ST. FRANCIS, Wis. Six quarters into preseason action, Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova hadn't shown much. He'd taken just four shots and made two of them in the team's opener against the Cavaliers, and in the first half of last Saturday's matchup with the Pistons, Ilyasova had made four free throws and done little else on the offensive end. It wasn't a bad start, by any means just a quiet one.
But as one of the franchise's cornerstones with a contract extension in tow fans might have been hoping for more. But Bucks coach Scott Skiles took it as a positive. Ilyasova wasn't forcing anything. If and when the offense opened up for the young stretch forward, Skiles knew Ilyasova would take advantage.
And, boy, did he take advantage.
As the primary catalyst in a 40-point third quarter, Ilyasova didn't miss a single shot and tallied 18 points in just a five-minute span. Perhaps most importantly, Ilyasova didn't force up a single shot, taking what the offense gave him and finding shockingly wide-open shots throughout the entire quarter.
It was a flash of greatness for Ilyasova and the Bucks offense, which has invested a lot in Ilyasova's development. For Ilyasova, it could be the sign that even better performances are on the horizon.
"The other night was a good example of hopefully where he's gotten to in his career," Skiles said. "He wasn't pressing in the first half; nothing really came to him. A lot of young guys don't really understand how long the game is and how many possessions there are. You average 16 points per game and there have been some All-Stars averaging that and that's four points per quarter, a basket and two free throws in every quarter. ... People panic, they get stressed, and they get anxious, and they miss open shots. I think it's fair to say Ersan has done that in the past, but he's really calmed himself down."
When all was said and done on Saturday, Ilyasova finished with an impressive line of 22 points and seven rebounds, which, for anyone expecting Ilyasova to take a step back after a breakthrough last season, was evidence to the contrary.
As Skiles alluded to, Ilyasova wasn't always that calm with the ball. But coming to a new team in 2006 as a 19-year-old, Ilyasova wasn't quite seasoned enough to understand what he does today. At 25 now, he says his game has clearly matured. He's not in a rush, like he used to be.
"One of his issues in the past was his man would help, the ball would come back to him, a teammates man would rotate, and he would shoot it, instead of making the extra pass," Skiles said. "He's much, much better with that now, feeling when he's open and not pressing if he doesn't get a shot. There are some guys in the league that are like junkies if they don't get a shot for a couple minutes, they're going to throw up any old shot. He's really calmed himself down. Everybody knows when his feet are set and he gets a good look, he's a high-level shooter."
It's not just age and experience though, Ilyasova says, that have contributed to a change in his game. Much of it has to do with comfort and continuity.
Now in his fourth year with Brandon Jennings in the backcourt, the two have come to understand each other much better than they did in year one. And that kind of chemistry can work wonders for an offense. On Saturday, the pair showed their experience together as Jennings drove to the hoop in the third quarter, pulling Ilyasova's defender into the post. Then, without much of a glance at all, Jennings fired a pass to a wide-open Ilyasova for an easy 3-pointer. It was as smooth as the Bucks' offense or any offense for that matter could possibly execute a play of that nature.
"I think it's more team chemistry," Ilyasova said. "We kind of understand our game and know how to read each other. Brandon makes really good decisions on the pick and roll. I've played a lot of years with him now."
And with experience comes more steps forward. After finishing second for the NBA's most improved player award last season, Ilyasova may be hard-pressed to make a bigger jump from last season to this season. But with improved team chemistry and more weapons, by his side, this season might be quite the leap for Ersan Ilyasova.
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