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Omer Asik Grows into Role as Starter in Houston

Asik's Big Christmas Day Game Against the Chicago Bulls Showed His Potential

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The center position has changed so dramatically in the National Basketball Association that they don't even have that position as a choice on the All-Star ballot any more.

But for the past two seasons, the Bulls had two of the best defensive centers in the game, starter Joakim Noah and backup Omer Asik.

While Noah was growing every year in confidence in both his defensive and offensive abilities, Asik was predominately a defensive presence, but he was a good one. He moved his feet very, very well for a big man, he timed his blocks well, and he could pass out of the post as well. His offensive moves were virtually non-existent, but not because he couldn't play offense; he just never was asked to do it.

The center tandem was a dream come true for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a defensive-minded head coach who was willing to play the game the old way - defying opponents to come into the middle. Asik was a young, moldable post stalwart on the defensive end with all kinds of offensive potential to explore.

"We liked having them both,'' Thibodeau said Tuesday.

He spoke in the past tense because over the summer Asik signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Houston Rockets. He is slated to get $5 million each of the next two years with a balloon of $15 million in the 2014-25 season.

The Bulls could have matched that offer; wanted to. But the NBA's bizarre collective bargaining agreement rules stated that while the Rockets could average his salary over the three years, to $8-plus million a year, the Bulls had to register him under the salary cap just as he was being paid, which means that $15 million had to read "$15 million'' three seasons from now. With Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson to pay, it was just impossible to do.

So Asik was allowed to leave, and the Rockets made him their starter. All he has done for the Rockets is turn into a threat at both ends of the floor. His full potential was on display Christmas Day when the Rockets demolished the Bulls in Chicago and Asik finished with 20 points and 18 rebounds. For the season, he is averaging 10.9 points and 11.6 rebounds..

Houston coach Kevin McHale admitted he was unaware just how strong Asik could be when he was picked up over the summer.

"Any time you ask someone to stretch their role from spot minutes to 30-some, you are never sure what you are going to get,'' McHale said. "But he has been fantastic - rebounding the ball at a high level, able to be solid defensively in the paint. He is handling the ball a little bit more, rolling, making passes out of there. He is a young guy, and this is a great opportunity for him to grow . His offense has been growing. His free throw percentage is way up. I can see a more confident player."

"Having him on the floor is a game-changer,'' teammate Jeremy Lin said. "He is an incredible help and individual defender. He's showing what he can do. He has great hands that can finish at the basket. He is a very large human being and tough to stop. People his size usually can't do what he does with his passing and catching the ball."

The Christmas Day game showed what his potential could be. He was efficient and crisp around the basket on the offensive end while turning in another solid defensive performance against Noah, his former teammate and close friend.

"He is a big-time player in the middle,'' McHale said. "He is letting guys make plays for him, and then he is making plays around the basket."

More proof of his ability is the fact the Bulls may never replace him as Noah's backup. They picked up veteran Nzar Mohammed who rarely plays, as Thibodeau depends on more talented and much smaller players to fill in when Noah is out of the game, which these days is rarely.

"We are doing it by committee,'' Thibodeau said. "You are going to lose guys. It's next guy up."

The loss of Asik is one that is going to be noticeable as long as he continues to grow in his new role in Houston.

Kent McDill has covered the Bulls for three different companies: for United Press International from 1985-88, for the Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights, Ill., from 1988-99 and currently for NBA.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title "100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die'' published by Triumph Books.

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