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.

Coach K, on Chicago welcoming back Tom Thibodeau: 'I'm proud of my city for doing that'

Coach K, on Chicago welcoming back Tom Thibodeau: 'I'm proud of my city for doing that'

Tom Thibodeau made his long-awaited return to the United Center on Friday, and the reception he received from the Chicago crowd pleased USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Thibodeau, who's been an assistant with USA Basketball since 2013, was the first coach introduced before the team's matchup against Venezuela and received considerable applause from the sellout crowd. It was Thibodeau's first visit back to Chicago in a coaching capacity since he was fired as the Bulls head coach following the 2014-15 season.

Both Krzyzewski and Jimmy Butler, who spoke at the podium following USA's 80-45 victory, were asked about the reaction from the crowd. Krzyzewski, a Chicago native, took the question and fired off a 90-second response about how the warm reception was warranted and how pleased he was to hear it.

He even joked that he and assistants Jim Boeheim and Monty Williams paid 5,000 fans to cheer when Thibodeau, now the head coach of the Timberwolves, was introduced.

"(Chicago's) an amazing sports town, loves its athletes and its coaches, and they should love Tom. Tom brought great basketball (to Chicago) when it was not going well," Krzyzewski said. "And then really injury-wise...especially with Derrick (Rose), if he had been healthy there could have been another (NBA championship) banner or two here. And the fans realize that."

Thibodeau arrived in Chicago in 2010, coaching a Bulls team that had advanced to the playoffs the previous season for the first time since 1998. He coached the Bulls to a 255-139 record in five seasons and won 23 playoff games. His team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, the same year the Bulls won 62 games and Thibodeau was named NBA Coach of the Year.

[MORE: Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with the Bulls]

In that five-year span Rose, who was named the league's youngest MVP in 2011, missed 213 of a possible 394 games, and the team dealt with myriad injuries to key players in Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Irreconcilable differences within the front office led to Thibodaeu's dismissal, but Thibodeau said Thursday that he was grateful for the eperiences he had during this time in Chicago.

And Krzyzewski reiterated how pleased he was that the fans understood the successes Thibodeau acheived.

"He’s the best, as far as preparation and team player and whatever, and the fans appreciate that," Krzyzewski said. "It was great. I love the fact that my town gave the guy who gave them his heart and soul for the number of years he’s been here and acknowledged that. That’s a great thing. I’m proud of my city for doing that."

'It's about effort': Team USA proves there's more than one way to win

'It's about effort': Team USA proves there's more than one way to win

For more than six and a half minutes in the second quarter of Friday night’s exhibition game against Venezuela, the United States men’s national team looked lost.

The prohibitive favorite in the Rio Olympics missed 13 consecutive shots, committed two turnovers and was called for a shot clock violation, an almost unimaginable infraction considering the level of talent across the board on the floor.

The offense remained stagnant much of the night, a rare occurrence for a team that had looked unstoppable in averaging 108 points in their first three contests. But in their 80-45 thumping of Venezuela, Mike Krzyzewski’s group proved it has more ways to win a game than simply outshooting its opponent.

A combination of tenacious rebounding and determined defense allowed the Americans to move to 4-0 in exhibition play in their second-to-last tune-up before next month’s Olympic Games, where they’ll attempt to three-peat as gold medal winners.

“Two of the consistent parts of the game we did great with tonight, and that is you can play really good defense and you can rebound every night,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “Because it’s about effort. And our guys have given that effort.”

Playing without their top player, Nets point guard Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela hung around in the first quarter thanks in part to Team USA’s cold shooting. They even took a 12-10 lead on back-to-back triples from John Cox, who finished with a team-high 14 points. The Americans opened the game 3-for-10 before finishing the quarter on a 12-2 run. Kyrie Irving was the lone starter to shoot better than 50 percent (4-for-7); the other four starters combined to shoot just 8-for-31 (25.8 percent).

And yet during their dry spell in the second quarter, which included five scattered free throws, Team USA was able to increase its lead from 13 to 14 with stifling defense and stellar rebounding; in that same span Venezuela committed two turnovers and missed nine of 11 field goal attempts, with only one offensive rebound to show for it.

[MORE: Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with Bulls]

“We played great defense. We didn’t score but they didn’t score,” said Kevin Durant, who finished 3-for-9 with nine points. “That’s the name of the game for us. If we don’t score we can’t let the other team score. It’s simple.”

Venezuela shot just 24 percent from the field and committed 18 turnovers. Cox, the cousin of Kobe Bryant, said the Americans' ability to switch at each position made each possession difficult.

"They’re so good because they can switch everything because of their length and athleticism. So I don’t think there’s another team in the Olympics that can do that," he said. "It’s difficult to take advantage on offense, and they’re talented and they’re going to be tough to beat because they switch down the line. Even their bigs can move their feet with our guards and other guards, so they’ll be a tough matchup. And that’s why they’re special."

The Americans were also helped in the defensive struggle by superb rebounding across the board. DeMarcus Cousins finished with a team-high 13 rebounds, Carmelo Anthony added nine of his own and Jimmy Butler, playing in front of a home Chicago crowd, snatched eight boards. Team USA won the battle of the boards, 54-29, outperforming the +21 rebounding advantage they had amassed in their first three games.

“You get 54 rebounds and we’re playing defense right to the very end, and that’s what I’m looking for,” Krzyzewski said. “The fact that the ball was not going in and they were playing very good defense against us does not stop us from giving a really quality effort, especially on the board and the defensive end.”

Team USA flipped the switch in the second half, with the bench unit beginning the third quarter on a 12-4 run that pushed the lead to 26 points. The Americans then made 10 of 12 shots in the final stanza posting 24 points on an array of outside shots – Klay Thompson connected on a pair of triples – and highlight reel dunks from DeAndre Jordan and DeMar DeRozan.

Team USA finished the contest shooting 43 percent from the field, nearly seven percentage points worse than their team average entering the contest. Their four made 3-pointers, three of which came from Thompson, were a far cry from the 39 they connected on in their first three games.

But their ability to shoot out of character for 40 minutes – the 80 points were tied for the second fewest for an Olympic team under Coach K – and still win handily was a positive sign for Krzyzewski.

Eight of Team USA’s 13 players averaged 20 or more point per game last season – Paul George rested with a sore calf. And its two returning players from the 2012 team, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, have five NBA scoring titles to their name. They’ve also got four players who have won NBA titles while playing for historically good offenses (Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Thompson for Golden State; Kyrie Irving for Cleveland).

[SHOP: Buy a Jimmy Butler Team USA shirt]

“We’re gonna knock shots down. We’ve got the best players in the world, the best shooters in the world, best penetrators in the world,” Durant said. “Shots don’t really matter to us. We played great defense and I think that’s what we’ve been doing the whole trip.”

There’s little doubt they’ll find their shooting touch in time for their opening round game on Aug. 6 against China. Krzyzewski even hinted at the team needing to find more comfort and rhythm using the international basketball, though he was quick to denounce that as an excuse for the poor shooting. 

After breezing through three exhibition games, winning by 37, 49 and 50 points, the Americans were forced to work in a different fashion for their victory Friday night. The final margin, 35, wasn’t indicative of the effort Team USA needed to show in order to pull away. They did show that effort, and it’s something that will serve them well moving forward when the games count.

“To be quite frank I’m very pleased about tonight,” Krzyzewski said, “because you don’t just want to hit 17 threes and not work hard.

"We had to work real hard tonight and we won.”

Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with Bulls

Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with Bulls

When Dwyane Wade’s re-signing with the Miami Heat went from a forgone conclusion to a question mark, the Chicago Bulls and Jimmy Butler got involved in a whirlwind courtship that resulted in Friday's all-smiles press conference.

The Bulls came with the tangibles, the respect in the form of $47 million. Butler came with the intangibles—and respect as the two had critical conversations that lead to Wade finally making the leap to trek back home to Chicago after 13 years on the beach.

It was why Wade was so comfortable at his own introductory news conference to cede the spotlight to Butler Friday afternoon, the savvy veteran understanding Butler was in attendance and giving Butler the affirmation he quietly craved in front of a national TV audience.

“Jimmy Butler, everybody! Jimmy, you gonna come out with your muscles out and everything, though? You got oil on...,” Wade said jokingly, motioning to Butler as Butler stood amongst many to the side, having just finished an on-court workout with his trainer.

Wade was reciprocating what Butler had initiated during free agency during those conversations, as the only question there is to be answered is how the two will mesh on the floor as opposed to the assumption of clashing personalities.

“Just what we can do if we were to play basketball together. I said look man, I’m okay with whatever role you want me to play,” said Butler to CSNChicago.com in an exclusive interview after Team USA beat Venezuela 80-45 Friday at the United Center, with Wade sitting next to Team USA’s bench. “But we can win games if you’re here with us. So that’s basically how it went.

“I was telling him, of all the things that have been said, I’m here to win. I don’t care what role I’m supposed to play, whose team it is, you come here, we’ll win games.”

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Free agent acquisitions Wade and Rajon Rondo have openly said Butler is the first name on the basketball masthead, but Butler has termed them “the three Alphas”. Regardless of what Butler has said before publicly about not being concerned with his standing in the locker room of the Chicago Bulls, he’s feeling more and more comfortable with the position of leadership—perhaps emboldened by the validation of the two.

“Outside of all of that, all anybody wants is to be wanted,” Butler said. “He wants me to step up and lead. He wants this to be my team. Just like I wanted him for my team. That mutual respect, us being honest with each other like that, that’s where it starts. That’s the foundation.”

Establishing a pecking order is easier when the players who see this version of Jimmy Butler only know this version of Butler. The player who has evolved into an All-Star and Olympian, not necessarily the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.

Both attributes are true, but there’s something to be said about initial impressions and how they stick.

“Moving forward, I’m gonna do my best, whatever it takes to help us win games,” Butler said. “I don’t think people understand how serious I am when I say I want to (freaking) win a championship. I’m not playing.”

Rondo and Wade have the championship receipts, so it’s unlikely they’ll allow Butler to go unchecked if his methods aren’t parallel with his words. Given the appointed title Butler gave the three, it doesn’t sound like they would let him slide regardless.

“That’s what I wanted him here, that’s why I wanted Rondo here,” Butler said. “Because they’ve done it, they know what it takes. I want them to show me. If I’m not listening, make me listen.”

When told he could be bullheaded and stubborn, Butler agreed.

“I agree, I can (be). Fine. It only makes me better,” Butler said. “If you’re on my tail all the time it only makes me better. I want that. I like that. If I’m (messing) around, you tell me, you let me know, you’re better than that. You’re right. I’m gonna respond in a positive manner and I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to be doing.”

[RELATED: Third time's a charm as Dwyane Wade embraces Bulls and Jimmy Butler as leader]

Butler used a lot of “my team” and “my guys” but one can surmise it’s less about ownership and possessiveness compared to investment—the sweat equity that earns his respect and admiration more than any single attribute.

“I respect a lot of things but I think your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said. “I’m a firm believer in that. I’m successful because of that. I just put in the time. I know these guys put in the time.”

“I respect that s**t. I’m going to war with you everyday when I know in my heart that your best interest is to help us win. I’m all about that.”

Whether Butler felt some of his old teammates were moving all tides in the same direction, he wouldn’t say—and the former Bulls probably wouldn’t on elaborate on their feelings, either.

“I think man, it was a lot of mixes of everything,” he said. “We weren’t winning games we wanted to win. We were in and out the lineup, so many guys.

“I don’t wanna use any excuses but that had something to do with it. We have a whole new team, we gotta move forward. I’m happy for those new guys, I want them to be successful on their new team.”

But he admits last season was one to learn from, and falls back on the work that he hopes will lead to others following willingly.

“You grow. You learn. You grow. I’m six years into this thing,” Butler said. “I’ve made a name for myself. I’ve done a lot with basketball since I started. I think I’m only gonna start to get better. I pray I only continue to get better because I do work. I really do work.”