Turkish Thunder At Home In Milwaukee

Ersan Ilyasova Returns To The Team That Drafted Him In 2005

During a Q&A session at a recent season ticket holder’s event, Ersan Ilyasova was asked how he likes his steak.

“Well done,” Ilyasova responded.

Questionable steak preferences aside, the response was hardly shocking for a player, whose playing style is as tough as a two-dollar steak.

The NBA’s indisputable charge-taking king, Ilyasova has planted his feet and taken shots from opposition players at an unprecedented rate in 2018-19.

Despite missing 15 games through the regular season, the 11-year NBA veteran obliterated the competition in charges taken, taking a league-leading record 50 charges on the season, with Blake Griffin in second with just 31.

In his return from a broken nose earlier this season, the Bucks were blowing out the Atlanta Hawks in a January matchup by 40 points late in the fourth quarter. Ilyasova, unable to take a backward step, attempted to take another charge.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer couldn’t help but laugh when asked about that night, before pointing to two other instances where he had to shake his head at Ilyasova’s commitment to the cause.

“The game we played in Atlanta towards the end of the season, the goal was just to get through healthy and I think he tried to take three charges,” Budenholzer said.

“In the season finale against OKC we are playing 2-3 zone and he still finds a way to take a charge in zone. He just can’t keep his hand out of that cookie jar, it’s just like literally impossible.”

Watching him play, one could be forgiven for assuming his entire purpose defensively is to set the trap and gleefully wait for his opponent to barrel into his chest, but Ilyasova denies there is that much thought put into the process.

“It’s just intuition I would say. Just knowing who you are playing against, knowing their weaknesses, their dominant hand and stuff. It’s usually a split-second decision, just reading what’s going to happen and trying to be in the right place and the right spot,” Ilyasova explains.

“Sometimes when you are in a game, it’s in the moment. It’s not like I think about going to get [the charge], but it’s just reading the situations.”

Rather than looking back on a junior coach or mentor that instilled the defensive principle into his game, Ilyasova looks back on his early days as a Milwaukee Buck, and a former number one overall pick from Australia as a key influence.

“When you play in Europe, taking charges isn’t really a big part of the game,” Ilyasova explained. “The referees don’t really call that.

“I think it first started when I came to the NBA and I trained in my first year with Andrew Bogut. He was really good at it and I think I probably picked it up from him and tried to carry it on and just stick with it.”

Bogut was taken aback when Ilyasova’s comments were relayed to him recently.

“I didn’t realize that I was a guy that he picked the whole charges thing up from,” Bogut said.

“I used to take a lot, or I still do, though not as much these days. I’m getting old but that’s nice to know. We were really close.”

“I think it first started when I came to the NBA and I trained in my first year with Andrew Bogut. He was really good at it and I think I probably picked it up from him and tried to carry it on and just stick with it.”

 

When looking at the Bucks’ leader board for games played, one stumbles across some of the game’s marquee names.

Sitting at number 10?

Ersan Ilyasova.

Ilyasova was drafted by Milwaukee with the 36th overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft, playing 64 games as a 19-year-old rookie, before heading to Spain for two years.

“We were in the same draft class, he came in with me,” Bogut said.

“He was a really, really skinny, baby-faced rookie from Turkey, so he wasn’t overly confident. He was very quiet. He didn’t really speak English that well, but we hung out a fair bit.”

After returning from Spain, Ilyasova’s second stint in Milwaukee lasted six seasons, as the Turkish native became a staple in middling Bucks teams that took the floor under the guidance of Scott Skiles, Jim Boylan, Larry Drew and Jason Kidd.

“You always knew he had a high basketball IQ and was a hard worker, and within a year or two he came back. His body was completely transformed,” Bogut recalled.

“I don’t know it if was because of the language barrier or it could have been the fact he was becoming a good NBA player, but his confidence definitely improved. He’s one of those guys that has always had a great sense of humor and he’s kind of quirky as well, which is my kind of style with humor.”

Despite his stoic look on the court, Ilyasova is often seen laughing and joking with his teammates away from the camera. He’s without doubt an extremely popular member of the tightknit Bucks locker room.

“He looks like one of the meanest assholes you’ll ever see,” Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton says with a laugh.

“He just looks like an old grumpy man but once you get to know him, you talk to him, you figure out his sense of humor, you figure out he’s actually really funny.”

The Turkish native’s Milwaukee hiatus ended at 12:01 on July 1, 2018, when Ilyasova agreed to return home to the Bucks on a multi-year deal.

Ilyasova’s family remained in Milwaukee throughout his travels around the NBA, and there was no hesitation involved when the opportunity arose to return to the Cream City.

“I was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2005, I spent eight years here, I started my family here. I met my wife, all my three kids were born here so it’s a lot of things, and this summer when the opportunity came up to be part of the Bucks, I didn’t need to think much, I just agreed to it.”

During his absence, the Bucks morphed from a young team on the rise to a legitimate contender in the East. The opportunity to return to where it all began and be a part of something special was too much to pass up.

“We have a house here, it’s a home base for us, so like I said I was super excited especially with all the changes going through the city. The transformation from back in the day to now, the facilities, the arena, it’s all come together, and when you see the fans come and support the team even more, I think we have a really good base of fans who are loyal to us and it’s really just about winning.”

“He just lets players know what the expectations are and what the situation is and me being with him in Atlanta, playing for him, I know what to expect from him and he knows what to expect from me offensively and defensively.”

 

Outside of his obvious ties to the franchise, an immediate connection made with the signing was the reuniting of Ilyasova and Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s new head coach.

A former Coach of the Year, Budenholzer coached Ilyasova for 72 regular season games across two seasons, in which he averaged 10.7 points per game over 25.1 minutes. Over that period, the relationship between the two blossomed to the point that Ilyasova has become one of Budenholzer’s most trusted comrades.

“Ersan was very much so a guy we targeted, and it was great because the organization all knew him and certainly my familiarity with him and my belief in him. I think when you marry those two things up he was a big priority for us right out of the gate,” Budenholzer recalled.

As with all the recent transactions Milwaukee has made, Ersan’s ability to fit alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo played a big part in the signing.

“I just thought we wanted to put more shooting around [Giannis], and particularly when you find bigs that can shoot, it was a real priority for us,” Budenholzer added. “My familiarity with him and belief in him was very important.”

Ilyasova described some of the attributes that have made the player-coach relationship so special.

“He just lets players know what the expectations are and what the situation is and me being with him in Atlanta, playing for him, I know what to expect from him and he knows what to expect from me offensively and defensively,” Ilyasova said.

“When you look at our team we have a lot of weapons on offense but sometimes you have to accept your role, whatever is necessary. You can play good defense and maybe sometimes end up with zero points, but you can do different things. It’s just all about contributing the right way.”

For Budenholzer, Ilyasova ticks a critical box in the player-coach relationship as one of his most trusted players.

“There’s so much trust and belief in him, he’s just such a smart player,” Budenholzer said. “I think because he’s so smart and just such an intuitive person I just gravitate to him. I just trust him, and I do think we know what we expect of each other, but just what he does naturally, and I guess there’s people you want to teach that to, but he just gets it. He just does naturally what I envision.”

Unselfishness is a key component of the Bucks success, with Budenholzer’s squad boasting enviable depth, particularly at the forward position, where a healthy battle for minutes will continue through the playoffs between Ilyasova, D.J. Wilson, Nikola Mirotić and the recently acquired Pau Gasol.

Rather than concern himself with the possibility of finding himself on the outside looking in, Ilyasova believes the competition is not only healthy, but required for a deep postseason surge.

“Every good team, every successful team, you have to have it inside the team as well, competing and trying to push each other to get better. This is the thing with our bench. We have a really good bench, and everybody is ready to play so it’s a game where you have to be ready no matter what. But it’s the coach’s decision and some games someone else might come up and make some shots, but I think that’s what makes us unique.

“Especially in the playoffs, it’s really mental. I have experience, it’s obviously it’s a long series and everybody has to be ready to contribute.”

While he speaks of having playoff experience, Ilyasova is yet to break through the second-round barrier, a fact not lost on the veteran, who’s now on the other side of 30 years old.

“[I do think about it] especially in the part of my career where I am. I want to be successful as far as team wise and hopefully go to the Finals one day. Those opportunities come very rarely.”

The trip to the second round came last season for Ilyasova in Philadelphia, where he joined the Sixers for the playoff run, a run in which they eventually fell to the Boston Celtics.

“I think day-to-day this situation is much better being with this team, when you look at our record and the way we play,” Ilyasova revealed when thinking back to his time with Philadelphia last season.

“We have a long way to go and we have to play the right way, but I’m really glad to be here in this situation. This comes very rarely, and you have to get there eventually.”

The timing could hardly have been more perfect for Ilyasova to return, with the Bucks piecing together their best regular season in over 30 years. While acknowledging the stage of his career he is in, he refuses to let the pressure to succeed consume his mind.

“If you do start worrying about it, it’s going to be really frustrating in terms of overthinking stuff. I just go with the flow, take it day-by-day. I’m not thinking how many years I have left yet, it’s all about just staying healthy and working on my body.”

Is there a target age in mind though?

“No, I’m 31 right now. Hopefully I can go as far as Dirk [Nowitzki]. He’s one of the Hall of Fame players and obviously he’s played at a high level for his whole career, but it’s one of those things like I said, if your body will allow you, why not,” Ilyasova said with a smile.

Ilyasova isn’t going to change offensive gravity the way Nowitzki does. But so long as he’s able to stay healthy, you can be sure he will do everything he can towards the Bucks’ success, the Ersan Ilyasova way – feet planted, upright stance, ready to take yet another charge.

Ilyasova was next to me as I left Fiserv Forum after that January blowout against the Atlanta Hawks, and I asked him about that charge attempt with the game dead and buried.

"Eh, maybe that one I shouldn't take, but what you gonna do,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

It’s just what he does.

 

About the Author
Kane Pitman is an Australian freelance reporter on the Bucks beat. He covers the Milwaukee Bucks for the Pick and Roll Australia and ESPN Australia.

 

 

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