'Young Turk' makes return from Europe
Grown-up Ilyasova back with Milwaukee

By Truman Reed
October 15, 2009

Ersan Ilyasova
Ersan Ilyasova is excited to be back with the Bucks. The Bucks are excited to have him back as well.

Milwaukee Bucks fans would be well-advised to buy a program when they take in their first game at the Bradley Center this season, or at least print themselves a roster off bucks.com.

That's because when the 2009-10 campaign tips off Friday, Oct. 30, in Philadelphia, there will most likely be at least a half-dozen players on the Bucks roster who did not play for the team in 2008-09.

Not all of the newcomers will be totally new, though. At least one of them ought to bear some resemblance to a kid who became the youngest player ever to play for Milwaukee in a regular-season NBA game three years ago.

The Bucks selected him in the 2005 National Basketball Association Draft, and he spent the ensuing season with the Tulsa 66ers of the National Basketball Development League, learning not only the nuances of the NBA but the English language, which was literally foreign to him when he arrived in the United States at the age of 18.

The kid did quite well for himself in the NBA in 2006-07. He appeared in 66 games -- even starting 14 -- and averaged 6.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 14.7 minutes per outing.

In the weeks after his rookie season, the young prospect created a stir within Bucks camp by hitting the weights, adding 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-9-inch frame.

And not long after that, he was long gone, having signed a lucrative deal to play for AXA FC Barcelona in Spain's premier professional league.

Dave Babcock, Milwaukee'sDirector ofPlayerPersonnel, was one of many individuals in the Bucks' organization who was disappointed with the teenager's departure.

"I wish we had never lost him, but we did," Babcock said. "But now we've got him back, and he's got two years under his belt. He's a man now."

Not only that, but Ersan Ilyasova has a new uniform number. And if he can even approach the NBA accomplishments of the last European-bred Bucks player to wear the number 7 -- a Croatian legend by the name of Toni Kukoc -- Milwaukee's 36th pick in the second round of that 2005 NBA Draft will qualify as a steal.

Ilyasova showed flashes of promise as a 19-year-old NBA rookie with the Bucks in 2006-07.

He led the team in scoring three times, in rebounds three times, in steals nine times and in blocks 10 times.

He knocked down five 3-pointers in a March 25 game against the Detroit Pistons on his way to a 21-point performance.

He sank 54 of 148 shots from beyond the arc for 36.5 percent.

He reached the pinnacle of his first NBA season in a Jan. 17 game against the Chicago Bulls, collecting career highs of 22 points and nine rebounds. That outing left quite an impression on a lot of folks, including the coach of the opposing team, a guy named Scott Skiles.

The fact that Skiles is now the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks was one of the major factors that influenced Ilyasova to turn down more dollars in Spain to return to the NBA and sign a multiyear contract with the Bucks on July 23, 2009.

"This year is really important for me," Ilyasova said. "I think this is a great opportunity for me here.

"Scott Skiles is a really good coach, and I really wanted to play for him. That helped me make my decision."

Ilyasova's decision to leave the NBA in 2007 did not meet with instant success in Spain. Much of his first season, with AXA FC Barcelona, was filled with frustration.

"I had issues with his agent when he signed (to play in Spain two years ago)," Babcock said. "The team he signed with had a new coach who historically didn't like playing young players. I was like, 'Look, I understand the money issues and that he can get money, but the development issue? You're sending him to a guy who might not play him.'

"When he got there, the coach loved him, but he still didn't play him. The team made a coaching change in January and he finally started playing and had a great second half of the season. The good thing is he's still a young guy."

The frustration took its toll on Ilyasova.

"When you go to a new team and a new place, a lot of times you have to adjust," he said. "I struggled for the first two months. When I started to learn the language better and meet more people and became familiar with the other players, things started to get better for me."

Ilyasova moved on to play for Regal FC Barcelona in 2008-09 and fared much better, averaging 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds. He shot 52.3 percent from the field and 45.6 percent from 3-point territory and helped his team win the Spanish national championship.

He saw 22 games of action with Regal FC Barcelona in Euroleague play, averaging 10.5 points and 7 rebounds against the top pros on the continent. He put up Euro single-game bests of 30 points and 15 rebounds.

"My second year was unbelievable," Ilyasova said. "I played on a really good team that had a lot of success.

"It was really helpful for me just to be able to improve myself as a player over there. I think I made a good decision to go back to Europe when I did, plus I played for a really good club. I think the European Spanish league is the best league after the NBA. There were tough games, and they really helped a lot to develop myself."

Ilyasova, a native of Eskisehir, Turkey, has been playing for his home country since 2003, and he followed up his big season with a successful summer competing with the Turkish National Team.

"We played in the European Championships this summer," Ilyasova said. "We played really well. We won four or five games before losing to Greece in the quarterfinals in overtime. That was really disappointing becausewefell to the sixth, seventh or eighthposition.

"Now I'm looking forward to our season starting here."

Ilyasova quickly became aware that he would be surrounded by a much different cast than the one he played with the last time he donned a Bucks jersey.

From that group, only Michael Redd, Dan Gadzuric, Charlie Bell and Andrew Bogut remain.

"It's a much different team than the one I left two years ago," Ilyasova said. "They've made a lot of changes. I have a lot of new teammates.

"I know Andrew and some of the other guys I played with here, and some of the other players I've played against internationally. Now we have to get to know each other better and play together. I'm looking forward to that."

Babcock is looking forward to that, too. He believes that second-round pick the Bucks invested back in 2005 is going to pay big dividends.

"He's a man now," Babcock said. "And he's going to be a big plus for our team."