Bucks Back When ... Ersan Ilyasova, Part II

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

January 22, 2007
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

This story is a continuation of 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 ...

Those who travel the highways and biways of professional basketball's minor leagues rarely experience the comforts of home.

And when 18-year-old Ersan Ilyasova was on tour with the National Basketball Development League's Tulsa 66ers a year ago at this time, he was halfway around the globe from his homeland, too. 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.

Fortunately for Ilyasova, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Tulsa 66ers stepped into his life and made the connection between the National Basketball Association and the NBDL, its training ground, work exactly the way it was designed to work.

The Bucks assigned Ilyasova to the 66ers, their NBDL affiliate, on Nov. 13 of 2005. In the months ahead, he would learn not only the ins and outs he would need to make the NBA grade, but a better understanding of the English language, which he would need to make that grade.

Ilyasova's coach with the 66ers, Joey Meyer, played an integral role in the education of Ersan Ilyasova, 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 said. "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."

One of the most formidable hurdles Ilyasova had to clear was simply getting healthy and comfortable on the court. He 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 was 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," he 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 in 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.”

Ilyasova was aided by the camaraderie he enjoyed with his teammates, who included such former American collegiate standouts as John Lucas of Oklahoma State, Tony Kitchings of South Carolina and Seamus Boxley of Portland State.

"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 confdience level… he got to be one of the guys. Our guys really liked him. He was very popular with our team.”

Ilyasova developed physically as well.

“He got stronger," Meyer said. "Our trainer, John Joslin, did a good job of working on that ankle. By the end of the year, he was not the same player people saw at the beginning of the year.”

One of the strengths of Ilyasova's game had been his knack for rebounding, and the added strength made him an even greater force on the boards. He led his team and finished seventh in the entire D-League in rebounding at 7 per game.

“That’s probably his most deceptive quality," Meyer said. "He’s got long arms, he’s got a great instinct for the ball. He was just incredible. It’s almost like he didn’t even jump sometimes, but he was getting rebounds or tipping the ball. By the end of the year, teams were actually setting their defenses to stop him and keep him off the boards.

"Gosh, at the beginning of the year, that wasn’t the case, but I think that’s one of the most deceptive things he has in his game is his ability to get to the board and rebound the ball. And his second jump, to me, is as quick as his first jump. That has something to do with the length of his arms.”

Ilyasova developed his offensive skills as well. He wound up averaging 12.5 points per game and hit 68 3-pointers in his 46 games.

“The big problem I always saw with Ersan is he would shoot when he should drive and drive when he should shoot," Meyer said. "That’s something we really worked with him on, and I think they’re still working with him on that. But I think the strength of his game is his length, his quickness to the ball and his ability to shoot. Now he can drive the ball; he’s just got to put that in the mix and his understanding of the game.

"The more he plays, the better he’s going to get at that. We used to do a lot of pick-and-pops with him, and he stretched the defense because he can really shoot that deep 3. And if you don’t keep him off the board, he’s going to get that offensive rebound.”

Meyer was impressed with Ilyasova's shooting prowess from the first time he saw him play. But what really made an impression on him was the young Turk'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.”

After Tulsa completed its season, Ilyasova rejoined the Bucks and was able to practice with them for the balance of their season. They noticed a much more confident and mature player.

“John Anderson (the Bucks' assistant athletic trainer and assistant strength and conditioning coach) was the trainer at Asheville (N.C., of the NBDL) when I was coaching there," Meyer said. "John’s a good friend of mine, and when Ersan came back to Milwaukee, he called me and said, ‘My gosh. He’s not the same kid!”

Then-teammate Toni Kukoc noticed, too.

"He was more comfortable on the court," 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."

Ilyasova's dramatic strides continued during the summer of 2006, when he helped lead Turkey to a sixth-place finish in the FIBA World Championships, averaging 9.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

Now in his first NBA season, he began seeing extended minutes when the Bucks were hit hard by injuries during January.

From Jan. 8 through Jan. 19, he averaged 12.2 points per game. He established a career high with 15 points at Denver on Jan. 8, but his finest hour came nine days later when he set career bests of 22 points and nine rebounds against the Chicago Bulls at the Bradley Center.

Meyer, for sure, will enjoy monitoring his 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."