Posted Oct 18, 2012 7:38 PM
Dangers often lurk within lucrative guaranteed contracts -- complacency, anxiety, stress in trying to live up to undue expectations -- and Ersan Ilyasova already may have fallen prey to one of them.
The Milwaukee Bucks' newly paid power forward has been exhibiting all sorts of uncharacteristic motormouthery lately.
"He's talking more than he ever has, since I've been here," said teammate Drew Gooden. "That's a good sign. He's comfortable now. It's always good to be somewhere playing where you know the team needs you and wants you. And he's being paid."
Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy has heard him too. "I was just thinking he's more comfortable with me," Dunleavy said. "But if everybody else is noticing it, maybe he is opening up a little bit. Getting a little bit of a big mouth."
Previously, Ilyasova could be more of the tall silent type, taciturn to the point of sphinx-like around many of his teammates. Part of that stemmed from his age -- though he has played 10 professional seasons (six in Europe, four in the NBA), he still is only 25 years old.
Part of it was due to his nature -- Ilyasova is a classical music fan in a hip-hop world, listing soprano Sarah Brightman as his favorite performer. And part of it, for large chunks of his Milwaukee career, came from not knowing for sure whether he was in, out or headed in some other direction.
Drafted in 2005 with the No. 36 pick, Ilyasova spent one season in the D League, then one in Milwaukee. As the youngest player ever to step on a court for the Bucks, he led the team in scoring three times and hit 36.5 percent of his 3-pointers. But he played for two coaches (Terry Stotts and Larry Krystkowiak) that season and had 16 DNP-CDs.
Ilyasova bolted back to Europe, playing in 2007-08 and 2008-09 for FC Barcelona. Milwaukee enticed him back in July 2009 and he became a helpful role player but little else, averaging 10 points, 6.3 rebounds and 24.1 minutes while shooting just 32.3 percent from the arc.
Last season, Ilyasova blossomed, his production bumping up disproportionately to his minutes (13.0, 8.8 and 45.5 percent from 3-point range in 27.6 minutes). He finished a strong second to Ryan Anderson in Most Improved Player balloting. Yet there was uncertainty again -- Ilyasova was heading into free agency and it wasn't clear if the Bucks would or could re-sign him. He and his agent Tolga Tugsavul reportedly considered offers from the Nets and the Raptors before sticking with Milwaukee for five years, $40 million (first four years guaranteed).
Conceivably, that could keep Ilyasova in town until he's a ripe old 30, an eternity by his wandering standards. He met his wife in Milwaukee, he's raising a family and now the contract makes him feel more a part of things.
"You know you're going to be part of the team now and part of the organization," Ilyasova said after a preseason game this week in Chicago. "I just wanted to accomplish something different and not just be on the floor. Our fans deserve it. Right now we're in a good position, I think. This is year we're going to change our goals -- our first priority is to be in the playoffs."
Feeling more integral is nice. Being a bigger part of what the Bucks want to do would be better. In years past, Ilyasova was sort of a bonus player, gravy on his good nights, not necessarily relied upon game after game. His consistency improved last season -- one key was to stop searching for his 3-point opportunities -- and now that has to be maintained, ideally as a full-time starter logging heavier minutes.
"We always feel like we know what we're going to get from him, we're going to get a good night's work," Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. "If we can get him enough open shots, he's going to make a good percentage of them."
Said Gooden: "He's sneaky. He kind of plays possum and all of a sudden, you look up there, he's got 15 points and eight rebounds and you don't think he's done anything. He quietly is a stat machine."
Not right now. Through three preseason games, Ilyasova has averaged 9.7 points in 18.3 minutes. He was shooting 69.2 percent, then went 1-of-9 in Chicago. Also, he has grabbed just 12 rebounds and hasn't been hitting the glass in workouts either. Then again, Milwaukee has new bigs aboard (Samuel Dalembert, Joel Przybilla, John Henson).
"It was not uncommon for him to get a dozen, 15, 18 rebounds in an hour-and-a-half practice," Skiles said. "Those aren't happening right now. I'm not sure yet if I'm a little concerned about his rebounding or if it's just the fact that we've got other big bodies around that are snatching up some rebounds."
Might the help upfront shift Ilyasova's responsibilities more to the perimeter? "Maybe," Skiles said. "But if he's going to start at that position, he's got to be able to rebound his spot in the game."
Said Ilyasova: "I'm not looking at it that way. Yeah, we've got a lot of big guys in different spots but I think it's the coaches' job to figure out the rotations. Whatever I do, I have to play my game and know that if the shot doesn't go, you have to have energy and do something positive. This year I have to be more aggressive defensively."
Ilyasova showed up for September scrimmaging earlier than most of the other Bucks and in great shape. Possum or not, his motor still revs higher than your average NBAer.
"He's the type of guy who's going to play the same way, work the same way, whether he's making $1 or a billion dollars," Dunleavy said. "That's his character."
So more yakking is fine. But more boarding would be better and more impact will be best for Ilyasova and the Bucks.
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