Omer Asik brings needed defensive presence to NOLA

by Jim Eichenhofer

For big men who play in the paint in the Southwest Division, there are no nights off, no games where less than maximum effort is required. Five-time NBA champion San Antonio is spearheaded by Tim Duncan, who’s somehow still playing at an All-Star level at age 38. Dallas boasts future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and recently reacquired Tyson Chandler, an irreplaceable component of the Mavericks’ 2011 title team. Houston is headlined by Dwight Howard, who many believe has regained his status as the NBA’s premier center. A few hours up the road from New Orleans in Memphis, the Grizzlies’ trademark “Grit and Grind” style is personified by the bruising tag-team duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

Given that competition, as well as formidable frontcourt talent throughout the entire Western Conference, it’s vital for playoff-hopeful teams to have someone who can hang with the big boys under the rim. In 7-foot, 255-pound Omer Asik, the New Orleans Pelicans added a player who significantly improves their ability to match up with quality opposing bigs, in a conference where just about every team seems to have one.

“We don’t have a lot of girth on our team,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “We don’t have a big that can challenge other bigs, especially ones in the West. When you think about the West, there’s (Minnesota center Nikola) Pekovic, (Sacramento center DeMarcus) Cousins, (Golden State center Andrew) Bogut, guys like that. And that’s before you even talk about Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan. Omer is someone we’ve coveted for a while. His size really helps our team, because it’s something we don’t have.”

Since arriving in New Orleans in 2010-11, Williams has consistently stressed defense; in his first season, the then-Hornets ranked 10th in defensive efficiency and qualified for the playoffs. Over the past two seasons, however – even with elite shot-blocker Anthony Davis patrolling the paint – New Orleans has finished 28th and 27th, respectively, in that category. Despite widespread key injuries in 2013-14, the Pelicans still managed to finish in the top half of the league on offense (13th in efficiency), but their defensive woes led to a 34-48 record.

Enter Asik, who has been consistently praised for his defense, even being mentioned in the same breath as players with considerably more familiar names. Pick-and-roll defensive acumen may not be the flashiest skill for a player to possess, but Asik has been so consistently effective that he’s widely recognized as one of the best in the league at that important task.

“He has great size and length, good athleticism,” said Pelicans assistant coach Dave Hanners, who’s had the responsibility on Williams’ staff of scouting the Rockets in recent years. “He has great hands and feet. He’s a guy with good savvy who is able to defend his position. At the same time, I think he’s also a great team defender. He knows when to come and help (a teammate on defense), and when guys don’t need help. That’s a key component of his overall understanding of how to play defense.”

“He’s a really, really good defensive player,” Williams said. “He has a high IQ for the game. He’s a really hard worker, and has an ability to rebound, change shots and understand what teams are trying to do offensively. Everything I’ve heard about him, from talking to his former coaches, they’ve really loved him. I’m looking forward to just working with him.”

During Asik’s first two NBA seasons, he was an underrated backline cog in Chicago’s defense, which ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 campaigns, respectively. The Bulls appeared to want to keep him long-term in the Windy City, but Houston shrewdly structured a contract offer in 2012 restricted free agency that made it prohibitive for Chicago to match. The Bulls have remained an elite defensive club since then, but did “slip” to sixth in 2012-13 without Asik.

Asik was a favorite of Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau, often receiving playing time in critical fourth-quarter situations due to his ability to create defensive stops.

“I always go back to when Omer was with Chicago,” Hanners said. “I remember how solid they were in team defense and pick-and-roll defense, when he was in the game. If you asked Thibodeau what he thought about him, I’m sure he’d say ‘I’d like to have him back,’ because he was just a good anchor for that team. There are so many pick-and-rolls in the NBA today. Sometimes a play doesn’t start out as one, but the shot clock winds down and it becomes one. If you can have a solid guy in your defense who can help you stop that play, it’s invaluable.”