MILWAUKEE — There’s little question Ersan Ilyasova was playing with doubt and a touch of fear in the back of his mind early this season. November struggles had former Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles cutting his minutes, and Ilyasova’s confidence plummeted along with his numbers.
These days, he’s a different player — or rather, the one he was last season. “Ersanity” appears to be back. With his minutes up, Ilyasova is averaging 15.1 points and 7.7 rebounds since Jim Boylan replaced Skiles on Jan. 8. He’s shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 50.0 percent on 3-point attempts since the change.
“I’m just getting my confidence back, and when I get wide-open shots, I’m able to knock them down,” Ilyasova said. “We’ve started playing better as a team, and we’re sharing the ball offensively.”
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Skiles and Ilyasova didn’t see eye to eye. When the fifth-year Turkish forward struggled for a stretch, his minutes suffered because Skiles preferred to play the hot hand. The veteran coach said he couldn’t give a struggling player extended minutes to snap out of a funk at the expense of the team, and who could blame him?
Though that type of coaching works for some, it didn’t for Ilyasova. He needs to feel good to play well, and it just wasn’t happening in his first year after signing a lucrative five-year deal last offseason. 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 when Thanksgiving hit. His shooting numbers were abysmal — 31.3 percent from the floor and 25.0 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
“My concern (was) about the minutes,” Ilyasova said. “When you come off the season I had last year, I didn’t expect to play less than I did last year. That didn’t motivate me well. It’s really hard to play the way I was playing with Skiles. Whatever I did affected my minutes when I missed a couple of my first shots.”
When Boylan took over, his first move was to reinsert Ilyasova into the starting lineup. He understood the value of a big man who can spread the floor and hit the boards, and he was going to give the 25-year-old the minutes to get on track. Thus far, the move has worked brilliantly — Ilyasova is now tied for fifth in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage at 43.7.
“When I came in, my job was to try to get him back to a good place,” Boylan said. “The last several games, he’s been looking really good, the Ersan of last year. So hopefully we can keep that going.”
When Ilyasova stopped making shots, he wasn’t rebounding as aggressively, either. The tip-ins he frequently got last season weren’t there. In fact, Ilyasova was struggling to rebound on both ends of the floor. That’s changed under Boylan, too — and the best evidence is the four-game week Ilyasova had from Jan. 19-26. He averaged 25.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists while making 63.2 percent of his 3-pointers. He also became the first player in the league this season to post back-to-back games of at least 27 points and 14 rebounds.
“That’s part of my game, to be active,” Ilyasova said. “Some nights you aren’t going to hit those shots, but if I have this in my pocket . . . just go in there and get on the offensive glass and try to crash it. Try to get second-chance opportunities. Those plays, that’s all about second effort.”
As Ilyasova has surged, the Bucks’ offense has as well. Milwaukee is averaging 102.8 points per game under Boylan and with Ilyasova back in the starting lineup. When center Larry Sanders rolls to the rim, the defense is forced to make a decision. With a big emphasis on stopping guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis from driving, the defense often double-teams the penetrating guard. Sanders then dives to the basket and the other big man picks him up, leaving Ilyasova open for a 3-pointer.
If the defense decides to stay with Ilyasova, Jennings and Ellis have a clearer path to the basket — because more often than not, the lightning-quick guards can beat their man off the dribble.
“When he’s making shots like that, it opens up the floor for us a whole lot,” Jennings said. “When he brings the intensity, guys can’t really stay on me on the pick-and-rolls because Ers is going to knock down shots. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Facing a 6-foot-10 power forward who can step out and hit a 3 is troubling for opponents. Now that Ilyasova is back among the league leaders in 3-point percentage, he’s a matchup nightmare.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said. “Ilyasova, I’ve always been a huge fan. He’s a guy who can shoot the 3, rebounds. He’s tough; he defends.”
Even at his lowest point, Ilyasova knew this turnaround was possible. He just needed the consistent minutes to make it happen.
“Last year when I got those minutes, I started to produce more and it was real disappointing this season at the beginning,” Ilyasova said. “(Under Skiles) I didn’t expect to play that much. Now we made the changes, and I have my confidence back and I feel much better.”