­ten an ex­tended op­por­tu­nity to show­case the fun­da­men­tal skill he has long per­fected.

Late in the sec­ond quar­ter of Wed­nes­day night’s win over Mem­phis, Casspi saw his de­fender turn away, darted through the lane, caught a pass from Thomp­son and banked in the wide-open layup. As he ran back on de­fense, Casspi smiled and pointed at Thomp­son to sig­nal his thanks.

“It’s a dream come true to play in this sys­tem,” Casspi said. “My job is so easy.”

 ?? Chris Carl­son / As­so­ci­ated Press ?? Omri Casspi (18) has scored in dou­ble dig­its in each of the past four games, in­clud­ing a 14-point night in L.A. on Mon­day.
Chris Carl­son / As­so­ci­ated Press Omri Casspi (18) has scored in dou­ble dig­its in each of the past four games, in­clud­ing a 14-point night in L.A. on Mon­day.

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