Taking Inspiration From Toni Kukoc, Ilyasova Ready For Mentoring Role

Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard

When the Hawks re-signed Ersan Ilyasova last week, one of the factors that contributed to the club bringing back the 30-year-old was his ability to complement his young teammates with a well-rounded set of basketball skills.

“I’ll be the oldest guy on the team, you know?” Ilyasova joked (Teammate Marco Belinelli is actually a year older, but you get the idea). 

But the players in the Club’s restock of talent, players like John Collins, DeAndre’ Bembry and Tyler Dorsey, are actually wiser and better equipped for the NBA than Ilyasova was. The Bucks chose Ilyasova with the 36th pick of the 2005 Draft, and he came stateside to Milwaukee just a few months after his 18th birthday. 

Ilyasova didn’t arrive under the best of circumstances, either. He knew just a handful of English words, and he was coming off a serious ankle injury.  In other words, Ilyasova knows something about mentoring, because having one helped him survive in the NBA.  Toni Kukoc, winner of two Olympic medals, three NBA titles and a bushel of European championships and MVP awards, reached out to Ilyasova during his first training camp in 2005.

“Being around him, he was one of those legendary guys who played basketball at a high level,” Ilyasova said.  “I was lucky. Because I came from Europe, and he was from Croatia, he took me under his wing. He helped me a lot as far as just preparing and learning about the NBA.”

Even with the tutelage, Ilyasova’s path to the NBA took a windy path. He played 2005-06 with the Tulsa 66ers in the D-League’s inaugural season before returning to the NBA a year later — and playing his first game for the Bucks after Kukoc’s retirement. 

“He helped me a lot,” Ilyasova said, “and he’s one of the reasons I wear #7, just because he was wearing it.”

Over a decade later, the roles have flipped: Ilyasova is the one helping less-experienced teammates. For starters, he’s an expert shooter. Defenses have to respect his outside shot, and the resulting space benefits his teammates, whether it’s a guard driving the lane or a big man rolling to the rim after a pick.

Ilyasova does a lot more than shoot, though. He tosses skilled entry passes, sets good screens, and moves well without the ball. Plus, the fact that he led the NBA in charges drawn stands as a testament to his knowledgeable ability as a help defender. 

“Ersan is a versatile and skilled big man who impacts the game on both ends of the floor,” General Manager Travis Schlenk said in a written statement after the re-signing. “He was a good fit in Coach Bud’s system, and we’re glad we were able to retain him.”

Despite playing for five teams in the past two seasons, Ilyasova’s quick adaptation in Philadelphia last year shows his skill as an older vet. He played power forward alongside center Joel Embiid in a very effective pairing. Ilyasova provided the consistency — 25 straight games in double figures in scoring, 41 consecutive games with a made three — while Embiid provided the undeniable talent in every aspect of the game. Before the 76ers traded Ilyasova to Atlanta, Philadelphia outscored their opponents by +8.3 points per 100 possessions when the two took the floor together (compared to -3.8 points per 100 possessions when Embiid played without Ilyasova).

For as good a teammate as he was in Philadelphia, he may be a better one in Atlanta. Ilyasova expressed his pleasure over the consistency of getting a full training camp with the Hawks to fully immerse himself in the details of their style of play. 

“I know the coaching system. I know the way that they play,” he said.

Even if he knows the coaches and the plays, he will be playing alongside many new and young players who are less familiar with them than he is. He wants training camp to be a place where they build the ties that will keep them close over an 82-game season. And he wants to do for the Hawks’ young future stars what Kukoc did for him. 

“This is a time when you get close to the players,” Ilyasova said. “You spend more time knowing each other. The way it’s going now, basketball is all about building relationships on the team, and to be able to trust each other on the floor.”

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