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Film Session: Omer Asik

Taking a look at the elite defensive skill set of Omer Asik

HOUSTON - “We need a 7-footer who can defend, block shots and rebound.”

 – Every NBA team, ever.

Size is the scarcest natural resource in the NBA. Not just size, mind you, but quality size, especially as it pertains to the big men who patrol the paint. Guys who can protect the rim and dominate the boards at an elite level don’t just grow on trees, so simple supply and demand dictate that they are both difficult and often costly to acquire. If you get an opportunity to acquire one, you don’t hem and haw – you pounce.

Enter Omer Asik.

The Rockets have had their eyes on the 7-foot big man from Turkey for years now, having fallen in love with his advanced defensive instincts (which have only been enhanced after serving a two-year tutelage under defensive maestro Tom Thibodeau), shot blocking and rebounding. Asik is agile, strong and ridiculously long (7-2 wingspan and 9-4 standing reach); attributes that have helped him become an absolute menace on the defensive end. To be sure, the 26-year-old remains raw offensively, but even if he never were to improve one iota on that end (a silly notion, but still), his immense contributions defensively would still make him an invaluable difference maker going forward.

Don’t be fooled by the per-game stats. Asik received limited playing time in Chicago playing behind the excellent Joakim Noah, restricting Asik to just 14 minutes per game during the 2011-12 season. But project his numbers out over 36 minutes per game, and here’s what they become: 7.6 points, 13 rebounds (including nearly five offensive boards) and 2.5 blocks per game. Don’t buy the projection? Critics didn’t believe the hype either when Houston chased Marcin Gortat several years back and today his contract seems like an absolute bargain.

The fact of the matter is that Asik ranked 6th overall in the league in rebound rate this past season, 5th overall in offensive rebound rate, and excelled in every single defensive metric that exists. He’s a bouncy, instinctive, rangy 7-foot defensive stopper who hasn’t even entered his basketball prime. He became available on the free agent market this summer. And the Rockets pounced.

So what makes him such a great defender? Rockets.com went back into the film room to find out.

 

Watch this sequence of clips and the thing that immediately stands out is Asik’s complete and utter lack of fear when it comes to venturing outside the paint to defend the NBA’s bread and butter play, the pick-and-roll. Many big men prefer to plant themselves in the paint rather than exposing themselves out on the perimeter, but Asik’s quick feet, sound footwork and disruptive length enable him to “show” on the pick-and-roll and also get back -- even against smaller, faster players -- in time to defend against their drives toward the rim. Watching Asik change direction in time to disrupt Dwyane Wade’s step-back jumper and match James Harden step for step on his foray to the hoop speaks volumes about his defensive aptitude.

Little wonder, then, that Asik ranked in the league’s 84th percentile according to Synergy Sports when serving as the big defender against the pick-and-roll ball handler, conceding a meager .631 points per possession.

 

This sequence focuses on Asik’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll roll man; an area in which the 7-footer ranks in the league’s 69th percentile according to Synergy. The first clip is a veritable defensive tutorial as Asik ranges over to cut off Brandon Jennings, before racing across the court to return to Drew Gooden as the Bucks’ forward receives a pass from Jennings. A less agile big might find himself tremendously vulnerable in this situation; an effect Gooden tries to accentuate by going up for a pump fake upon receiving the ball. But Asik never panics or loses balance, wisely opting instead to stay grounded and go vertical, putting himself in perfect position to backtrack as Gooden puts the ball on the floor and drives into the painted area.

The second clip is nothing more than a simple contest, but what makes it worthwhile viewing is how it gives yet another example of the “Shooters Bane” that doubles as Asik’s disruptive length and how his immediate follow-up instinct is to turn, track back to the rim and devour the ensuing rebound.

 

So much of a player’s success defending the low-post hinges upon the work he does before his opponent even receives the ball. During this sequence, Asik’s strength leaps off the screen as he battles against the likes of some of the game’s premier low-post practitioners. The 26-year-old repeatedly roots himself to the ground, preventing low-post beasts like Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins from getting to their favorite spots on the floor. And even when his man does establish solid position as Al Jefferson and Zach Randolph do in clips one and three, Asik’s strong fundamentals and length make shooting over and around him a nightmare.

Asik’s Synergy numbers when defending the low-post: he conceded .718 points per possession during this past season, good enough to put him in the NBA’s 76th percentile.

 

By now the basics of what make Asik so skilled and disruptive on the defensive end should be obvious. His size and agility make him a monster to maneuver around (see Brandon Jennings and Pau Gasol in clips two and four, respectively) and even when his opponent gets a step on him (as Chris Bosh and Greg Monroe do in clips one and three), his ridiculous length frequently more than makes up for it since those arms allow him to be a shot-blocking, shot-contesting menace. 

The end result: Asik ranks in the league’s 67th percentile with regard to defending isolations and he resides in the stratosphere against spot-ups, sitting pretty in the 98th percentile.

Moving Forward

Asik will have no trouble making his presence felt on the defensive end right away in a Rockets uniform. He’s not yet a finished product defensively, but he’s pretty darn close. The only thing he’ll need to watch out for is foul trouble; when playing limited minutes that obviously wasn’t a concern so there’s likely to be a transitional period early on while he searches for the perfect balance of physical, rugged play that allows him to stay on the court as much as necessary.

Obviously Asik has the most room for improvement on the offensive end. The Rockets don’t need him to be a point-scoring dynamo, but he will have to make significant strides as a free throw shooter to ensure he can remain on the floor at the end of close games, lest opponents employ the undesirable hack-an-Asik strategy. Cutting down his turnovers will also be a primary point of emphasis.

All that having been said, the Rockets now have themselves a dynamic defensive presence at the center position. Every team lusts after big men who can dominate at that end of the floor. Houston just picked up one of the best in that area and at just 26-years-old, he should only get better. Now he’s got a chance to prove it.