“Marching with the Ants”

Lamb should follow in Ilyasova’s footsteps, make most of D-League opportunity

Doron Lamb has found his latest hill to climb.

Turns out it’s an Ant hill.

The 21-year-old Lamb, selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the 2012 National Basketball Association Draft with the 42nd overall pick, was assigned by the Bucks to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants of the NBA Development League on Feb. 3.

The Bucks originally assigned Lamb to the D-League on Jan. 12. He appeared in two games for Fort Wayne and averaged 7.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 24.5 minutes per outing. He was recalled to Milwaukee on Jan. 21.

Stuck behind veterans Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Beno Udrih, who have divided the majority of Milwaukee’s backcourt minutes, Lamb has appeared in 23 contests for the Bucks this season and averaged 3.4 points in 12.2 minutes per game. He scored a career-high eight points in four different games, most recently against the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 19.

Lamb, like Jennings a product of the Oak Hill Academy powerhouse prep program, was a member of the University of Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA championship team. He gained additional notoriety in June when he and five of his Wildcats teammates were drafted into the NBA on the same day.

If Lamb were to decide that he prefers playing in the D-League to the NBA, he would hold an even greater distinction than that. The NBA, after all, is the destination. And the D-League is the vehicle.

Lamb should, however, draw encouragement from the fact that the D-League has launched the careers of many NBA players since its inception in 2001.

One of the D-League’s more inspirational success stories is that of Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova.

Ilyasova was a mere 18 years old when the Bucks chose him in the second round of the 2005 NBA Draft with the 36th overall selection.

He came to camp with the Bucks three months later and opened the 2005-06 NBA season on their roster, but did not see action in a regular-season game before being assigned to the Tulsa 66ers, the Bucks’ D-League affiliate at the time, on Nov. 13, 2005.

Ilyasova’s trek into the D-League was vastly different than Lamb’s in at least one respect. He was halfway around the globe from his homeland. Even his favorite simple pleasures, such as his grandpa’s old Turkish cooking, must have seemed worlds away.

Ilyasova was not only separated from his family and friends for the first time in his life, but he barely knew a soul in this strange, new land and spoke very little English.

Fortunately for Ilyasova, the Bucks and the 66ers stepped into his life and made the connection between the NBA and the NBDL work exactly the way it was designed to work.

In the months ahead, Ilyasova not only learned many basketball ins and outs he would need to make the NBA grade, but a better understanding of the English language.

Joey Meyer, Ilyasova’s coach with the 66ers, played an integral role in his education, but he humbly directed much of the credit to the Bucks organization.

“A lot of the credit goes to Dave Babcock (the Bucks’ director of player personnel),” Meyer told me at the time. “The Bucks just did a great job of getting Ersan a personal strength coach, and they got him an English teacher here to work on his English. And a lot of credit obviously goes to Ersan. He really worked on his game.”

Ilyasova had been hampered during an extended recovery period from surgery on a nagging ankle injury. It did not take long, though, for Meyer to realize he had an extremely attentive and driven student.

“He hadn’t played in awhile,” Meyer said. “He had that ankle injury and the surgery. He needed to get out and play. We’d like to think we played a small part in helping him, but in reality, he did a great job of working on his game. He’s got a great work ethic. Ersan loves to work at his game. I was always impressed at his work ethic.”

Ilyasova and his coaches and teammates needed some time to bridge their communication gap.

“When he first got here, it was tough for him,” Meyer recalled. “But once he’d been around the players all the time, watching TV, with all the English being spoken, and then working with the English tutor, he just picked it up.”

Ilyasova became much more comfortable once he began speaking his coaches’ and teammates’ language.

“Actually, the English classes helped me a lot,” Ilyasova said. “I had those every day. And I talked with the other players about the games. It was a good experience for me.”

As time went by, Ilyasova’s basketball tutelage accelerated. Like many of the European players in the NBA, Ilyasova had been well-versed in the game’s fundamentals, but he had one factor working against him that many of his predecessors did not: his age.

“He was so young that I don’t know if all the fundamentals he learned in Europe had really sunk in yet,” Meyer said. “The other thing is that his timing was off because he hadn’t played in so long after having the foot surgery.
 
“He needed to get his timing and his feel for the game back. He had a lot of things going against him, and that’s why it was such a great idea for him to come down here.”

Ilyasova picked up the pace in a hurry, sometimes with the help of a nudge or two.

“When he first got here, communication was a problem,” Meyer said. “But his English really improved. We used to laugh because, about a month into the season, he’d tell us, ‘I do not understand,’ and I’d say, ‘Ersan, that doesn’t fly anymore.’ He understood. And by the end of the year, I didn’t think there was much problem at all communicating with him.”

Meyer was impressed with Ilyasova’s development. He averaged 12.5 points per game, and his 7 rebounds per outing ranked seventh in the D-League. He also honed his 3-point shooting marksmanship, making 68 treys in 46 games.

“Everything really worked well,” Meyer said. “It was a great situation for him. I’m sure he would rather have been up with the parent team – they all would. With the travel and being part of that, it’s exciting.
 
“But his experience here was the best thing in the world for him, and I credit the Bucks for realizing that. He got better and better, and just his confidence level … he got to be one of the guys. Our guys really liked him. He was very popular with our team.”

What made the greatest impression on Meyer was Ilyasova’s relentlessness.

“His work ethic was extraordinary,” Meyer said. “I remember rebounding one time with him, and I seriously thought he was going to fall over. I was getting tired, and I was just chasing the rebounds. I told him, ‘Ersan, I was hoping you were going to get tired, because I’m ready to fall over.’
 
“But that’s the mentality he has. I was always impressed with that. You don’t see that in a young guy like that. You never had to worry about him doing extra work, whether it was ballhandling work, running the stairs, working on other parts of his game. I was worried that he’d wear himself out, having to play 50 games and then putting in all the working out he did.”

Ilyasova’s Bucks teammates noticed his progress when he returned to the team. 

“He was more comfortable on the court,” Toni Kukoc said. “When he was here at the start of the season, he was just kind of hanging around the 3-point line, shooting. Now he has more of a mid-range game, he’s more comfortable taking the ball to the bucket, making up-and-under moves.”

Meyer said he would enjoy the time he spent assisting and monitoring Ilyasova’s progress.

“I can remember his first day here as opposed to his last day, and boy, he just came so far,” Meyer said. “I think our league has always done a great job of keeping young players in the league and helping them to develop.

“I’d love to be able to sit here and tell you it was all me, but I know the Bucks did a tremendous job and I know Ersan did a tremendous job.”