Posted Mar 9 2011 11:43AM
CHICAGO -- No, no, no, Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman told the Denver Nuggets: We're not trading Joakim Noah in any Carmelo Anthony deal.
Sorry, Forman ultimately said as well, to teams that inquired about Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. The former is a valuable big off the bench and the latter a veteran who never has played better or been made to feel more needed than under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau.
Derrick Rose? We'll assume none of the other 29 team architects asked about him, unless one of them happened to be Forman's buddy and felt his pal in Chicago needed a good laugh.
And then there's Omer Asik. Houston had talked about swapping guard Courtney Lee for Asik, offering a shooting guard who -- at least on potential and in glimpses in his three-teams-in-three-years NBA tour -- could upgrade the Bulls lineup at its weakest spot. With starter Keith Bogans turning the position into a misnomer -- averaging 3.9 points on 39.6 percent shooting -- Lee's ability to score at twice Bogans' rate on a per-minute basis while shooting 46 percent could have been tempting.
But Forman passed. He stuck with the tradition of not trading big -- Asik, a rookie center frm Bursa, Turkey, is 7-foot and 255 pounds -- for small. He also faced charges that, in one of a GM's riskiest pitfalls, he was falling in love with his own players.
Except that in Asik's case, it has been a crush well-earned.
"There were quite a few teams that asked about him. But our feeling was, he's a real fit," Forman said Tuesday. "Both as a player and the type of guy he is for where we're at and where we're headed. We feel he's going to be here for a long time.
"He's never backed away. He enjoys contact. He's always been a physical kid who has really good tools, as far as athleticism, moving his feet. I'd seen him playing at a high level in European basketball, and he'd had success. Early in the year, he just wasn't used to the pace of our game. But he's an incredibly smart kid. He's got a terrific work ethic -- he lives in the gym, he's so thirsty to get better. So we thought the learning curve would be pretty quick."
In recent days, Asik has been seen taking and giving elbows in the paint with Orlando's Dwight Howard and banging with New Orleans' Emeka Okafor. He has locked down his spot as Noah's backup, even after veteran Kurt Thomas helped the Bulls to a 22-8 mark as the starter during Noah's absence (hand surgery).
Asik ranks eighth in rebounding in the NBA on a per-48-minute basis, averaging 15.7. His rebounding percentage of 19.1, which allows for his playing time, ranks higher than Andrew Bogut (18.5), Tim Duncan (18.2), Al Horford (16.7), Pau Gasol (16.0), David Lee (15.5) and Amar'e Stoudemire (12.9).
And as NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted this week, Asik holds a spot in the NBA's best five-man defensive lineup, with Gibson, Deng, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson (74.5 points per 100 possessions, based on 96 minutes).
Asik (whose name is pronounced O-mair AH-sheek ) is proving to be worth not only more than Lee, but also the three second-round picks that Forman and Bulls vice president John Paxson sent to Portland for his rights in June 2008. Actually, the Bulls paid that price merely for the right to move up three spots in the second round that night -- they held the No. 39 pick but sensed that Asik would be gone after the Blazers' pick at No. 36.
Then Chicago had to wait two years for Asik's contract with Fenergahce Ulker in the Turkish League to lapse and sign him to its own deal, paying the 24-year-old a reported $1.72 million this year and $1.85 million in 2011-12.
But it has been worth every pick, payday and bit of patience required. Asik has been a big, defensive-minded reason for the Bulls' high rankings at that end. His focus on stops and rebounds has made him a favorite of the like-minded Thibodeau.
Breaking down Asik's game the other night, the Chicago coach said: "His biggest area of improvement is he's not picking up reckless fouls. He's learning how to play in the restricted area, which is critical. When he goes to help now, he's jumping straight up and utilizing his chest and pulling his hands back. He's a hard guy to finish over because of his length and athleticism."
Not bad for someone who came to basketball late and then had his development limited by injuries. Last season, for instance, Asik missed two months with a broken collarbone, averaging 8.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in seven Euroleague games and 10.8 and 6.2 rebounds in nine Turkish League games. But he has been a quick study.
"He's still a young basketball player," Orlando forward -- and Asik countryman -- Hedo Turkoglu told FIBA.com last summer before the World Championship games. "I think he started when he was like 15 or 16. But he's a hard worker and tries to get better every time. He just listens, and watches DVDs, films. He's the kind of guy that looks like he's hungry."
Asik helped Turkey earn a silver medal last summer, averaging 8.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.22 blocks and 19 minutes in the tournament. He hit 55.2 percent of his shots and had a 17-point, 13-board game against China. Now he is part of a Turkish heritage in the NBA that includes Cleveland's Semih Erden, Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova, Utah's Mehmet Okur and Turkoglu. Also, a guard named Ibo Kutluay who played five games for Seattle in 2004-05.
Here is more from the book on Asik:
• He apparently has no "rookie duties" such as bringing donuts to the locker room or toting veterans' luggage.
• He is an excellent but allegedly frustrated backgammon player. "We play backgammon on the plane all the time," Noah shared. "I'm a very lucky guy when it comes to rolling dice, so he gets very upset, because tactically he's a lot better than I am. But I usually beat him. And it drives him nuts."
• Nicknames? "We call him Cheese Toast because he likes a lot of cheese toast on the road," Noah said. Fans have favored The Turkish Delight or even The Istan-Bull. After all, the Big O is taken and -- despite Asik's middle name, Faruk -- so is The King.
• Asik's English is not great, until you think about how well most U.S. players would speak the native tongue if they were playing in Turkey. "Every game I try to play hard. Try to improve myself and try to help the team," Asik said Monday after grabbing eight rebounds in less than 14 minutes of an 85-77 victory over New Orleans. "My first thing, I try to play defense and rebound. Try to help everybody ... I feel like Chicago is my homeland."
It certainly has been his classroom. Asik has been a stellar student, the kind every teacher, parent or coach loves. When he gets told something -- after a mistake or a situation new to him -- he remembers it. Rarely does Asik make the same mistake twice.
He has made strides while battling in practice against Noah, Gibson and Carlos Boozer. Some scouts compare him favorably to other import centers such as Andris Biedrins and Marcin Gortat. Offensively, his hands at times recall the "Manos de Piedra" of former boxing champ Roberto Duran. But he stays aggressive in the paint. And always, teammates pop off the bench, cheering for Asik and his successes in more than some mascot-y, Brian Scalabrine way.
Asik's work Friday against Howard, who had pushed the rookie around in their earliest meetings, was a breakthrough, both in court time logged and ability to absorb and dish punishment. Thibodeau especially likes unleashing Asik and Gibson together now, using the rhythm those two have developed since October.
"When [starters] are getting rest and taking days off, we go in and the coaching staff works with us a lot extra," the second-year Gibson said. "On the court, I'm always looking for him, he looks for me. He knows that if I get a blocked shot or a good defensive stop, I can count on him to get the rebound. As soon as we hit the ground, we're out there running, blocking shots, staying real active."
As a rookie, Asik has been tested by his opponents, targeted and pounded inside. He has passed most tests, evident mostly in Chicago's 44-18 record.
"To be honest with you," Deng said, "whatever team I'm playing, if there's a rookie guarding me, my eyes get bigger. That's just how it is -- you're playing someone who, even if they're talented, they've still got to learn to play the game. You can trick 'em a little bit.
"The past few games, Omer's been doing that to [other] guys, where he's getting under their skin, he's pushing them. That just shows growth."
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