January 20, 2019

New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik remains the most underrated player in the NBA. And as much as this may seem like an odd statement when regarding somebody who is about to earn $15 million dollars this season (even if only half of it will count against New Orleans’ cap), Asik’s level of compensation has more to do with the way the Rockets structured his contract a couple of summers ago than what he was deemed worth when he reached the open market back then.

Because he has spent three of his four seasons in the NBA backing up Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard, the common perception of Asik is that he is a nice rotation player, but hardly a 2000-minute linchpin. Part of this stems from the fact that Asik has opted to keep a low profile rather than making himself into a personality or a ‘brand’, one who endears himself to the fans by giving outlandish statements that will eventually call attention to his play, like Marcin Gortat or Chris Kaman. For Asik, only the play does any talking. But the bigger reason for this misconception is that Asik is, at his best, a very average offensive player.

That is not to say that he is unproductive. Asik has averaged 1.4 points per shot on 1101 field goal attempts in his four-year NBA career, and ranked 10th in the league in offensive rebounding rate in the one season he logged over 2,000 minutes. He is quite active in looking to set inside position and tracking the ball off the rim, with the size to move people around. But no defense accounts for Asik as a significant scoring threat. His high efficiency is a result of low usage and taking roughly 80 percent of his shots around the basket area while assisted on two thirds of them. As evidence of this, the average distance of his shot attempts is a mere 2.5 feet.

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Other than put-backs, Asik makes his contributions as a catch-and-score option out of the pick-and-roll, or by filling the vacated spot near the baseline on dribble drives. He is an excellent screener, who sprints to set a pick high in the perimeter and looks to draw contact, thus making himself a consistently viable pick-and-roll option in the halfcourt, diving hard down the lane with good agility. Even in pick-and-roll action, however, his significant offensive limitations are evident. Asik does not play above the rim as a target for lobs (he has only nine alley-oop scores in his NBA career), often struggles to catch the ball on the move, and lacks great touch to finish at the rim when he is unable to dunk. Despite his size, he is only a career 59.7 percent shooter within three feet of the basket, below the league average.

Asik has flashed some decent passing skills on the move, sending the ball out to shooters rotating to open spots in the perimeter, but was not asked to do this much in his two years in Houston, solely deployed as a finisher. He was fouled a good deal, averaging two free throws for every three shots he took, but he consistently struggles at the foul line. Asik’s free throw shooting motion consists of several dribbles to calm himself down, bringing the ball up at face height, stopping for a split second, bringing the ball up higher a few inches and then releasing it without exuding any great natural rhythm. He does not flex his elbows enough and none of it looks particularly smooth. Asik hit only 61.9 percent of his 126 free throw attempts last season, which was actually an improvement in comparison to his previous three years, but which remains poor, and there is no jumpshot to speak of.

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Asik is a capable scorer and passer out of the post when the play develops in such a way that gets him the ball against a single defender, but he becomes much more limited if that is the case too often and is too easily hounded by a double. He can set good position in the block and back opponents down due to his 255-pound frame, yet once there, he does not have many moves to create separation, is quite mechanical handling the ball, and does not get much elevation to shoot over opposing length.

As he is such a limited scorer and general contributor on offense, then, the majority of Asik’s value comes out of his defense. And in a league heavy in rim attacks, that is also constantly looking to defend the pick-and-roll with just two players and limit the need for weak side defenders to help over and leave open three-point shooters, Asik is a commodity.

In particular, Asik plays excellent positional defense against the middle pick-and-roll, and despite his size, Asik is quite nimble and has shown good foot quickness when backpedalling against smaller guards to challenge them at the rim. He is not a high volume shot blocker, but he is a known threat to do so, as leaping off the ground is not a chore for him. Opponents shot just 46.8% at the rim last season on approximately 278 attempts with Asik protecting it, which ranked eighth in the league among big men who logged a minimum of 20 games and 20 minutes per game. In the post, Asik is difficult to move due to his lower body strength, but impressively has shown lateral quickness to keep pace with other big men when they turn those post-ups into short drives, able to contain them through contact.

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Asik is an excellent rebounder on the defensive end as well, grabbing 30.1% of all available defensive rebounds when he was on the floor last season. A big part of it is that he is a large human, of course, but his general activity level and his attention to boxing out the opponent are what make him so effective on this end. Marc Gasol, for example, is just as big as Asik but a far worse rebounder, for he does not have those same traits to be so. Due to this rebounding and defense, the Houston Rockets conceded more than a point per 100 possessions fewer with Asik on the floor than without him last season.

New Orleans had a decent pairing up front in 2012/13 with Robin Lopez alongside Anthony Davis, but they gave up on that last season for the right to overpay Tyreke Evans (trading away Lopez in the process). Injuries disrupted their campaign significantly, yet, even with Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson healthy, last year’s rotation only ever projected as a lousy defensive unit. Asik, a legit star role player, upgrades them in this department significantly. Whether or not New Orleans will seriously contend for a postseason berth will still depend on how big a step into superstardom Davis takes, the health of their top eight and if they can get average production out of their wing rotation. But Asik’s presence at least guarantees they will be able to focus on these things, knowing they can now field a defense that is better than bottom five.

(Statistical data for this post was researched on basketball-reference, NBA.com stats, 82games.com and nbasavant.com)

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Rafael Uehara

Rafael Uehara is a contributor at bballbreakdown.com. More of his stuff can be read at basketballscouting.wordpress.com, his personal blog, and Upside & Motor, where he's also a regular contributor.

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