As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. This morning's three: Omri Casspi, Alec Burks, and Trey Johnson.
• • •
Follow Omri Casspi on twitter at @Casspi18.
When a person transitions from a young child to a young adult, there's a certain amount of soul searching that takes place. Whether it be searching for excuses to never grow up, trying desperately to append meaning to your existence, or simply expanding your dietary habits, there's a certain amount of calibration and mending that occurs as one comes of age. For the most part, there's a common theme -- that of figuring out your identity. As you get older you get more and more comfortable with who you are, and the process of self-searching slows down for a little bit -- only to be replaced with the process of helping others in their search, whether it be your still-growing friends or (someday) your children. A never-ending cycle, for most, and one of the many journeys that defines a person's life. Omri Casspi is different than most, because his guiding identity has been decided for him.
That's one of the cruel facts of being a major star, actually. People begin to conflate your performance in your profession to your identity -- to some extent this is reasonable and fine, but in others it overrides their personality and makes them a subject of mockery and derision. Richard Jefferson is by all accounts an incredibly nice person, but when he and his fiancee decided to break it off, pundits and fans retreated to a ridiculous number of clumsy comparisons to his somewhat disappointing game. It can also work the other way around, when players like Kyle Lowry and Jason Kidd get their transgressions ignored and joked about because we all assume they're better people than that. After all, in the case of Kidd, he was the fourth best player on a title team! And in the case of Lowry, he's a fan-favorite! Thus do we create a dichotomy wherein an athlete has two identities, one public and one private. This tends to be true for public figures, but it happens to something of an extreme for sports stars.
Omri Casspi has avoided that. Mostly because his identity is entirely exogenous to his sport -- like Jimmer Fredette's identity is tied to his Mormonism -- and based in the confines of his religion and origin. Tends to happen when you're the first of your kind, I suppose. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Casspi is the very first Israeli-born player to both be drafted in the first round and play minutes in the NBA. This brings with it many positive things (including touching moments like this, where noted activist Ari Ackerman introduced him with a speech reminding himself and the crowd that Casspi isn't simply a hero to kids, but "a hero to many") and many negative things (notably the neo-nazi defacing of a Casspi poster and statue in Sacramento). And indeed, there's something heroic about Casspi, even if his game (which, for brevity's sake: is not very well-developed on an NBA level and may not be long for this league) in no way would indicate that and his quiet personality would tend to indicate otherwise. He is a hero not because he seeks it out but because circumstance simply ended up putting him there. There is no bombast, no element of self-obsession for Casspi. Only humble acceptance of the outsized love and following received for his identity, and quiet but sturdy refutation of those always looking to put him down.
No matter where he goes, there will be insane fans who apply some sort of special shroud when looking at his game, some added judgment for being so fundamentally Jewish and so heroic to a group of people they have inexplicable loathing for. And these people do exist -- I feel like I've met dozens who conflate support with Omri Casspi to support for Israel and her policies, and by extension scream and rant and rave at me and others. "How can you support Israel, and rats like him!" They stomp and yell and complain. Omri Casspi doesn't seem to let this get to him. By all accounts, he looks past it simply by focusing on the support and love he gets from the Jewish community. In this way, Casspi actually IS something of a hero to I and many other Jews -- he demonstrates how to accept love and counteract hate. He shows us how to do that without becoming obsessed with yourself, and remaining humble. That's something of a universal message, but by coming from the homeland and being the strongest practicing Jew in sports, Casspi is able to share it and experience it with his fans and loved ones. And that, more than anything, would be my explanation for his enduring popularity and the happiness felt by many at watching him play and succeed. I'm not going to lie -- he may not be the best player on the Cavaliers, but beyond Kyrie and Andy, he's my favorite. He's humble, honest, and lives his life as I'd live mine. I hold a ton of respect for Casspi, and I am incredibly glad he's in my favorite league.
• • •
Follow Alec Burks on twitter at @AlecBurks10.
Random numbers can be wonderful. They can also, at times, be horrible -- especially when it comes to player #41, who I was reaaally hoping would be somehow misplaced by the randomizer. But in the case of this player they were great to me. You see, on our first day, we actually featured Pau Gasol on his 32nd birthday. I was openly amused about that, and thought it was fantastic -- what were the odds that we'd do a player on his birthday, after all? Very slim -- the order is randomized, and due to the fact we won't be getting full day coverage, the overall expectation would be one or two over the entire 370, tops. Well, we're at two -- Alec Burks turns 21 today. This is where the "follow ___ on twitter" blurb becomes useful -- everyone should take a second to go and wish him a happy birthday. My 21st was mainly a waste -- a very full day at the office (as I was full-time salaried by then), a few slices of pizza, and a single beer. I dearly hope that Burks' birthday turns out better than that.
Anyway. Alec Burks is a player I don't really know how to assess. I don't think it's really his fault, either. Tyrone Corbin has done some good things with the Jazz in general, and has overseen a relatively seamless transition from the end of Sloan's tenure to a new era in Jazz basketball. He's done a passable job turning a very young team into a cohesive unit. But there are a lot of warts to his approach, and Burks is the unfortunate casualty of one of those warts -- a stupefying, incomprehensible focus on playing completely washed up veterans over young and developing players. To some extent, most coaches fall victim to this -- even Gregg Popovich once played Roger Mason Jr. an insane amount of minutes over a rookie, developing George Hill. But in Utah's case, the decision is absolutely inexcusable. Here's a young team working hard to develop cohesion amongst their young core, and here's Corbin essentially telling Burks, Kanter, and (in 2011) Hayward to shut up and play as though they're third rate scrubs.
Really... they're the future of the team, Mr. Corbin. Might want to get them a few minutes. Burks himself is rather nondescript as a player -- he's a lockdown shooter whose freshman season didn't really go all that well, from a shooting perspective. Unfortunately for Burks, if he's not knocking down shots, he isn't very useful. His rebounding is slightly above average for a guard, but his overall command of his handle isn't fantastic, and his passing ability leaves much to be desired. He does control the ball relatively well, though I felt it was primarily because he didn't put the ball on the floor very often -- he averaged a very low turnover percentage relative to league average. Nevertheless, it feels wrong to talk much about Burks' game. He honestly didn't play enough minutes for me to feel comfortable assessing its current state. I have a bad feeling about Burks as an absolutely elite player, but given the overall tendency in the league to start reclassifying players as small forwards or point guards, he may end up one of the better pure SG prospects in the league in a few years. If Corbin can resist playing Mo and Raja double the minutes Burks plays. Just a thought, Ty, if you're listening.
• • •
Follow Trey Johnson on twitter at @MrTreyJ.
I'm kind of sad Johnson came this early, because honestly, I consider his absurd and unreasonably useless gem the greatest trivial NBA-related fact I'm privy to. When people want me to prove I know things about basketball, I have a stock speech prepared where I simply recite this fact. They're ALWAYS in disbelief, and usually they'll check Google. When they come back with confirmation, they end up being confused, surprised, and bemused. In the interest of suspense, I'll start with my tale of his game BEFORE the fact. Johnson is a guard with serious NBA size -- he's 6'5" and 218 lbs of mostly-muscle. He's not an NBA regular, though -- he's played over five times as many games in the D-League as he has in the NBA. This is primarily because of a lack of athleticism. While he has the size and the strength, he lacks some of the quickness and wingspan you need to really contest things on he pro level. He was an electric scorer in high school and college, but his skills simply didn't translate very well to the major leagues. Which is a pity, as he was great in college. He's had a few ten-day contracts and played 169 minutes total in the pros, but as he's pushing 28 it's unlikely he'll see all that many more.
Now the fun part. Johnson's history is interesting. Clinton "Trey" Johnson was born to a baseball family -- his father and brother both played Division 1 NCAA Baseball while they earned their degrees, and as a kid, Johnson loved the game dearly. He actually didn't play basketball sub-professionally in high school until his senior year -- he kept himself only to rec leagues, the YMCA, and pickup basketball up until then. He was a walk-on to the basketball team his freshman year of college, and ended up developing enough that by his senior year Johnson was the leading scorer of the SWAC conference (and yes, I typo'd that as "SWAG" at least twice before getting it right), had changed his name to "Trey" to represent his three point shot, and a good bet to be drafted late in the second round. Unfortunately, he fell apart in scrimmages and ended up going undrafted. He went overseas for a spell, but came back quickly to try his hand at leading the Bakersfield Jam, the Clippers' D-League affiliate. He did well, and as such has gotten a decent number of call-ups in his time, but you do start to wonder what he'll do when the career comes to an end.
"Wait," you say, "Why did he start basketball so late?" Because, dear readers, he wasn't intending on going pro. Johnson's real goal in high school and as a child was to make an MLB team. And sure enough, he was a baseball star throughout high school and an absolutely dazzling pitching prospect after a stunningly good senior season. So good, in fact, that he was drafted straight out of high school by the Kansas City Royals. From there, he went to Alcorn State -- tragedy struck in his first game, however, and he tore two ligaments in his pitching arm. It completely sapped the strength of his go-to fastball and ruined his prospects as a pitcher entirely. THAT'S what led Johnson to switch from baseball to basketball -- necessity, not desire. But in some ways, it's actually a good thing he never got drafted -- Johnson's in the record books as the only player in any sport to play exclusively in a league he wasn't drafted for despite being drafted for another major sports league.
A little convoluted, but basically, he's the only person who was drafted to play another sport but never got to make good on that draft selection, then ended up becoming an undrafted rotation player in another major sports league. He has never played professionally in the sport that drafted him. That's not just rare, to my research, it's absolutely never happened before. Which is insane. Another cool thing about Mr. Trey Johnson? We share a birthday. He was born on August 30th, 1984. I was born on August 30th as well, though the year was significantly later. Still. Big ups to my man Trey Johnson, repping the good ol' late-August birthday. And big ups to Trey Johnson for making his own way and fixing up his life despite being forced to give up his favorite sport because of a freak injury. It's one of those weird, unique, and amazing stories that virtually nobody knows but everyone should. It's hilarious and awesome.
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next batch. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. This time, we actually have zero people who got ANY of them right. Problems! To be fair, Omri Casspi played the most out of any of these players, and even he was barely a 20 MPG guy.
- The second worst contract on the Clippers, in my view -- not a fan of Player #40.
- SKEETS AND I WILL DESTROY PLAYER #41 WITH OUR BARE, RIGHTEOUS FURY.
- Hah, another Jazz player. Unfortunately for Jazz fans, though, Player #42 might be the worst who ever played for the Jazz.