Rockets center Omer Asik is a chain-wire fence. Behind defensive rotations that are regularly seamless, he gobbles up every loose ball within reasonable length of his giraffe-neck arms, protecting the paint as if it were covering a mound of solid gold.
This is what he’s best at, and this is what he prefers to do. Defense is why Asik was brought to Houston; he contributes vital skills at a consistently elite level, helping elevate the play of those around him.
Very few centers can corral a pick-and-roll, win a pure strength battle for position against a 290-plus pound man, and, without picking up a foul, convince a guard that finishing at the rim isn’t such a bright idea.
More than a few times this season Asik did all three on the same possession. But when taking stock of Asik’s value, a question must be asked: How do you grade a player who looks so dominant on one side of the ball, and so inept on the other?
There’s much more to offense than scoring, but those factors ultimately exist as a necessary means to putting the ball in the basket. Asik makes himself useful by setting some of the best ball screens in basketball and grabbing a high number of offensive rebounds (he’s snatching 13.7% of all available balls to him on the offensive glass).
But Houston’s up-tempo, pick-and-roll heavy offense calls for a big man who can do a little more. The Rockets need someone with quick feet who can consistently catch a pass while moving towards the basket, then either finish through traffic or get to the free-throw line. Omer Asik is not this player, yet. But he’s getting there.
“A” for effort
Let’s begin by commending Asik for something elementary yet overlooked: an ability to stay on the court. In his first two years with the Bulls, fatigue was a major detriment for the 26-year-old big man.
When you combine his team’s breakneck pace (according to NBA.com/Stats, the Rockets are the second fast team in the NBA, averaging 97.84 possessions per 48 minutes) with several teams throughout the league going through a positional revolution that at times takes away a traditional center for Asik to defend, it’s a minor miracle he’s able to stay on the floor as much as he does.
(We saw this midway through the second quarter of their brutal loss against Houston, when the Knicks subbed Steve Novak in for Tyson Chandler, going with a Carmelo Anthony/Raymond Felton/Jason Kidd/Novak/J.R. Smith unit in an attempt to put their offense in hyper drive. Asik was forced to defend Novak for a single possession—on cue, he drained a three—and Kelvin Sampson responded with an immediate time-out to replace the biggest player on his team with Daequan Cook.)
Asik’s enduring performance indicates he’s in shape, staying out of foul trouble, and contributing on both ends of the court. So far he’s averaging more minutes per game than DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson, Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh, and Tyson Chandler.
He’s only averaging seven minutes per fourth quarter (mostly due to a free-throw percentage in the low 60s), however his individual defensive rating for the period is a respectable 90.2 points per 100 possessions.
Offense at its ugliest
Being on the court is great, but what’s done when there is obviously more important. Summing things up about as nicely as anyone could, Omer Asik doing things with the ball in his hands might be the least aesthetically pleasing action I’ve ever seen at the NBA level.
Of all the seven-footers from the past 25 years to start at least 60 games, average at least 30 minutes a night, and attempt more than eight shots per game, only Michael Olowokandi (twice) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (primarily a jump-shooter) shot less than 44.4% from the field, which is what Asik’s currently posting.
A silver lining here should read that Asik’s elite rebounding and defense are a big reason he’s able to stay on the floor (this includes his ability to keep possessions alive on the offensive glass and set bone-crushing screens to spring the likes of Jeremy Lin, James Harden, and Chandler Parsons free) but it’s fair to say the Turkish center we’ve seen throughout the first month of this season might be the worst scoring seven-footer in league history.
Asik doesn’t look like an offensive player. Nobody would confuse him for a gazelle running the floor, and there have been multiple situations this season where he’s received the ball underneath the basket and immediately looked to pass it out.
At times Asik is the NBA’s re-creation of Steinbeck’s “George,” weary of his own strength and fearful of unleashing it on a smaller, weaker player for the sole purposes of winning a game. He appears scared. Not of any opponent, but of himself—of the embarrassing spectacle that is a giant baby-faced man attempting a wild reverse layup or air-balling a free-throw. The problem is major, but it’s also mental. If targeted by Houston’s coaching staff, this problem should easily be corrected soon enough.
There’s no secret to where Asik is getting his points; 98.2% of his scoring is coming either in the paint (at the rim) or at the free-throw line. He’s yet to log a possession in isolation, per Synergy. And from 11 field goal attempts in post up situations, he’s made one basket while turning the ball over a quarter of the time.
Here’s his shot chart for the entire season, not to be viewed by children under the age of 17.
He might never possess the dexterity of Marc Gasol, or the imposing athletic force of Tyson Chandler. But Asik will get better—for the simple reason that it’s almost impossible for someone to get any worse at a craft they practice every day, he has to.
The league’s best defensive center?
Is Omer Asik the best defensive center in basketball? With Dwight Howard not yet playing like the Dwight Howard we’re so accustomed to watching, a solid argument can be made to say yes, yes he is.
With the Bulls, Asik’s claim to fame was his help defense; a tremendous ability to anchor the lane, contain pick-and-roll action, and serve as a titanium safety net for his four teammates should they ever stumble. When Asik is on the court, all the Rockets in front of him are bloated with confidence, playing extra aggressive on the perimeter, knowing even if they’re beat, a gigantic monster is waiting to change their man’s plans at the basket.
Going up against the league’s starters each and every night has been one of the many new tests Asik’s faced with expanded responsibilities this season. Overall he’s been pretty great, which is what you’d expect.
But there are still several blips on the radar that indicate areas of improvement in man-to-man play. For starters (or should I say, this is pretty much the only flaw), Asik has been prone to falling for pump fakes on a regular basis. He’ll start a possession using his strength as a weapon, pushing his man into an uncomfortable position, only to lose all the ground he fought for on a pump-fake blow by. (If Greg Monroe wants to shoot a 15-footer, let him!).
To be fair, in exchange for those minor isolated mistakes, Asik regularly alters how an offense wants to attack the basket by simply standing on the baseline; we’ve yet to find a suitable metric capable of quantifying just how much of an influence he has on a possession to possession basis. But judging from the eye test, he’s doing a damn good job. Take this play against the Lakers as an example.
Los Angeles begins their play with some semi-serious action, a back cut feed from Antawn Jamison to Jodie Meeks on the wing. Meeks may not be known for his slashing ability, but he still qualifies as an NBA player, so an uncontested layup would likely result in two points.
Asik thwarts it by shifting down in the lane, not overplaying and still maintaining defensive position on the more consequential threat, Howard. The ball is reversed back to Jamison, who beats Marcus Morris off the dribble on a half-hearted drive to the basket. Once again Asik is there clogging up the lane, so a pass is made back out to Meeks as a means to eventually get the ball into Howard’s hands.
By the time Howard catches entry pass, he’s 15 feet from the basket—because Asik decided that’s where he wanted him to be—with less than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Howard makes his move baseline, straight towards a rotating Terrence Jones, and is unable to convert on a difficult reverse dunk try that would’ve made Julius Erving blush.
Asik impacts possessions like this on a regular basis, sliding across the paint with perfect timing, checking multiple players on the same play, denying the ball, rarely finding himself out of position—he’s hardly ever the squeaky wheel in a Rockets defensive rotation.
Again, numbers can’t accurately describe Asik’s stout defensive play. For example, according to Synergy, the roll men in pick-and-rolls are shooting 61.5% when Asik’s defending them. But almost every made basket has come on a mid-range jumper that Asik forced. There’s virtually no chance that shooting percentage will maintain itself as the season goes on.
Also, his advanced plus/minus figures don’t yet show just how much better the Rockets defense has been with Asik on the court as opposed to off, but that can probably be chalked up to a combination of the team’s poor transition defense and incredibly fast pace. Ask any coach in the league if he’d rather run a half-court set with Asik on the court or off of it, and all will say off, emphatically, with bribe money at the ready.
What to make of it all
Asik is an All-Star center, in my opinion. He impacts the game in a variety of ways that aren’t highlighted on SportsCenter clips or quantified in box scores (also, in ways that are quantified in box scores…LOOK AT THOSE REBOUNDING NUMBERS), but nonetheless, he impacts the game in ways few others at his position do.
It’s safe to say his offense has been terror for the eyes, but we knew that heading into the season. Believe it or not, he was even worse with the Bulls, and he’s getting better as this season progresses. Asik may never be a dominant low post threat, but the Rockets don’t really need that. They paid for his defense, and that’s what they’re getting. Anything more is icing on the cake. Expect more icing.