This story gets better.
Ersan Ilyasova had the coldest November. In the first month of the season, his name and numbers clung to the bottom of every list like a magnet to the iron rim of a basketball hoop. All iron rim, no net.
He inked a 5-year, $40 million contract in the offseason after ranking second in the NBA shooting 45.5 % on three-pointers. Yet there was the sharpshooter: worse at the free throw line than 18 seasons worth of Shaquille O’Neal, and going six straight games without making a single shot from beyond the arc.
November is the time when media and observers and fans know that it is too early to really read into statistics or trends. Sure, they and we and I and you go out of our way to make the disclaimers. “It’s early, but…” But we still worry. With the data so fresh, it is tempting to write stories, impossible to look away.
Ilyasova looked way off. The Bucks went 8-6 in November, mostly in spite of him. Even in his best game, he hit just 1-5 three-pointers. Maybe that 45.5 % three-point percentage was a fluke, or at the very least a major outlier? After all, he hit just 29.8 % on threes the season prior. This is what people said or wrote or thought or worried to themselves.
Just a few weeks into the season, he was pressing. Despite entering the season as a starter, Ilyasova played 30+ minutes just once in the first 11 games.
"It's hard to get those shots I got last year. When I start the game, in the first 5 minutes I'm finding my rhythm and trying to make a couple shots.”
"The thing is as soon as I get on the bench and cool down it's really hard to produce right away. I have to adjust to that and we'll see how it's going to work for me."
Mark it up as merely a cliché response to fend off a standard question from a reporter during a difficult time if you like, but in the face of playing less effectively and less efficiently than he did as even a 19 year-old rookie, Ilyasova at the same also maintained a bit of resilience guided by a big picture view.
"We have a lot of games in front of us. I just have to stay focused and do what I did before.”
"I just need to fight through it and finally figure out what I need to do.”
Quickly, a look back at Ilyasova’s November-to-not-remember. Above you see a lot of red, which does not correlate to “hot” in this context. He was cold just about everywhere.
And it is not as though Ilyasova was attempting shots from unusual places on the court.
In fact, I will spare you the actual charts here, but his shot chart distribution comparing November with after November match extremely closely: lots of threes (the most from the left side), quite a few mid-range jumpers (the most from the left side), and 36 % of his overall shots around the basket. Striking sameness.
Since that first month of the season, Ilyasova has rather clearly fought through whatever “it” was and figured out whatever he “needed” to do. If that sounds a bit vague, see these numbers.
Over the past four months, the Turkish forward ranks as the very best three-point shooter in the NBA, making a scorching 48.4 % from outside since December 1 (among players with 100+ attempts in that timeframe).
After shooting 34.9 % from the field and 21.4 % on threes in November, the 25-year-old rebounded with a brilliant December, excellent January, fantastic February, and very strong March. And he started April by making 4-4 threes to help push the Bucks to 131 points in a win over the Bobcats.
Cool greens around the edges. That shot chart above is a beautiful basketball painting. Since the start of December, Ilyasova has functioned as one of the best offensive power forwards in the game. The 14.7 points and 7.6 rebounds are modest, but those traditional stats merely disguise a true maestro of efficiency.
Here’s a little perspective. Following November, Ilyasova has posted a 54.3 eFG%. Kevin Durant’s has a career 55.4 eFG% (quick refresher on eFG%). His 57.8 TS% in that span is up in the Stephen Curry (recently deemed the best pure shooter in the NBA) sphere overall this season (58.7 TS%).
So, what exactly happened here? His lack of comfort early in the year was plain to see in his numbers and his quotes and his inconsistent shooting form. But past that, no matter how much we try to apply logic and reason to the situation, the fact is that Ilyasova was just cold, off, in the beginning of the season.
And so it is somewhat easier but not immediately obvious to identify what is not responsible for the change. First, as noted above, it is not because he changed his shot selection. The forward is shooting from almost the exact same places at the same frequency as he shot in November. It is also not merely because of the head coaching change. After all, his best outside shooting month remains back in December, when Scott Skiles was still in charge. Third, it is not just because he is back in the starting lineup, as he actually shot better in 19 games as a reserve (46.5 FG%) than in 47 starts (46.0 FG%). His overall numbers are quite similar both home and away, in wins and losses, on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Ilyasova’s quiet roll has really rolled sparkles through the Milwaukee night in the last eight games: Averages of 21.3 points and 11.8 rebounds on 48.9 FG% and 47.1 3PT% count as elite across the board. Now the player who was worse at the free throw line in the beginning of the year than 18 seasons worth of Shaquille O’Neal hasn’t missed a free throw in more than a week, and the struggling forward who went six straight games without making a single shot from beyond the arc in November is 8-10 on threes in his last two games.
No player of the week awards or 25-rebound games, and you probably haven’t heard much about “Ersanity” lately. And that is fine. Ersanity is probably best left in spring of 2012 when the season was bittersweetly short and his arms grew famously long on offensive rebound put-backs. But these last few months and last few games rival the best days of his basketball life.
Maybe this story even gets better?
(hat-tip to stats.nba.com for the numbers)
My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.