ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Playing scared, with one eye constantly on the coach wondering if that last miss would be a ticket to the bench is no way to play basketball at a high level.
Ersan Ilyasova learned that the hard way at the beginning of last season. It’s no secret the Turkish forward didn’t see eye-to-eye with former Bucks coach Scott Skiles, as Ilyasova just didn’t respond well to Skiles’ style of coaching.
Nobody benefited from the coaching change more than Ilyasova, as Jim Boylan not only immediately inserted him back into the starting lineup, but more importantly played Ilyasova extended minutes throughout the course of the rest of the season.
As he was able to calm his worries about minutes, Ilyasova, who will turn 26 on Wednesday, became the player the Bucks rewarded with a five-year contract after a breakout season in 2011-12.
“At the beginning of the season I was not in a rhythm,” Ilyasova said. “The coach changed, and I kind of found myself. It was always tough for me to make the transition.”
After averaging career highs with 13.0 points and 8.8 rebounds in 2011-12, Ilyasova was at 6.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in late November. His shooting numbers were abysmal — 31.3 percent from the floor and 25.0 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
By the end of the season, Ilyasova averaged a new career-high in points at 13.2 and raised his rebounding average to 7.1 per game. He went from not being able to hit a shot at the beginning of the season to finishing in a tie with Golden State’s Stephen Curry for second in 3-point field goal percentage at 45.5 percent.
More importantly, Ilyasova became one of the team’s leaders and cemented his place as one of Milwaukee’s core players moving forward. Not one who’s afraid to speak his mind, Ilyasova was clearly disappointed with how last season ended for the Bucks.
Not so much with how the playoffs went, as he understood the long odds of having to face Miami in the first round, but there was frustration with how Milwaukee finished the regular season and sealed its first round date with the defending champions.
The Bucks lost 15 of their last 21 games when the opportunity was there to jump out of the eighth spot in the standings.
“I will say it’s also about the team chemistry,” Ilyasova said as to what happened at the end of the season. “We kind of started more pointing to each other. We couldn’t come up together as a team and we kind of started (coming) apart a little bit. It’s really frustrating because when you look at it, it’s a long season and everybody tried to reach our goal as an NBA playoff team and we secured that spot and everybody started thinking about what we were going to do in the playoffs. At that time we had 10 games left and you just have to play. If we win a couple of those close games we can be in the seventh spot.”
Ilyasova admitted with so many free agents, the makeup of Milwaukee’s roster was conducive to having struggles down the stretch and could be why the Bucks had so many games slip away late in the fourth quarter.
“Sometimes when you look at our roster I know we’ve got a lot of free agents, maybe seven or six guys, it’s a real tough spot,” Ilyasova said. “You kind of always thinking about yourself than thinking about your teammates and the team and winning. You’re trying to perform as best you can. It’s a lot on your mind all the time and it can affect your judgment in the game. I won’t say anybody (didn’t do) a good job of staying focused and gave 100 percent each night.”
With the season behind him, Ilyasova plans to take a month off from basketball before getting going with summer workouts in Milwaukee. He’ll play in the FIBA European Basketball Championships in September, joining forces with Rockets center Omer Asik and former NBA player Semih Erdan to try and help Turkey advance.
“For us it’s really important,” Ilyasova said. “We have to qualify for the World Championship. We are looking for a new coach right now. We have a good team. It’s going to be a really important tournament for us. We’ve kind of always come close to being in the final. We’ve kind of always let it slip away.”
There will be another big challenge facing Ilyasova when training camp hits next fall, as he’ll have to adapt to yet another head coach. This time around, he’s more confident to face the challenge head on.
“Every year I kind of go through the same thing,” Ilyasova said. “Even last year at the beginning of the year I didn’t play much. I tried to do my best, and I think I did a good job this season.”