Chicago’s Turkish delight

Bill Hupp is a writer and stand-up comedian from Chicago. He’s here to talk about Omer Asik. Learn something…

If there was one play that is emblematic of Chicago Bulls’ forward Omer Asik’s oft-overlooked contributions this season, it came late in the third quarter in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semis last night in Atlanta.

With 1:52 left to play, Asik outfought three Hawks in the post to keep an offensive rebound alive, which he kicked out to the left wing. A few seconds later, he took a perfectly-timed backdoor pass from Carlos Boozer, gathered himself and threw down a savage two-handed slam over Zaza Pachulia, while getting fouled in the process. Asik sank the free throw and completed the three-point play to give the Bulls a 68-51 lead and emphatically slam the door shut on the series.

Originally an early second-round pick by the Portland Trailblazers in 2008, Asik came to the Bulls in a three-team deal with Portland and Denver on draft night. After spending the last few years in Turkey playing with Fenerbahce, fans got their first look at Asik during the 2010 FIBA World Championships when he started for his home country.

Given the Bulls’ past foreign draft mistakes, however, many local media and fans expected very little of the unknown 7-0, 255-pound center coming into the season. In the past 15 years, the Bulls have spent draft picks on foreign big men like Roberto Duenas (Spain), Dalibor Bagaric (Croatia), and Dragan Tarlac (Serbia), players who either never played or never panned out in Chicago.

Instead, the 24-year-old native of Bursa, Turkey, has blossomed under the tutelage of a man known good-naturedly around town as “the human victory cigar.” Indeed, Brian Scalabrine — whom coach Tom Thibodeau brought along with him when he came over from Boston — has been instrumental in Asik’s development, working extensively with the Turkish center in practice to help accelerate his acclimation to the NBA.

During the regular season, Asik came off the bench in all 82 games, averaging 2.8 points and 3.7 rebounds over 12 minutes of action. Asik’s minutes were largely dependent on matchups, with Thibodeau opting to start veteran center Kurt Thomas while Joakim Noah missed 30 games with a broken right hand. He played as little as two minutes and as many as 31 during the regular season. His best games came against New Jersey, when he recorded his first career double-double with 11 points and 16 rebounds, and Orlando, when he “limited” Dwight Howard to just 20 points and 10 rebounds, and grabbed 13 boards of his own.

Asik is not the archetypal European player, aside from his occasional “FIBA flop,” as Hubie Brown termed it last night. No, Asik is smart, solidly built, tough and defensive-minded — a classic big man who lives around the rim, challenging shots and trying to dunk every ball he catches in the post. While his offensive repertoire is limited, Asik makes up for it by doing the dirty work.

To say that Asik “does the little things well” would be selling him short — not easy to do when you’re talking about a 7-footer. When he’s not setting solid screens at the top of the key, Asik is using his 7-2 wingspan to pound the offensive boards and tap out balls on offense or frustrate opposing centers in the paint on defense.

After playing sparingly in the first seven games of the 2011 Playoffs, Asik has seen at least 13 minutes of action in each of the last four games. He grabbed eight boards in 13 minutes in Game 4, and was actively involved in the Bulls’ Game 5 comeback against Atlanta with three rebounds and a block in the fourth quarter. Thibodeau has left Thomas on the bench in the playoffs, choosing instead to go with Asik’s boundless energy and activity when Noah is in foul trouble or needs a rest.

Chicago, in turn, has embraced him. While he speaks limited English, he understands his role — and Bulls fans seem to appreciate his aggressive hustle and lunch pail work ethic. And while Miss Ohio Lindsay Davis was quick to dismiss rumors yesterday that she was dating Asik, don’t be surprised if Chicago women aren’t soon flattered to be associated with Chicago’s big man of the “Bench Mob.”

Bill Hupp is a freelance writer and PR professional living in Chicago. His work has appeared in publications like ESPN the Magazine, SportsBusiness Journal, Pro Football Weekly and Basketball News, and AdAge. Follow him on Twitter.