Beginning of a heat wave?
Most of us would like to be able to say that we’re warming up, but it may be a little too early to do so confidently.
Ersan Ilyasova, however, can say it with a degree of certainty, and the numbers on the thermometer back him up.
The Milwaukee Bucks forward, who signed a new five-year deal with the team on July 12, 2012, plummeted into a record-low cold spell shooting the basketball four months later, but he has gradually raised his heat index – during the month of December, no less.
Through the Bucks’ 13 November games, Ilyasova was averaging just 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds, shooting .349 from the field and an alarming .214 from 3-point range and .467 from the free-throw line in 22.3 minutes per game.
These numbers were a dramatic departure from the ones Ilyasova put up during his fourth National Basketball Association season. He established career highs of 13 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists and finished second to Ryan Anderson, then of the Orlando Magic, in the 2011-12 Kia NBA Most Improved Player Award.
He came up with 29 points and 25 rebounds in a Feb. 19 game against New Jersey, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Swen Nater as the only players in franchise history to record a game of at least 25 points and 25 rebounds. And he led Milwaukee with 20 double-doubles.
The 6-foot-10-inch, 235-pound forward tested the free-agent market, but decided that Milwaukee was the place for him.
“It was an exciting free agency, to see which team I would play for,” Ilyasova said. “I was glad that it worked out this way. I wanted to continue to be a Milwaukee Bucks player. I started my NBA career with the Bucks as a draft choice.
“It was not just about money. It was about a number of things. When I talked to my agent, I believed this was the last contact I’ll be signing. I’ve always believed that not only for me, but for my family, the best choice was for me to remain in Milwaukee. I was glad it worked out that way.
“I’ve really grown up in Milwaukee, and my wife’s from Milwaukee. I know the team really well. I know the coaches. It’s a good thing I will continue to be with the Milwaukee Bucks.”
Ilyasova, just prior to the start of training camp, made it clear that he had no intention to rest on his laurels.
"I always when I look at myself, I try to improve," he said. "That's why each year I go and play for the (Turkish) national team. I've got a lot of time to improve myself.
"Each day this summer, I worked on something different – just my individual skills. I tried to get a little bit stronger and work on using my post-up game in certain situations. We'll see how it's going to work for me. It’s really important to start fresh at the beginning of the season.”
That fresh start didn't materialize for the 24-year-old Ilyasova. His struggles, however, did not stem from complacency.
Ilyasova did his best to maintain his aggressiveness as a shooter.
“Sometimes you go through those things where you're trying to make your shots and it doesn’t go in for you,” he said. “I have to try to be constant and even if I miss my first shot, I'm going to be ready and confident to get another one.”
Ilyasova said the transition to having a number of new teammates and a different rotation than last season has been a difficult one for him.
“It's just been tough to have so many guys playing the same spots,” he said. “If one guy isn't making his shot, other guys are getting opportunities to make shots.”
Ilyasova has put in extra work on getting his shooting mechanics right, but said he hasn’t focused strictly on the shooting element of his game.
“You have 82 games, so it's hard to think too much about one game,” he said. “I do work more on my shot so I'm able to knock them down in the games. But for me, it's not just about making shots. It's about doing a lot of different things. A lot of it is bringing energy.”
Ilyasova has done that throughout his career. Many times, his scoring bursts have been triggered when he has taken a charge or outhustled everyone else on the floor for a putback or a loose ball.
“From my perspective, it's hard to come into a game and get a shot right away,” he said. “You want to take the time to get up and down and find a rhythm.
“Sometimes when you're not making shots, you have to do something different, like going to the glass or taking a charge or getting someone else a chance to get his shot. I want to take advantage of my opportunities to play and do something for the team.”
Ilyasova certainly did that during the month of December. He boosted his averages to 11.2 points, 6 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. Most significantly, he lifted his shooting percentages dramatically to .457 from the field, .533 from 3-point range and .872 from the free-throw line.
He recorded season highs of 24 points against Detroit on Dec. 30 and 14 rebounds against Sacramento on Dec. 12 and posted three double-doubles after recording none in November.
“It helps the team so much when my shot is going down because it helps stretch the floor,” Ilyasova said. “It's good for our offense and it opens things up more for the big guys.”
Ilyasova’s improvement has been a microcosm of the Bucks’ progress. They went 9-6 during December, including two victories over both the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets and one apiece over the Indiana Pacers and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat.
He knows it will require a team effort for the team to continue climbing.
“Basketball isn't just about your top-level guys,” he said. “You have to have five or six guys on your bench who can come in and produce. You can't just rely on one or two guys. The more guys you have who are bringing something to the table, the better it's going to be for the team.
“There have been other years where we've started strong and then struggled later in the season. We have to keep the same mentality of wanting to be a playoff team. We have a lot of guys who can help the team. If everybody can stay on the same page, we'll be able to do good things as a team.”