Exploring Omer Asik’s offensive limitations

A couple mornings ago I awoke from a dream that took place in a world where Omer Asik was a dependable offensive player. The Rockets would dribble up the floor, run some dummy weak side action to clear one side of the court, then toss the ball down low and wait for Asik to embarrass some anonymous unlucky giant who happened to be guarding him. Waking up, I forced a chuckle, knowing the likelihood of this scenario was about as probable as that time I eluded two great white sharks chasing me around a Starbucks.

Then I thought about it for a second. Is it really inconceivable for an athletic 26-year-old, who’s never been asked to score before, to incorporate a new function into his job description? In the case of Asik, maybe? Now that his minutes will more than double as a starter, the increase in possessions he’ll take part in could open up some interesting opportunities. Either that or Asik will find himself ostracized whenever his team has the ball. Only time will tell.

From a categorical standpoint, Asik is one of the most boring, easily definable players in today’s NBA. Everyone knows his identity, and nobody has ever expected much more. He’s a defensive big man whose basic responsibilities involve protecting the basket, containing ball-handlers on the pick and roll, taking charges, filling gaps, plugging holes, and, basically, existing as his defensive unit’s coat rack: while Houston’s other four defenders are scurrying around—gambling, helping, switching—Asik is the most important piece of the bunch, different in that he’s figuratively rooted in place with the function of holding everything together. Asik will have a ton of responsibility as the back line of Kevin McHale’s defense, tasked with enhancing an undersized defensive unit just as the Marcus Camby/Samuel Dalembert duo did with last year’s team.

In terms of traditional positions, he might be the only person (apart from Kevin Martin, whose speculated status on the trade market makes him less a Rockets player than a Rockets contract) on Houston’s entire roster who comfortably fits into one of basketball’s five customary slots. Jeremy Lin is a “point guard,” but last season he was more known for getting to the basket and creating opportunities for himself than anything else. Donatas Motiejunas is a three-point shooting big man. Royce White is whatever Royce White wants to be. Chandler Parsons is a do-everything glue guy capable of attacking the basket as much as skillfully defending almost any player in the NBA out on the perimeter. Asik is a center, and there’s no arguing it.

Being such that Asik’s defensive contributions are (hopefully) a given, it’s time to focus in on what this guy might be able to do with the ball in his hands. Recently, Rockets.com writer Jason Friedman wrote a fantastic piece describing the hard work Asik is putting in to overcome his offensive deficiencies, most notably at the free throw line and in post up situations. The article is an obvious must read, but there were a few lines from Asik’s trainer, Carroll Dawson, that I feel are worth quoting here.

“I have never seen how much power this kid’s got. I’ve been behind some of the best, from Moses Malone to Olajuwon to Yao, and you can’t move this kid. He’s 295, 7-foot and he’s strong as an ox. He can get on the floor and help us defensively already. He doesn’t have to be a great offensive player. He just has to handle the situations that come to him. If he does that, he’ll be a big plus for the Rockets….If we get where we can throw him the ball in the deep post and he can get us some points every now and then, that’s going to be a big plus.”

Two things stand out here: 1) If Asik is as strong as Dawson says he is, then he should be able to establish position deeper than most centers in the league. If able to do so, half the battle is already won. 2) It might not come this season, but if Asik can someday become a guy with the ball who is trusted by his teammates, then all of a sudden that escalated third-year in his contract doesn’t look so bad—both as a tradeable asset and appropriately priced commodity.

In two seasons of NBA action, Asik has attempted 297 shots from the field. 275 of them came in the Restricted Area. According to Synergy, approximately two out of every 10 attempts by Asik came in either a post up situation or as the drifting body in a pick-and-roll. By contrast, three out of every 10 attempts came from sheer effort on the offensive glass (throughout his career, Asik has averaged almost as many offensive rebounds per 36 minutes as field goal attempts).

Most of his shots in the post were rushed attempts off super quick entrance passes that make it look as if Chicago’s objective was more to catch the defense off guard than put the ball in the basket. Asik’s go-to move was an ugly jump hook that he’d catapult towards the back of the rim with a leathery touch. His up and under was more an up and eat-my-shoulder that afforded him very little space in trying to get a decent shot off.

Apart from those opportunities, one of the best ways Houston should look to use Asik on offense is after he sets a baseline screen for a curling guard. If the screen he sets is a typical brick wall, and the guard catches an open pass inside the three-point line, Asik should find himself open for a moment’s time as his man hesitates on whether or not he should close out on the guard or stay at home underneath. It’s almost as if he’s slipping the screen, but I wouldn’t dramatize it that far. The whole play is as simple as anything a player in the NBA can do to score, especially someone standing at a legitimate 7’0″.

All Asik needs to do is make himself available for a pass by giving a slight pivot or turn of the hips, put his hands up, then turn and attack the basket, which should stand just a few feet from his forehead. (Last season with the Bulls, only one teammate assisted more than eight of Asik’s total baskets: Kyle Korver, with 15. If Kevin Martin’s still on the roster next season, or Jeremy Lamb is able to establish himself as a catch and shoot threat, look for the Rockets to run a lot of the this action with Asik as a major beneficiary).

The entire process of transforming someone with limited offensive ability into a reliable option is a long one, if possible at all. But knowing Asik is willing to give it a try is more than any fan can ask for at this point. Unless he isn’t continuing possessions by attacking the offensive glass, getting on him for scoring faults this season will be unnecessary and misguided. Asik is doing his best to show his worth as a worthy two-way player. Like a young actor who fears being typecast, he isn’t settling into a role most identify him with, but instead exploring all his physical abilities and testing his limitations. It has the makings of turning into a dream come true.

Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

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