Sam: Asik a work in progress with great potential

Sam: Asik a work in progress with great potential
October 24, 2010, 7:40 pm
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Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010
2:21 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam

Raise your hand if you thought Omer Asik would be an unathletic, soft, minimal-impact, international long-term project without the ability to significantly help the Bulls this season. Now, assuming youve watched the teams preseason games, put it down if youve seen enough from the rookie center to admit you were wrong. You wouldnt be the first.

Taking the Bulls history of drafting European players who havent panned outToni Kukoc being an obvious exception, but who can forget the tenures of Dalibor Bagaric and Dragan Tarlacinto consideration, skepticism upon hearing the offseason news that Asik had signed a three-year, 4-million deal with the organization and would suit up for the team this season would be justified. After watching Asiks development through the preseason, however, it seems as if the native of Bursa, Turkey, will not only be capable of contributing to the Bulls immediately, hell be expected to do so.

With power forward Carlos Boozer sidelined and various maladies and ailments limiting both center Joakim Noah and power forward Taj Gibson during the squads preseason slate, Asik has seen more action than anticipatedand handled it well. In eight preseason contests, Asik has averaged 5.3 points, snatched 6.9 rebounds (including 3.3 on the offensive end), shot 51.9 percent from the field and blocked 1.1 shots per contests in just under 20 minutes a night.

While it hasnt been all peaches and cream for the seven-foot-one, 255-pounderhes struggled at the charity stripe (hes made exactly half, 14 of 28, of his free-throw attempts, something hes dealt with throughout his career) and with whistle-happy NBA referees (hes committed 3.5 fouls per game)Asik, who has started four games when either Noah or Gibson were out of the lineup, has certainly had his moments. For example, in the Bulls preseason finale Saturday against Indiana, he put up a modest six points, but snatched 10 rebounds and blocked three shots in 26 minutes to help the Bulls to victory. Against Washington on Oct. 7, Asik came close to a double-double with nine points and 10 boards in a Chicago win, while scoring nine points, grabbing eight rebounds and swatting three Raptors shot attempts in a Bulls triumph Oct. 12.

Its helpful with Omer because its his first experience in the NBA, so hes probably played more than he would have and hes played extremely well, so I think with each opportunity that hes had to start, play, I think hes learning the NBA game. The thing is, hes a multiple-effort guy, hes in great shape, so hes done a lot of good things for us, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau about the 24-year-old rookie.

We love his size, his toughness. He plays smart, physical. Hes on the boards, he sets great screens. He does all the things that help your team play better, continued Thibodeau. Hes not afraid at all to mix it up. He pursues the ball. Theres contact, he goes right through it. Hes got great hands.

Asik has undoubtedly improved since he first started playing basketball at age 17, but those same aforementioned attributes are the aspects of his game that made him a hot commodity in his homeland, and eventually an NBA prospect. You see, the three-way trade the Bulls made to draft the center in 2008the Bulls gave up three second-round picks, trading them to Denver (which drafted current Toronto swingman Sonny Weems that year); Denver dealt another second-round pick to Portland, which drafted Asik with the 36th overall pick on Chicagos behalfis only part of Asiks story.

At 18, Asik, then a member of the junior team for perennial Euroleague powerhouse franchise Fenerbahce Ulker, played for a second-division Turkish Basketball League (TBL) team during the 2005-06 season. While he was in the Turkish national team pipeline, Asik wasnt very highly-regarded at the time, according to sources.

The following season, Asik was loaned to Alpella, a secondary Fenerbahce team that also plays in the first division of the TBL, viewed as one of the premier overseas leagues, with its parent organization. Asik showed improvement, averaging approximately nine points, 11 rebounds and two blocks during the 2006-07 season and raising some eyebrows in the process.

He was some sort of a surprise when he made his name in the Turkish league. He was actually playing for a smaller team and people were kind of wondering, Hey, whats going on? On this team, theres one guy whos all of a sudden collecting numbers and rebounds and blocks, and when he jumped to a big-time team, people were wondering, Can he still do the same thing? And actually, he jumped on a different scenario, right in the middle of the season, and he kept doing the same thing. Thats where you realized he had very interesting potential, recounted Toronto Raptors vice president Maurizio Gheradini to

Asik would average approximately 15 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks for contest for Alpella in 2007-08, before being called up to play for Fenerbahces big-boy squad in Istanbul midway through the season. Asik would go on to put up impressive numbers7.8 points on over 60 percent-shooting from the field and 5.5 rebounds in under 19 minutes per game; he would also set a round-of-16 playoff record with 19 blocked shotsfor the big-boy squad, putting him squarely on the map (as did his performances in all-star camps for European prospects, which were attended by NBA scouts) as an elite young prospect, which was evidenced by his selection as a TBL all-star in 2007 and 2008.

However, although he had emerged as a productive player with an extremely bright future, Asik was bitten by the injury bug, with a knee injury in 2008 and a collarbone injury in 2009 truncating those seasons for him. Despite those concerns, the Bulls still went on to draft the center, who recovered remarkably, by all accounts.

He had some sort of a setback when he got injuredand probably people were wondering how strong he could come back from the injury. I think his comeback has been remarkable. Hes probably stronger than before, Gheradini, the former general manager of storied franchise Benetton Treviso and considered one of the most astute judges of international talent, told Hes got an NBA body. Hes as tough as any player in the league. Hes going to surprise people with his ability to rebound and block shots. I think he gained confidence with his time with the Turkish national team over the summer.

If anybody can testify to Asiks development, its been the Bulls, who were ahead of the curve when it came to the prospect, thanks to international scout Ivica Dukan, who declined comment on the record for this story. Dukan identified Asik during his first professional season and quickly informed the front office about the prospects potential.

Duke Dukan had been tracking him for a number of years and really knew of him at a young age. I think he was friends with his coachPaxBulls executive vice president John Paxson and I had seen him play before we drafted him, Bulls general manager Gar Forman told We really targeted him in that 2008 draft as someone we thought had great potential and we really liked.

"That was our plan, that he would come over this summer--once he was out of his contract--and with that said, he had a number of very lucrative offers to stay overseas, but he really wanted to play in the NBA and really wanted to play for Chicago, continued Forman. The knee injury was a couple years agoand he recovered from that as quickly as I've heard anybody coming back from a torn ligamentand the collarbone injury was just a freak thing. I think it set back his development just a little bit because he didn't get as many games in the last two years, but we figured he'd get back healthy.

Asik, who declined comment because of his discomfort speaking English (although his coaches and teammates insist he communicates fine with them on the basketball court), so far has ingratiated himself with the organization because of his physical nature, surprising agility, defensive presence and basketball IQ. In the 2009-10 season, Asik showed progressaveraging 10.8 points on 61.3 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds and 1.55 blocks in 20.2 minutes per game in nine TBL contests; hed average 8.9 points on 65.8 percent shooting, six rebounds and 1.43 blocks in seven games in more highly-regarded Euroleague playbefore suffering the aforementioned collarbone injury.

He's got size and mobilityand he's got a motor, like Joakim Noah; it's hard to find big men with that kind of motor, that's runningand he's an extremely intelligent kid, so he picks things up quickly, Forman said to He's got pretty good instincts. It's hard to find seven-foot-one guys with that type of mobility and you watch in some of our early games, his ability to hedge out on the perimeter and recover, his ability to cut off people's penetration, controlling the lane and again, I think he'll just get better and better.

Asiks pleasantly surprising preseason may not have been completely unexpected, as he played a major role in Turkeys second-place finish in the summers FIBA World Championships. As his national teams starting center, Asik averaged 8.9 points on 55.2 percent from the floor, 6.9 rebounds, 1.2 blocks in 19 minutes per game, leading the team to an undefeated record prior to the gold-medal game, which Turkey lost to the United States (and Asiks current teammate, Derrick Rose) at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, Fenerbahces home arena.

We heard he was going to start for Turkey and be a big part of what they were doing. He had a great summer. We watched, obviously, all the games. Actually, his worst game was probably against the USA, Forman told

I think he can surprise some people, Gheradini told He knows what hes got to work on. Id say his overall offensive game is the area that he needs to work on. I think hes getting better, but again, you can not live just on dunks and very, very close shots. You have try to have more weapons available. But hes smoother, hes working on his game, hes much more confident in the things he needs to on offense, hes a good passer for a big man, so at the end of the day, hes going to get better by working on his game here in the NBA. Hell never be what we call a scorer, but I think hes going to be reliable scorer underneath the basket.

When they the Bulls drafted him, I was very curious to see when he would make it over to the NBA. Its not easy to judge ahead of time, most of the time, Gheradini continued. The fact that hes coached by Thibodeau, I think is a plus because hes going to somehow exploit his strong points, which are rebounding, defense and definitely above-average shot-blocking ability. Hes long, he can stay with the guy and hes very good timing on blocking shots.

Thibodeau has certainly utilized Asik, who worked out at the Berto Center for much of the summer, in the preseason, often pairing him with Noah inside. Playing power forward is new for Noah, but he understands the value of having a seven-footer tandem patrolling the interior for the Bulls.

Its a work-in-progressHes very good at plugging down the middle and I think his best asset is he wants to learn and he wants to get better, but you cant teach that size that he has. Thats a big body and he can really move for his size. Hes somebody who puts in a lot of extra work, said Noah. Hes hungry to become a big-time player in this league. As long as he stays humble and hungry and driven, I think that its going to get real scary.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.