Sam: Asik a work in progress with great potential

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Sam: Asik a work in progress with great potential

Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010
2:21 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

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 CSNChicago.com

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 CSNChicago.com. 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 CSNChicago.com. 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 CSNChicago.com. 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 CSNChicago.com.

I think he can surprise some people, Gheradini told CSNChicago.com. 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.

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

It's too bad Nikola Mirotic never played college basketball in the United States. He would have been fun to watch during March Madness.

For some reason, Mirotic has saved his best basketball for the month of March over his three NBA seasons. During his rookie season in 2014-15, Mirotic took advantage of injuries to a couple of the Bulls key players, and averaged 20.8 points a game with expanded playing time in March, leading all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring.

Last season, after rehabbing from two surgeries following appendicitis, Niko averaged just over 13 points a game in March, shooting better than 53 percent from deep.

And this season, Mirotic is averaging 14.2 points on 47.9% shooting from the field during his favorite month. Since he re-entered the rotation back on March 13, Mirotic has been even better, averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point land.

It appeared Mirotic's time with the Bulls was coming to an end when Fred Hoiberg held him out of three straight games earlier this month, including a spot on the inactive list in Boston on March 12. At that point, Mirotic talked openly of not knowing why he had been taken out of the rotation. Now, he might be the key to the Bulls' playoff hopes.

Mirotic has scored a season-high 28 points each in two of the last three games.

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Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, "The big thing with Niko is he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. Anybody who's a shooter, they play with confidence, the game's a lot easier. He's not hesitating at all with his shots. He's taking good shots in the flow of the offense. When Jimmy and Rajon get in the paint, and Niko's spacing the floor, it's a great look and right now he's knocking them down."

So, right now all is good for the 26-year-old native of Montenegro. But it's hard to look past the inconsistency that's marked his NBA career. Mirotic is averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his three NBA seasons, shooting  41 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Not exactly the numbers Bulls' fans expected from the guy considered to be one of the best prospects in Europe when he was drafted in 2011. 

Now, as Mirotic gets ready to head into restricted free agency this summer, the Bulls are faced with a difficult decision. Are they willing to pay more than $10 million a year for a player who's been so inconsistent in the NBA? Or, do they let Mirotic walk and risk the possibility the light will suddenly come on for a 6-foot-10 stretch forward that every team in the league could utilize?

The Bulls have 2015 first-round pick Bobby Portis under contract for next season, and Paul Zipser and Joffrey Lauvergne also could be in the mix for playing time at the power forward spot. And, there's always the chance the Bulls could get in the bidding for big name free agents Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap.

But after trading Doug McDermott at the deadline, the Bulls are painfully short on 3-point shooting threats, and that might lead the front office to decide they'll need to overpay to keep Mirotic around.

It's just one of the tough decisions the Bulls front office faces in what promises to be a fascinating off-season.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

It's been another tough season in Phoenix. Despite adding a number of lottery picks in recent years, the Suns currently own the third-worst record in the league. Maybe that's why the players were celebrating with so much energy during a loss in Boston last Friday, watching second year guard Devin Booker explode for 70 points.

Booker becomes only the 6th NBA player to hit the 70-point plateau, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, David Robinson and Elgin Baylor. The baby-faced 20-year-old shooting guard connected on 21 of 40 shots from the field (only 4-11 from 3-point range), plus 24 of 26 from the free-throw line.

With the game hopelessly out of reach in the 4th quarter the Suns kept feeding the ball to Booker to see how high he could push his point total. It might not have pleased basketball purists, but it sure was fun for the Suns' players during their 51st loss of the year.

Phoenix added a pair of young big men in last year's draft, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, and they have a deep backcourt with Booker, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. So, is there a chance they could enter the bidding for Bulls' star Jimmy Butler this summer?

Would a top-3 pick and Bledsoe be enough for Butler? Or would the Bulls prefer a couple of the Suns' young frontcourt players, Bender, Alex Len or T.J. Warren to go along with the pick?

With seven or eight elite prospects at the top of this year's draft, the Bulls will have some options if they decide to go the total rebuild route.

If the Bulls do go shopping for a Butler deal, don't count on Boston still being interested this summer. In case you haven't noticed, the Celtics moved ahead of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East earlier this week, and Danny Ainge might decide he can build a championship team without making a major trade.

The Celtics already have two All-Star caliber players on the roster in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, and if the pick they have coming from Brooklyn remains in the top 3, Ainge will be able to add an elite young player like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson. After holding on to those Brooklyn picks for so long in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, it's hard to imagine Ainge changing direction now.

Plus, the Celtics also will have enough salary cap room to go after a top free agent, and they've long been linked to Jazz star Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler. It's possible the Celtics could come back next season with a lineup of Thomas and Fultz/Ball in the backcourt, with Horford, Hayward and Jae Crowder up front. Maybe not the star power to match Cleveland, but certainly a team that could contend in the East for a number of years to come.

Former Bulls' All-Star Joakim Noah met with the New York media to discuss his 20 game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance contained in an over the counter supplement he was taking. 

"I made a mistake. It was a tough year for me, for this team," Noah told reporters after returning to practice Tuesday. "... I let a lot of people down. It was a mistake. And I gotta learn from it and bounce back. This is a tough moment and I'm going to learn from it."

Noah said he used the supplement to try to help him bounce back from a hamstring injury he suffered in early February. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year then had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on February 27 to remove loose fragments.

The Knicks are hoping he can get medical clearance to serve part of the 20-game suspension this season, with the remaining time served at the start of the 2017-18 season. Noah still has three more years left on the four-year, $72 million contract he signed with Phil Jackson's Knicks last summer.

Kevin Durant continues to work his way back from the sprained knee he suffered on February 28th in Washington. The Warriors released a statement on Wednesday saying Durant has made very good progress in his rehab and will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days. The hope is to have Durant play a few regular season games over the final week to get him ready for the playoffs.

Durant has been traveling with the team, going through pre-game workouts monitored by the medical and training staff. The plan is to increase his level of movement over the next few days to see how the knee responds.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Even though the Bulls haven't won back-to-back games since February 24 and 25, the players continue to remain confident about their playoff chances.

This from Mirotic following practice on Wednesday, "We have to depend on just ourselves and pray basically. Hopefully we can be there...... I think we deserve it. The attitude of the team is great right now. We're sticking together even after that tough loss against Philly, we bounce back against Milwaukee. So, right now, we've got another chance."

The Bulls probably need to go 5-3 over the final eight games to make the postseason. After a season of ups and downs, it's anyone's guess if they'll be able to put together a stretch of solid basketball during the final two weeks.

Fast Break Morning Update: Bulls gearing up for realistic run at the postseason

Fast Break Morning Update: Bulls gearing up for realistic run at the postseason

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Bears believe they got more than just a No. 2 QB in signing Mark Sanchez

Carlos Rodon headed to the disabled list, will start throwing program

Is Addison Russell still on track for Opening Night?

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

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