There’s a fine line between being typecast in a role and knowing one’s proper lane.
It’s a turnpike that actors, comedians, chefs, entrepreneurs and especially athletes run into when they’re trying to decide whether sticking with a single strength is hindering their growth or perfecting a brand.
Is it a detraction to only be known for a limited set of skills?
For New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik, this concern never surfaced. Asik built his brand within 8 feet of the basket and doesn’t feel any urge to change.
“He knows who he is,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who coached Asik for two seasons before Houston traded him to New Orleans for a protected first-round draft pick as part of a three-team deal in June. “I think in our league, finding out who you are and accepting who you are is important.
“Believe me, Omer is not out there trying to make 3s. He knows who he is and what he does. I think that’s always the biggest thing with young guys is they try to do everything. He knows exactly what he can do, and he does it very well. He is one of the top centers in the league because of it.”
Asik, 28, has spent his entire basketball career, across two continents, trying to become the best player in the world between the low blocks. He doesn’t express much interest in the rest of the court.
“I play defense, and I rebound,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always done.”
Slogging through five professional seasons in Europe and four in the NBA, that narrow focus allowed him to meticulously craft his inside game and emerge as one of the league’s most respected post presences. His rugged identity is needed now more than ever, as a key element in the potential resurgence of professional basketball in New Orleans.
“He makes us better,” Pelicans franchise player Anthony Davis said. “Everything he does is what we need.”
It’s not that the Turkish-born center is the most dominant physical specimen in the game. At 7-foot and 255 pounds, he’s far from a pushover around the basket, but he also has managed to do more than his physical gifts would suggest.
He isn’t blessed with fleet feet, so he doesn’t run around much. His shooting is well-established as mediocre, so he doesn’t stray far from the basket to put up a shot.
Instead, Asik learned long ago to pinpoint his strengths — the same ones he had as a boy learning the game in the gyms of Bursa, Turkey, or as a 19-year-old pro for the Euroleague club Fenerbahce in Istanbul.
“Most people know what I like to do, because it’s always been what I like to do,” Asik said. “It feels natural.”
It’s always been about protecting his 16 feet of real estate on the court and stopping any opponents who try to infiltrate it. Eighty percent of Asik’s NBA shots have come within 3 feet of the basket — many following offensive rebounds — and he has converted 59.5 percent of those attempts.
He has taken one career 3-pointer. It was one of just 15 total attempts shot from longer than 10 feet.
In other words, he was the perfect fit for Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. The defensive-minded coach, who built one of the league’s most consistent winners on grit and toughness, displayed a fondness for Asik since his arrival in 2010.
“We always liked him and knew he would fit well for us,” said Chicago Bulls General Manager Gar Forman, who traded for Asik on draft night. “I just remember our international scout had followed him for quite a while and, when we first saw him, you could see the great potential that he had with his combination of size and mobility, along with a terrific motor. You could tell he would play hard and with an edge. You could tell he really enjoyed playing the game.”
Entering the league through Chicago proved to be a blessing for Asik. As a member of the NBA’s best team in the 2010-11 regular season, he gained admiration throughout the organization for his defensive consistency and sturdiness off the bench.
Playing just 12 minutes per game — limited by the minutes that Bulls standouts Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Tahj Gibson commanded — he became a fan favorite by pulling down hard rebounds, dishing out bruising screens and routinely shutting off the paint to dribbling guards. Bulls color analyst Stacey King dubbed him “Asik and Destroy” while he swatted shots and gobbled up rebounds as part of the league’s best bench unit, aiding Chicago on a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But when his rookie contract expired a season later, the salary cap-strapped Bulls were unable to re-sign the center, allowing Houston to swoop in with a lucrative, back-loaded, three-year contract that culminated in a $15 million payment this season. In Houston, Asik perfected his brand under the basket, starting all 82 regular-season games, pulling down 11.7 rebounds and posting 1.1 blocks per game as part of a playoff team in the rugged Western Conference.
Yet by the time his second season in Houston came around, Asik’s role had changed dramatically. The Rockets made the splash of free agency by outmaneuvering the Los Angeles Lakers to sign perennial All-Star center Dwight Howard.
That immediately pushed Asik down the rotation, and an offseason injury relegated him to just 48 games last year for a team that strayed from his strengths, emphasizing offensive firepower over defensive toughness.
“I know he wanted to start,” McHale said. “I know it was a bone of contention with him, regarding us.”
That’s when Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps saw an opportunity. After Demps unsuccessfully tried to trade for Asik during the previous offseason, Houston’s demands for Asik had dissipated, but the Pelicans’ interest in him did not.
Without an imposing presence to team with budding superstar Davis, New Orleans knew its franchise player was unable to fully blossom. When Demps cobbled together a three-team deal with Washington, chocked full of non-guaranteed, expiring contracts, his team finally had the pieces to round out a playoff-contending starting lineup.
“It’s a better fit,” Asik said of his move to New Orleans. “Houston was known more for offense, and here defense is more important. I obviously prefer defense.”
And in Asik, there was no potential for conflict if he wasn’t able to get enough shots up or generate touches on offense. In his first meeting with Davis and Pelicans coach Monty Williams, Asik expressed his sincere desire to focus exclusively on defense and rebounding, a moment Davis said prompted him to smile “like the Kool-Aid Man.”
“I think anytime you get a guy wired that way, it’s a plus,” Forman said. “Omer is not about stats. He’s about winning. He wants to be a part of winning and he has been, even when he was in Turkey or in his time with the national team or in Houston. So I think he will impact winning (in New Orleans).
“I think he is going to be a terrific fit. I thought it was not a good, but a great move by Dell. You can tell by the type of players they’re getting, the type of culture they’re trying to create. I think it’s a great move that is going to pay big dividends for them.”
Pelicans guards can attest to the intimidating presence Davis and Asik pose together. In preseason practice, Jrue Holiday and Austin Rivers admitted they aren’t keen on attacking the paint when those two are manning the low block.
Instead, midrange jumpers and floaters are being lifted more than ever at the practice floors on Airline Drive, in the hopes of avoiding the active arms and jagged bodies below the basket.
“It’s all jump shots from the team facing those guys,” Rivers said. “Coach doesn’t like to call fouls in practice and, when Omer and AD are jumping at you, it’s not easy to avoid looking bad if you go down there.”
In the preseason, the Pelicans drew on Asik’s experience and unselfishness to change the strategy of opposing offenses. Last season, even as Davis swatted his way into becoming the league’s top shot blocker (2.1 per game), opponents still chose to attack New Orleans in the post.
Without a true center manning the middle, 31 percent of opponents’ shots came within 3 feet (ranked No. 26 in the NBA), and most of those converted, dragging the Pelicans down to their No. 25 ranking in field goal percentage allowed at the rim (66.3).
It was clear, despite some gaudy numbers: Davis could not defend two positions and the rim on his own.
“It feels a lot different going down there now, I can tell you that,” Holiday said after two weeks of preseason practice. “When all four of those arms are up, there aren’t a lot of places to go.”
Still, Williams believes there’s more to Asik than the narrow niche he has carved. While tough interior defense will always be his hallmark, there will be ample opportunities for him to finish possessions on offense, and Williams wants to see the traditionally overlooked Asik fill up the box score when needed.
“I like his ability without the ball, but at the same time, I’ve been talking to him about playing with the ball,” Williams said. “I don’t like having guys on the floor who the other team doesn’t guard. I think you can fall into that trap, too. He’s a really good screener, and he knows how to make plays that you don’t tell him to make that really help your team.
“You have to have a high IQ to do that. This summer (at the FIBA World Cup) when we were in Spain, he played with the ball a lot and he had games with 16 or 20 rebounds; that was a big deal for their team’s success. He can do it. I think over here, he defers a bit, because he wants what’s best for the team.”
Throughout his career, Asik’s focus within those 16 feet has been what’s best for the team. But, he said, if Williams wants him to expand, he’s open to the idea.
As long as the playoffs are waiting for him at the end.
“I’m really happy to be here,” Asik said. “I just try to learn the system and play within it and learn how my teammates play and just keep getting better.”