Ersan Ilyasova came to the United States full of hopes and dreams.
It wasn’t long before they were almost shattered.
After establishing himself as one of the premier young players in Europe, the 18-year-old Ilyasova decided to leave his homeland of Turkey and declare for the 2005 NBA draft.
But concerns over Ilyasova’s ankles worried some teams, especially considering Ilyasova had undergone two surgeries.
Aware of the concerns, the Milwaukee Bucks discussed the pros and cons of taking the 6-foot-10 Ilyasova with their second-round draft pick (36th pick overall).
“The ankle surgeries were definitely an issue,” said Dave Babcock, the Bucks director of player personnel who had scouted Ilyasova on several occasions prior to the 2005 draft. “The surgeries set him back.
“Before he hurt his ankle, he was unbelievable. He had all the intangibles: He could shoot the ball, he had long arms, he had big hands, he worked hard, he played hard.
“When you’re dealing with second-round picks, you consider whether they can improve and become a good player. We felt that Ersan could be that. We thought he had a big upside.”
Heading into the draft, the Bucks compiled a short list of potential second-round picks. They whittled their choices to Ilyasova or Monta Ellis, now the Bucks’ starting shooting guard. Ellis, like Ilyasova, had been red-flagged by several NBA teams because of a knee issue.
On the day of the draft, then general manager Larry Harris was leaning toward picking a big player — Ilyasova — over a small one — Ellis — primarily because the Bucks already had a stable of young, quality guards in Michael Redd, T.J. Ford and Mo Williams.
After conferring with John Heinrich, then the Bucks orthopedic doctor, and receiving assurances Ilyasova could regain his health after an arduous rehab regimen, Harris chose Ilyasova.
It was a shrewd call. Ilyasova’s ankle was never a major issue again. He did, however, have two other concerns on his plate: could he adjust to living in the States and could he develop into a solid NBA player.
The former concern was amply apparent upon his arrival in Milwaukee.
“I was speaking no English,” Ilyasova said. “I just, basically, could say only ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ That was it. And I was in a different culture.
“I was really going through a tough time. I would say the first five or six months in my first year with the Bucks were real, real hard for me.”
Ilyasova gradually started to learn the English language, taking English classes twice a week. But getting to those classes and around Milwaukee proved to be another obstacle for him.
Ilyasova didn’t have a driver’s license and had to constantly cajole his teammates into taking him places. Andrew Bogut, who was then the Bucks’ starting center, could empathize with Ilyasova. Bogut grew up in Australia and remembered the challenges he encountered coming to America. So Bogut took Ilyasova under his wing, giving him rides and trying to assist him as much as he could.
“We were kind of in the same boat, although I had spent two years in college (at Utah) before coming to Milwaukee and that kind of helped me,” Bogut said. “Ers had trouble speaking English; he really couldn’t speak English at the time.
“You could tell it wasn’t easy for him.”
Ilyasova didn’t have the easiest time adjusting to playing with the best players in the world, either. They were stronger, faster and more experienced. Ilyasova struggled so much that he didn’t appear in a single game for the Bucks as a rookie and was instead assigned to Tulsa, the Bucks’ Development League affiliate.
The following season, Ilyasova played in 61 games for the Bucks but averaged 6.1 points. He decided to return to Europe and signed a two-year contract with FC Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain.
Returning to the Bucks in 2009, Ilyasova signed a three-year, $7 million deal. It wasn’t until the middle of last season that Ilyasova flashed the potential Harris and Babcock had seen in him. He became a starter and turned into a double-double machine down the stretch.
Current Bucks general manager John Hammond was so encouraged by Ilyasova’s talents that he rewarded him with a guaranteed four-year, $31.6 million contract with a team option for a fifth season at $8.4 million.
After a sluggish start to this season, when former Bucks coach Scott Skiles shuffled him in and out of the starting lineup while reducing his minutes, Ilyasova is thriving for the 32-32 Bucks, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
While he is averaging 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds for the season, Ilyasova has scored at least 19 points in eight of the last 13 games. That included a 29-point, 11-rebound outburst against Toronto and a 26-point, 17-rebound outing against the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat Friday night.
Jim Boylan, who promptly inserted Ilyasova into the starting lineup when he assumed the head coaching reins, is delighted with his young starting power forward.
“Ersan has been really, really consistent with his scoring, his effort, his rebounding,” Boylan said. “He’s done so much for us. When we didn’t have him for those games (against Golden State and Sacramento last week), it showed how much we missed him.
“It’s incredible the amount of progress he’s made as a player.”
Boylan is more impressed with Ilyasova’s growth off the court.
“Ers came from a foreign country into a new environment,” Boylan said. “ I played myself over in Europe. I lived in another country (Switzerland) for six years, so I understand Ers’ situation. People think it’s easy to come in and hit the ground running. It isn’t.
“So to see how far Ers has come is amazing and a credit to him.”