MIP in the making?

Ilyasova makes pitch with record numbers

Ersan Illyasova
Ilyasova’s career-best numbers become even more impressive considering that they’re coming during a compacted NBA season that has taken its toll on all of the players.

No Milwaukee Buck has ever been named the NBA’s MIP.

If the sportswriters who select the winner of the National Basketball Association’s Most Improved Player Award take a close and unbiased look at all of the numbers, though, the Bucks ought to have their most serious contender in years this season.

Through April 19, Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova was averaging career highs of 12.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, shooting career bests of .490 from the field and .457 from 3-point range and hitting at a .795 clip from the free-throw line.  His previous NBA bests are 10.4 ppg and 6.4 rpg, .443 from the field in 2009-10 and .365 from long distance in 2006-07.

Ilyasova, averaging 27.3 minutes per outing, is on pace to become the first NBA player to average 12 points and 8 rebounds in under 28 minutes per game since a pair of Hall-of-Famers accomplished the feat in the early 1990s: Arvydas Sabonis of Portland, who averaged 14.5 ppg and 8.1 rpg in 23.8 mpg in 1995-96, and Robert Parish of Boston, who achieved 12.6 ppg. and 9.4 rpg in 27.2 mpg in 1992-93.

The only other member of the exclusive club is former Bucks center Danny Schayes, who averaged 13.9 ppg and 8.2 rpg in 26.7 mpg for Denver in 1987-88.

Ilyasova’s 3-point percentage ranked third in the NBA behind former Brown Deer High School and Marquette University standout Steve Novak of the New York (.469) and Mike Miller of Miami (.467). Ilyasova is on pace to have the top 3-point shooting percentage for a Bucks player since Dell Curry shot .476 during the 1998-99 season.

Ilyasova was flattered to hear his name in the MIP conversation, but more preoccupied with trying to help his team reach the NBA playoffs.

“That’s exciting, but my goal is just to keep playing consistently and hopefully help this team keep winning,” he said. “I’ve fought through some injuries and so has our whole team. We’re healthier now and we’re playing better basketball. John Hammond has also done a good job of bringing new pieces in for us.”

Ilyasova, who won’t turn 25 years old until May 15, put up modest numbers through the first two months of his fourth NBA campaign. He averaged 8 ppg and 7.3 rpg in December, and 8.1 ppg and 7.1 rpg in January.

Those numbers rose dramatically, though, to 14.9 ppg and 10.9 rpg in February and to 16.7 ppg and 8.8 rpg in March, catapulted by the breakout game of his pro career Feb. 19 at New Jersey. Ilyasova garnered career highs of 29 points and 25 rebounds in 36 minutes in the Bucks’ 92-85 victory over the Nets. He made 11 of 23 field goals, including two of four from 3-point range; and five of six free throws.

Thirteen of his rebounds came off the offensive glass, putting him two short of the franchise record.

Ilyasova became the first Milwaukee player in over 30 years to total 25+ points and rebounds in a single game and just the third player in team history to accomplish the feat, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Swen Nater.

Nater achieved the last previous 25/25 game in Bucks annals with 30 points and a club-record 33 rebounds --  including 15 offensive --  in a 126-109 victory over Atlanta on Dec. 19, 1976.

Abdul-Jabbar accomplished the feat 10 times.

Bucks Head Coach Scott Skiles, who was named NBA MIP following the 1990-91 season, realized the significance of Ilyasova’s feat and was especially impressed with his boardwork.

“He’s outworking people in a lot of situations,” Skiles said. “Having 29 points is one thing, but it's the rebounds that really stick out. On any given night, ‘Ers’ can make four 3s and get 25 points or something, but to get that many rebounds is incredible.”

Ilyasova admitted that both he and his teammates began to find a comfort zone right around the All-Star break at the end of February.

“We struggled early in the season because we had a lot of new guys on the team,” he said. “Now we’ve played a lot of games together and everybody knows what the other guys can do on the floor. We’ve developed a lot of confidence from winning games, especially during our six-game winning streak. We’ve done a great job of sharing the ball. We’re getting 25 or more assists in many of the games.”

Ilyasova has enjoyed being on the giving and receiving ends of those assists.

“I think we’ve developed pretty good team spirit and team chemistry,” he said. “At the beginning of this season, especially with it being a short season and not a lot of practice space, we had a lot of new guys and we struggled with that. I think we’re really adjusting now to each other and we’ve figured out who’s going to play the best together in certain spots. And we’ve come around.”

On March 12, Ilyasova was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played March 5 through 11. The 6 foot, 10 inch, 235-pound forward, who has even seen some duty at center this season, led the Bucks to a 3-1 week, including wins over the 76ers and Knicks.

Ilyasova averaged 25 points while shooting .638 from the field, .900 from the foul line, and .667 from 3-point territory to go along with 10.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists. Ilyasova posted three point-rebound double-doubles, including a 31-point, 12-rebound effort to close the week in a 105-99 win over the Raptors on March 11. He also scored a career-high 32 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 106-104 loss to Chicago on March 7.

Coincidentally, the Western Conference Player of the Week for March 5-11 was Monta Ellis, whom the Bucks acquired the following week in a trade with the Golden State Warriors.

Ilyasova’s career-best numbers become even more impressive considering that they’re coming during a compacted NBA season that has taken its toll on all of the players.

“It’s been really hard,” Ilyasova said. “We’ve had a lot of back-to-backs. As professional athletes, we know how important it is to take care of our bodies. It’s been tough. It takes a lot of effort.

“We just have to continue to prepare ourselves to give 110 percent every night. On the off days, I try to do what I can to recover quickly and take care of my body and prepare myself for the next game.” Words spoken like a deserving MIP.