Ersan Ilyasova is finally playing like the guy the Bucks were hoping for when they handed him a new $32 million contract this summer. But can he make it last?
As usual, the Bucks-related conversation of the past week has centered on Milwaukee's backcourt. Will Brandon Jennings be an all-star? Would Monta Ellis be able to step up against his former Warrior teammates? Where did Beno Udrih get that dashing new haircut?
Interesting questions, sure. But they also distract from the rather monstrous week turned in by Ersan Ilyasova. To be clear: I'm not suggesting a four-game sample erases a forgettable first five weeks of the season, or foretells a fantastic second half. But the sheer magnitude of Ilyasova's numbers demand attention: 25.5 ppg, 12.3 rpg (18.7% rebound rate), 55.1% from the field, 12/19 threes (63.2%), and 67.1% true shooting. The last three (25 ppg, 11.7 rpg) might have been enough to earn Ilyasova player of the week honors in a universe without Kyrie Irving, but alas, the Bucks know all too well how unstoppable Irving has been of late.
Of course no one's expecting Ilyasova to pile up those kinds of numbers over a whole month--much less a season--but the number of guys who can put up those stats over even a handful of games is surprisingly small. Consider that Ilyasova was the first guy in the league this season to post back-to-back games of at least 27 points and 14 rebounds when he totaled 54 and 30 in wins over the Blazers and Sixers (highlights below) last week. We can probably blame Kevin Love's injuries and Dwight Howard's pouting for that statistical quirk, but that shouldn't take away from Ersan's hot streak. With Jim Boylan reinserting Ilyasova into the starting lineup and seemingly guaranteeing him 25-30 minutes every night, the Turk's self-doubt (not to mention the excuse-making that always seems to accompany it) appears to be gone. For now at least.
So what now?
The real question of course is whether the Bucks can expect anything remotely resembling this for the remainder of the season. In other words, what's changed over the past week and how much of it is sustainable? As a starting point, consider what got Ilyasova paid in the first place. In the last 28 games of the 11/12 season, Ilyasova averaged 16.1 ppg and 9.1 rpg with an eye-popping shooting line of .552/.508/.796 in a shade under 30 minutes per game. Average something in the ballpark of those numbers and we'd all be doing continuous high-fives for the remainder of Ilyasova's five year deal, though as we noted all summer, he doesn't have to be that good to earn $8 million per season. Either way, the important thing is that he has at least shown the capacity to put up gaudy numbers over an extended period.
Looking at his most recent hot streak, the obvious first observation is that Ilyasova won't hit 63% of his threes going forward (ANALYSIS!), but the past two months suggest Ilyasova's sensational 45.5% shooting from deep a year ago might not have been as fluky as we thought. Ersan quietly connected on 53.3% of his threes in December and is hitting 47.5% from deep in January, which has helped bump his season conversion rate up to an excellent 41.8% despite shooting threes at a higher volume than a year ago. He's not a Ryan Anderson-style gunner in terms of volume, but he shoots enough of them to stretch the defense and provide the Bucks some badly-needed spacing.
Ilyasova has also connected on 10/21 long twos over the past four games, well above his poor 31.5% mark for the season. The good news is that his current seasonal split is by far his worst in recent memory; he connected on a fantastic 52.2% from that range two seasons ago and respectable 41.5% last year, so it's not unreasonable to think his midrange shooting will continue to mean revert in a good way over the second half of the season. Indeed, this is the one skill that he's excelled at most consistently over the years.
Even with his slow start to the season, Ilyasova's numbers as a pick-and-pop guy are quite good. Via MySynergySports.com, he's scoring 1.06 points per play and connecting on nearly 50% on threes when he finishes a P&R play, good for top-30 in the entire league. With teams frequently attempting to crowd Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis by showing hard on P&R, Ilyasova's ability to float into open perimeter space serves as a valuable safety valve. Against the Cavs he did most of his damage on more garden variety P&R, which you can watch below. Typically he's not even looking to set a real pick--just get in the ball defender's way long enough to force the help defender to pick up the Bucks' dribbler, allowing Ilyasova to quickly release to an spot. With Larry Sanders also improving as a P&R target himself, we've increasingly seen defenses forced to bring help on Sanders' P&R dives, the threat of which has also helped Ersan find more room on the perimeter.
Hitting the boards
Just as importantly, Ilyasova's lately beginning to rebound and find the kind of garbage buckets inside that he's always relied on to complement his otherwise perimeter-oriented game. For whatever reason, Ilyasova simply didn't rebound on either end to start the season, a troubling fact for a supposed hustle guy who has relied on his rebounding to get by on both ends. After converting 61% of his shots at the rim last year, Ilyasova hit a baffling 3/14 in his first eight games (24.1 mpg), which was a head-scratcher all around. Not only because an NBA player simply can't shoot 36% within two feet of the rim, but also because of how few attempts Ilyasova was finding in that area. Thankfully, that rough start looks to have been an aberration. Ilyasova has hit a palatable 51/86 (59%) at the rim since then and 11/16 (73%) over his last four, which represent sizable but not unreasonable up-ticks in both volume and conversion rate.
On the boards, his overall rebound rate is now up to 14.0% for the season (8.0% offensive, 20.3% defensive), a decent number for a power forward but well below the 17.6% he posted last season (11.0% offensive, 22.3% defensive). Some dropoff is to be expected from playing with Larry Sanders rather than Drew Gooden, but there wasn't any excuse for his small forward-esque numbers earlier in the season. It appears those numbers are reversing, however, which is a welcome sign on both ends.
Activity on the boards is an important source for easy putbacks on the offensive end, but it's also an essential piece of his ability to add value defensively as well. Though his ability to take charges helps, Ilyasova's below-the-rim style necessarily limits his ability to challenge shots in the paint; I always think of him as a bend-but-don't-break guy at best, willing to mix it up but prone to struggles against larger post players. Either way, the Bucks have been clearly worse defensively with him on the court each of the past two seasons (-3.2 pts/100 this year, -4.9 last year), so there's no getting around the fact that Ilyasova's calling card is what he can do on the offensive end.
Given his other limitations on the defensive end, it's critical that he prevents his counterparts from nabbing second chances, an area he was fairly effective in last year (+1.9 reb/48 minutes) but where he's struggled to date this season (-2.6 reb/48). Anyone who saw the Bucks' struggles against Ed Davis and Amir Johnson a couple weeks ago in Toronto can picture the problem--a flat-footed Ilyasova getting beaten to Raptor misses by the more athletic Davis and Johnson. I won't pretend to know why Ersan's energy levels on the boards have seemingly moved in lock step with his shooting percentages, but it's a real problem that hopefully is now reversing itself.
The Bottom Line
The problem with projecting Ilyasova's production is that we haven't seen the "good" Ersan enough over the years to really understand how much we can count on it going forward. Indeed, that was at the center of the whole debate about his new contract over the summer. If spring 2012 Ilyasova is the "real" Ersan, then his contract will be a bargain. If we're in store for more of the roller-coaster ride we had in November and December...well, that's not so good.
The good news is that Scott Skiles' departure looks like it could end up being the catalyst for Ilyasova's turnaround. Indeed, Boylan's first act as head coach was to reinstall Ilyasova as his starting power forward, a move we had advocated as the most reasonable approach for Milwaukee to get the most out of both Ilyasova and the roster as a whole. Because while he might look like an Eastern European cyborg sent from the future to destroy us all, the Ersanator apparently is a man in need of a little TLC--or at the very least a guarantee of 25-30 minutes every night. Skiles ultimately lost patience with Ilyasova after starting him for the first three weeks of the season, and I still can't fault him much for it. As noted above, Ilyasova was struggling mightily, and the Bucks were finding success through other options up front. How long can you baby a guy who's not producing on the court? It's a pattern we've seen before, as Ilyasova's shooting confidence has waxed and waned over the years, and only in the last calendar year have we seen him amass the kind of self-belief that can propel him to high-level NBA productivity. It was there from January to April, and then--POOF!--it was gone by the time November rolled around.
Hopefully it's once again here to stay, and there is every reason to think he can at least provide something in the ballpark of 14-16 points, 8ish boards and 55% true shooting on a consistent basis. That's well below the numbers he put up last week and a bit short of his terrific spring of 2012, but still damn good value for what the Bucks are paying the 25-year-old.