It had all the makings of the classic story of a contract year.
Ersan Ilyasova played fantastic basketball last year. After never averaging more than 10 points and six boards in a season prior to last season, he averaged 13 points and nearly nine rebounds.
This led the Milwaukee Bucks to lock Ilyasova up with a big contract in the offseason.
Their reward? Ilyasova played so bad over the first couple months of the season that he was benched in favor of an aging Marquis Daniels and the unproven Tobias Harris and John Henson.
But over the course of the past couple months something strange has happened. Ilyasova is playing even better than he was last year.
Here's how he has done it.
Return from the dead
In the month of November, Ilyasova was truly awful. He averaged just over six points per game to go along with a meager four boards while shooting a dreadful 34.9 percent from the floor. He also was limited to just over 21 percent from the three-point line.
For a stretch four, it is kind of crucial to be able to knock down shots, especially from deep.
This made Milwaukee a fairly one-dimensional team. Without a legitimate threat from the perimeter besides their backcourt, defenders keyed on Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings and collapsed into the paint, taking away easy shots for the Bucks' offensively limited big men.
So what went wrong for Ilyasova?
It would be naive to think that the contract didn't play a role in his diminished play. But it didn't play the kind of role some might have feared.
A player that struggles after getting a big contract typically does so for one of two reasons.
On the one hand you have the player that stops putting in the work since he has been rewarded with what he wanted, therefore he can now rest on his laurels and ride out the good life.
On the other hand, you have the player that finds himself trying to live up to his new deal by trying to re-invent himself and places too much pressure on himself. He presses and starts to struggle. This struggling starts to create panic and after a while his shot feels about as smooth as a folding lawn chair.
Nobody knows exactly what was going on inside of Ilyasova's head, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he falls into the latter category.
Early in the season Ilyasova looked awkward. He didn't seem to know what his role was with the team.
Some games he deferred to the more dominant personalities like Ellis and Jennings. Other games he tried to dominate the ball and ended up making the Bucks even more one-dimensional.
By December, he had lost his starting job and was on the verge of falling out of the rotation.
And this isn't to say that Daniels, Harris and Henson were setting the world on fire in his absence.
Without Ilyasova in the lineup the Bucks were forced to re-shape themselves on the fly. Since Ilyasoava can shift somewhat between the four and the three spot, it makes Milwaukee somewhat dynamic.
Without him, they either have to get bigger with someone like Henson or go smaller with guys like Daniels and Harris.
The Bucks realized that these three guys weren't the answer at this time in Ilyasova's spot, so they started to ease him back into the rotation.
It didn't start out big. His minutes became somewhat inconsistent. On one night he would get 14 minutes, the next he would get 27.
It was obvious that coach Scott Skiles would only ride Ilyasova when it looked like his shot was on. This caused even more pressure for Ilyasova, so his play continued to be inconsistent.
When Skiles was fired in early January and replaced by Jim Boylan, it seemed to relieve a lot of the pressure.
Ilyasova went from not playing the game before Skiles was fired to playing between 19 and 39 minutes over the course of the rest of January.
This wasn't always pretty, as Ilyasova had his share of struggles. But Boylan refused to give up on the big man from Turkey; instead he chose to let it ride because he knew that it made them a more dynamic team with him in the lineup.
That patience was rewarded by the end of the month and into February. Ilyasova has been on a tear and an integral part of the Bucks' improved play.
Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 17.5 points per game and grabbing over seven rebounds per game. His shooting has improved and he is routinely spreading the floor.
The key to Ilyasova's game is knowing what he does and not expecting more from him. He is a stretch four that will knock down about 35 percent of his three's.
That being said, he is somewhat streaky. So for the coaching staff, patience is the key. If he isn't hitting his shots you need to stick with him. Otherwise he will press and other aspects of his game will deteriorate.
Ilyasova is the classic case of a player that sometimes tries too hard and can become his own worst enemy.
His coaching staff needs to realize this and act appropriately.
Boylan understands this; Skiles did not.
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