MILWAUKEE — Some may call this a nightmare for Ersan Ilyasova, but in order to have a nightmare, one must actually get sound sleep.
Right now, he’s not. In fact, he’s losing sleep and has admitted as much.
Pressure works in funny ways. Some thrive on it, some hide from it, and some feel it when they shouldn’t. Right now, Ilyasova fits in the last category.
This is when Ilyasova, 25, should have the pressure off of his back. A breakout 2011-12 season helped him go from a little-known second-round pick in 2005 to a coveted free agent. He signed a five-year, $40 million contract in the offseason, becoming the Bucks’ second-highest-paid player.
You might think the pressure would have been on Ilyasova last season to earn that contract, but instead he’s now feeling it to prove he’s worth the money – and the proof is in his numbers. Last season’s career-high averages of 13.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks with 49.2 percent field-goal shooting and 45.5 percent three-point shooting have taken a shocking dip to 6.9-4.7-0.3 with 35.3 percent field-goal shooting and 21.9 percent 3-point shooting. Those numbers have been generated in only 4.8 fewer minutes per game, minutes he’ll surely get back if he again resembles the rebounding machine and 3-point shooting threat he became last season.
Summer talk of whether the Bucks should make Ilyasova a franchise cornerstone has quickly turned to the same question, repeated frequently around the BMO Harris Bradley Center: “What’s wrong with Ersan?”
Don’t think for a minute this slump has anything to do with his getting complacent after getting paid. Rather, this slump is eating him up inside and he’s not playing with confidence, something that was a huge part of his game last season.
“Sometimes the best thing to do is leave him alone and let him work himself out of it,” coach Scott Skiles said recently. “He gets in his head a little bit. But he’s shooting the ball and his feet are moving and he’s drifting all over the place, things like that. He’s just not real solid with it right now.”
To assess the problem, take a closer look at Ilyasova’s numbers. His 3-point attempts per game are up from 1.9 to 2.1 but his 2-point attempts have dropped drastically, down from 8.1 to 5.8.
This means he’s settling, hovering around the 3-point line, hoping he can shoot himself out of the slump instead of aggressively ending it. Though Ilyasova was dangerous from beyond the arc last year, that wasn’t the only part of his offensive game that led to the breakout season. When he’s at his best, he’s attacking the offensive boards and scoring on tip-ins, but that hasn’t been the case this season. His offensive rebounds are down by two a game, and the easy buckets aren’t coming. Suddenly, he’s hesitant to attack the glass.
All of these are things Ilyasova can control, but there’s also plenty working against him that is out of his control. This is an important year for a lot of the Bucks’ key players and even their coach and general manager. Many key parts are in the final year of their contracts, which means they aren’t going to be waiting around for Ilyasova to figure things out.
Skiles has no obligation to play Ilyasova just because he’s making $8 million a year. He’s coaching for his job, and just as he has done in previous stops, he’s going to put the players on the floor he believes give him the best chance to win. Right now, that doesn’t always include Ilyasova.
Ilyasova got a DNP-coach’s decision Friday against Minnesota before playing 33 minutes the next night. Skiles has so many options at power forward and center that if a player isn’t performing he’ll go in another direction. There’s no doubt that Ilyasova is frustrated. He wants to play more, but right now he hasn’t earned it.
Nobody has run away with his role, though. He can earn it back as quickly as he lost it, but in order to do that he just needs to relax and play ball. Forget trying to live up to the contract, forget trying to be the player he was last season — because with the mental burden of all that, he never will be.
If he relaxes, plays with confidence and regains the aggressiveness that made him a fan favorite, he will see the floor plenty – and once again become the power forward the Bucks are paying him to be.