Why We Watch: Omer Asik, One and The Other

On Defense, Omer Asik plays with real grace and brilliance. On offense, he is terrified and mostly terrible.
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It wasn't a surprise when Daryl Morey's signing of Omer Asik flew under the radar this summer. It was, after all, just the signing of a backup center to a mid-range free agent deal, and as such nothing as significant or significant-seeming as, say, the high-profile extrication of cultural phenomenon Jeremy Lin from the Knicks by way of an obscure clause in the CBA that appeared, at the time, to exist solely for the purpose of allowing Morey to troll the league. It was not nearly as dramatic as trading for seemingly every combo forward in the league and the entire first round of the next draft, in an attempt to put together a suitable package for Dwight Howard. It wasn't anything as bold as using the amnesty provision to escape the eminently reasonable contract of Luis Scola, who had been the team's best player for the previous two years. And the Asik signing, certainly, was not as important to the future of the team as flipping those stockpiled pieces and newfound salary cap space in order to bring in James Harden, a perfectly viable franchise player in his own right. So, yes: given the circumstances, it's easy to see how the addition of a Turkish backup big man with a strictly notional offensive skill-set might go unnoticed. Honestly, with all that other, louder stuff going on, who could notice it?

Just a few weeks into the season, though, Morey's signing of Asik is impossible not to notice. Even more so than the Lin-Harden backcourt or the emergence of Chandler Parsons, the most fun part of watching the 2012-13 Rockets has been the opportunity to see Asik come into his own. He is not, truthfully, a future franchise big man. But, turned loose from Chicago's rigorously Thibodeau-ed Bench Mob, Asik has come into his own as one of the weirdest and most magnetic big men in recent memory. No one would have guessed it last offseason, and it can seem difficult to believe even now, watching Asik, unbound and wilding out and fully himself. But it's real, and Asik is real, and it's on all of us to deal with this strangeness that he brings to the game.

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There is the possibility—which at times seems more like a certainty—that Asik struck a deal with the devil sometime around the time he signed his deal with the Rockets. This bargain would make him a lethal post defender and unstoppable rebounding machine; the price he pays—in true ironic-devil fashion, and even though he is averaging a surprising 12.1 points per 36 minutes this season—is that his every move as a scorer will appear hilariously inept. Even the monster dunks Asik throws down, which are capable in and of themselves of creating memes like "Asik and Destroy," seem like happy, violent accidents.

Every single thing that Asik does with the ball in his hands looks accidental, and a little dangerous. The hands on which he has built a much-deserved reputation as one of the most fearsome rebounders in the NBA are stripped of their purpose or craft whenever he is asked to create anything on offense. His best offensive weapon is his massive figure, which he uses to set devastating picks for Lin and Harden along the perimeter.

His own scoring contributions are almost as subtle. Asik gets his points almost exclusively on dunks and putbacks, although they aren't exactly authoritative. When he throws a ball up and it goes in, the bucket often feels as if it arrives at the hoop through a tear in the time-space continuum, and in defiance of some vast impossibility. It's weird. He's weird.

But as aloof, baffled and immobile as Asik can look on offense, his quickness and ability to manipulate his body on the defensive end of the floor is almost unrivaled. On offense, he puts his body in places where people will run into it, and so spends a lot of time sprawling towards the floor or otherwise being in the wrong place. On defense, he weaves between ballhandlers and opposing bigs to outsmart them at the rim. This is all wrong, of course, but it works.

As a rebounder on the defensive end, he is insatiable, grabbing 28.1 percent of all available defensive rebounds while he's on the floor. These instincts and his size make him a gifted rim protector, and according to 82games.com, he records two blocks for every foul he commits. More impressive is how Asik manages to put up these rebounding numbers while also spending so much time defending in space. That Asik is this versatile, agile, something like virtuosic; after crossing halfcourt, the Asik that appears on one end of the floor is almost useless outside the paint and limited even within it. One plays with pure, fierce intelligence and instinct; the other plays as if he was wearing cross-country skis. Same player, two different games.

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Weird though this is, Asik is in many ways the quintessential Daryl Morey player, from the way he was acquired—as an undervalued, under-the-radar commodity—to the way he plays, to the way he epitomizes Morey's specific strain of analytics. Since the fall of Yao Ming, the teams Morey has put together have mostly consisted of players who are great at one thing—think of Kevin Martin's shooting or Chuck Hayes' physical defense—and as such were beloved in advanced-stats circles despite not doing much in the way of winning. Asik fits the Morey prototype to a tee, but also points to a new and promising synthesis.

These Rockets are still a ways off from contending—they'd need a better-scoring big man like Pau Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge to compliment Asik, for starters. But this summer, Morey outsmarted two of the NBA's richer teams in stealing Lin and Asik, then swung a trade for the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, who would take over as the team's primary scorer and playmaker. With that offensively potent backcourt in place, and the promise of cap space to make a run at another star, the Rockets are, perhaps, becoming more conventional.

But the roster still has plenty of room for unconventional players, and thus also for a starting center with as eccentric a game as Omer Asik. To watch Asik cruise brilliantly along his own personal astral plane on defense and flail hilariously and ineptly on offense is to experience one of the NBA's most bizarre and compelling dichotomies. Whatever the Rockets and Daryl Morey are trying to do, it's all there in Asik's bizarre, bipolar game. It doesn't always work, and it may well not work out in the long run. But for now it's as good, and strange, a reason to watch as any.

Illustration by Maddison Bond

Sean Highkin is a staff writer for Hardwood Paroxysm, an affiliate of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. He contributes to the TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball, as well as ESPN.com's Daily Dime NBA coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA.


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Comments

I always loved watching Omer while he was a Bull, and I was sad to see him go. Nice to see that he's getting his due.

Omer really is the Judge Reinhold of the NBA.

Naive, adorably inept. But inexplicably capable and deadly a minute later. When I see Asik lock someone down on defense, it reminds me of those times when Judge mowed down gangsters with Eddie Murphy.

Would that make Harden Eddie Murphy? I like to think Chandler Parsons would be Sean Penn.