Asik anchors Bulls' second unit
The Bulls' rookie center is so much more than 84 inches of trade bait
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Around the trade deadline, a lot of radio-call-in and tweet-happy experts were blinded by the sight of Keith Bogans' very existence, not to mention the particular clanking sound his jumper too often makes.
They thought the Chicago Bulls should have made some kind of deal to get a shiny new starting 2-guard that some other team didn't want anymore.
To some, Omer Asik was nothing but 7 feet, 255 pounds of trade bait.
To that, Derrick Rose shakes his head.
"No, no, no," Rose said emphatically. "I think in the playoffs you need size, and that's where he's going to help us out."
Rose is a guy you listen to, but he didn't have to convince the Bulls' brain trust. Asik isn't quite the untouchable that Rose and Joakim Noah are, but his value isn't defined by his statistics. In fact, I think Asik is the wild card of the Bulls' playoff chase, which has gone from quixotic to realistic in the past two-and-a-half months.
The Istan-Bull's numbers aren't that important. He averages 2.5 points and 4 rebounds in 12 minutes a game, numbers that don't tell an entire story. Though if you extrapolate those figures over 48 minutes, he's averaging 10.1 points, 15.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.
Asik is mostly given credit for his defensive prowess, for mixing it up down low and snagging rebounds in traffic. If you want an idea of his offensive potential, look at his dribble-drive dunk against Golden State, but he's good at the little things too.
"He's a better offensive player than he's given credit for," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "His scoring isn't where it will ultimately end up, but he can help you execute. He's very smart, he sets great screens, he's a great offensive rebounder and he's a very underrated passer. I think as he gets more and more comfortable and confident, he'll score more for us."
In his past five games, the 24-year-old Asik has averaged 16.8 minutes and collected 38 total rebounds, including 13 in 31 minutes in a huge win over the Orlando Magic. He played Dwight Howard without a hint of fear, and he already frustrated Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh, who disparaged Asik's hustle and noted players shouldn't dive for close balls.
Thibodeau defended his player then, and lauds Asik's defensive strides now. Watching him up close Monday night, I was most impressed with his discipline. He wasn't just energy.
"He's made great strides playing in that restricted area," Thibodeau said. "Plays early in the season that were fouls, now have become just good plays, because he's learned to jump straight up and pull his hands back. He's been very effective at that."
Asik has shown his value anchoring the second unit, which is the best defensive five-man unit, according to NBA.com.
The quintet of Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and C.J. Watson don't play huge minutes together, but when it does, opposing teams rarely score. That group gives up just 74.5 points per 100 possessions/96 minutes, as writer John Schuhmann of NBA.com posted on Twitter on Tuesday.
"That unit has played great for us," Thibodeau said.
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You know how Kenyon Martin said basketball isn't "mixed doubles" tennis and Phil Jackson said he detests "Xbox" basketball. Well, the Bulls' bench isn't what they're talking about.
"They beat us in practice, sometimes," Rose said. "We're not surprised how they're playing. They play aggressive and they love playing together, that's the key. It's team basketball and they know how to move and where each other are going to be on the court."
So when we speak of Asik in excited tones, it's not just because he occasionally throws down a dunk that resembles the silhouette on Shaq's old shoes.
No, Asik has real value to a contender and his development this season, and especially in the near future, could be critical to the Bulls' desire to add to the banners inside the Berto Center and atop the United Center.
"He has the makeup that will allow him to get better year after year," Thibodeau said. "I think we're just seeing the beginning."
You haven't heard much from Asik off the court. His English is improving, his sense of humor is evident, and his comprehension is quite good.
Basketball teams can get very cliquish, but the Bulls try to do things as a team on the road, and Asik is included in the fun.
After a January win in Indianapolis, Asik had the locker room in stitches, reporters noted, when he donned a too-short, too-bright sweater. He was playing the role that European players have been forced into for decades, the guy in the tight clothes.
"It's hard to find clothes at that size," Rose surmised. "So he's got to get whatever he can find."
Asik laughed at the memory.
"It was short," he said. "I really don't like bulky clothes. I like slim and you can't find any slim and long at the same time. It was a little bit shorter. They made a lot of fun."
Asik wears his jersey extra-snug as well, and with his curly hair and pale complexion, he often looks like a very tall hipster at Lollapalooza wearing someone else's retro jersey.
The Bulls knew he was a player early. They scouted him hard, and set their sights on him in the 2008 draft and gave Portland some extra picks to take him with the 36th pick in the second round. Asik had some injury problems, knee surgery in September 2008 and then a broken collarbone this past December. Some wondered if he would be nothing more than another Dragan Tarlac.
Despite those injuries, Asik developed well at Fenerbache Ulker, a successful Istanbul-based team that is defending champion of the Turkish League. He was called up to the national team for the FIBA World Championships last summer in Turkey, averaging nearly nine points and seven rebounds a game for a squad that lost to Rose's USA team in the championship game.
Turkey is a soccer-mad country, as evidenced in a wonderful feature story in a recent New Yorker. I brought that issue to the Berto and Asik's eyes lit up.
"That's Besiktas," he said, looking at a picture of that club's rabid fan base. "Soccer fans are unbelievable."
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Asik said he's enjoying the fervor of the Bulls fans, too. Basketball is gaining traction in Turkey, but it's still not like Chicago, where fans chant "MVP" at Rose when he misses a free throw or ties his shoe.
"Basketball fans are mostly also soccer fans," Asik said. "But the basketball [attention] is getting better after the last world championships, what we did in Turkey. They know basketball better now. But the basketball culture is different than soccer culture."
Asik is enjoying Chicago, though he's not too fond of living in the suburbs.
"Yeah, I don't like this area too much," he said. "Nothing to do here. I love the steakhouses in the city, like Gibsons, Mastros. I like the Signature Room, too."
His taste in food is excellent, better than his clothing options. While Chicago is just discovering Asik, where he does he think his game is at currently, compared to what it could be?
"I'm not where I want to be now," he said. "I hope to get there as soon as possible."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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