Bucks Back When ... Ersan Ilyasova, Part I

Ersan Ilyasova has made a habit
of draining deep threes for
the Bucks (Getty Images)

January 19, 2007
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

This story is the first segment in a series entitled, "Bucks Back When...". The series will revisit pivotal stages in the careers of Milwaukee Bucks players and coaches ...

Imagine you are a teenager.

You are flown to a faraway land where you do not speak the native language. Just 18 years old, you are relatively new to the working world, yet when you begin the first week on your new job, you are expected to keep up with people who are the very best in the world at your profession, which is a fiercely competitive one. You do not know any of your co-workers and can barely communicate with most of them.

A month or so later, your employers determine that you would benefit from further training in your field. You are flown to another part of the same unfamiliar country, where you will work under and with more people you have never met. Once again, you must bridge a communication gap in order to understand them, and for them to understand you.

OK, so few of our feet may fit comfortably into Ersan Ilyasova's shoes. But now that we have walked several thousand miles in them, we may begin to fathom what the Milwaukee Bucks' 19-year-old forward has experienced since leaving his homeland of Turkey about a year and a half ago.

When the Bucks selected Ilyasova with the 36th pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, they considered him a steal. Draft profilers called him one of the best Turkish prospects ever and raved about his athleticism, his shooting ability, his perimeter skills, his advanced feel for the game and his knack of playing his best basketball in the biggest games.

Joey Meyer, who succeeded his legendary father, Ray, as head basketball coach at DePaul University before moving on to coach in the National Basketball Development League, still marvels at what he saw Ilyasova accomplish while on his watch with the Tulsa (Okla.) 66ers during the 2005-06 season.

“I talked with my wife about that," Meyer said. "I told her, 'I couldn’t conceive of me being 18 years old, not knowing the language, being drafted, and then being sent down to Tulsa, Oklahoma with two guys I'd never met before.'

“It’s incredible what Ersan has been able to do. At 18, I’d have had no chance to do what he did. I can tell you that straight-out. He was younger than the other guys, he didn’t know the language, he hadn’t played in awhile, he didn’t know the area… that was a lot to overcome.”

Bucks center Andrew Bogut remembers the days Ilyasova spent in camp as his fellow rookie before being dispatched to Tulsa.

"It was tough for him," Bogut said. "He's a reserved kid. He didn't speak English. That, and the fact that he's shy, means you weren't usually going to get too much out of him, but on a day that you did, you were happy."

During his brief intial stint with the Bucks, Ilyasova made stronger impressions with his actions than with his few words.

One of the players who was most impressed with his skills and potential was former Bucks forward and European-born Toni Kukoc. Not only could Kukoc fill Ilyasova's size 16 shoes (literally) but he was the one member of the organization who could best identify with who Ilyasova was, where he had been and where he was going.

"It's very rare to see someone his age with his skills," Kukoc said. "He obviously has the basketball talent; nobody who's seen him play every day can argue that. And he can definitely play various positions on the floor. That's something that's not easy to find."

At the same time, Kukoc realized that Ilyasova was not ready for NBA prime time. Expecting that of him would have been simply unfair.

"When guys like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James first came into the league, even they weren't the greatest," Kukoc said. "LeBron might have been the closest to being ready. But all of those guys had a chance to play and needed a good two to three years of developing to become what they are right now.

"But obviously, Ersan has very good potential."

Bogut seconded that appraisal.

"I think Ersan has a lot of potential," he said. "He's very young, and he has a lot to learn, but he's a hard worker, so I don't think that'll be a problem. He really works hard. He tries to get into the gym whenever he can, and he's already a great shooter.

"I think in some ways he's like Hedo Turkoglu, his fellow countryman from Turkey. He can slash to the basket, he can get up and dunk, and he can shoot the ball really well. He's very, very long -- he's 6-9 and has about a 7-foot wingspan, which really helps him out.

"And he's still a teenager."

Bucks management decided that Ilyasova needed an envrionment where he could learn the English language, strengthen his body, be taught the nuances of National Basketball Association play, and at the same time, see as much game time as possible. So the decision was made to send him to the team's National Basketball Development League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, on Nov. 13 of 2005.

... Read the continuation of this story: Part II