Some time tomorrow, Ersan Ilyasova will sign a fairly sizable contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. When he finishes putting his name down in cursive, he’ll be the third highest paid player on the Milwaukee Bucks.
This won’t be the first time the Bucks have given big money to a young reserve in hopes of better things down the road. Fortunately, the Bucks are almost certain to see more return on their investment this time.
But before I get into that – allow me to digress.
I spend a lot of time on Twitter reading what other basketball writers are writing about the team’s they love or cover. Around the same time Milwaukee was reportedly reaching a deal with Ilyasova, the New Orleans Hornets had reportedly done the same with Ryan Anderson, a strong rebounding, sweet shooting power forward not unlike Ilyasova. The market dictated that they’d get similar deals and it appears they’ve done so, each netting around $9 million annually, though Anderson might have one less year on his deal. We’ll figure that all out tomorrow.
Ilysaova is fairly Earth bound as NBA players go. He excels at tipping in offensive rebounds and creating extra possessions , but he isn’t much for creating his own shot or open looks for teammates. I’m not saying he’s a bad player, I’m just saying he has some limitations that it’s difficult to envision him moving past.
We often hear about how the 25-year-old Ilyasova is only now just entering his prime. Many of us have grown up playing video games and acquiring young players in franchise mode. We watched them get better. We assume that’s how things work. And many times, young players do take great steps forward. Ilyasova himself has already done this. He learned what was and what wasn’t a good shot last season. As Scott Skiles put it, he stopped “search for the 3-point line” and let things fall in line naturally for him. That’s the kind of thing a young player learns and adds to his game to improve.
But it is fair to wonder how much further along can Ilyasova move as a player?
One of the most exciting things that can happen to a team is the acquisition, via draft or trade, of a young, athletic player bursting with a talent that he hasn’t yet learned to control or refine. Those are the types of players we traditionally think of as high ceiling, big upside players. When those players are young and on your favorite team, it’s easy to be optimistic about how they’ll turn out. Ilyasova isn’t exactly one of these players. As I mentioned before, his physical limitations probably place a ceiling on just how much better he can get – he can probably be a good starter but he’ll never be a Star. You might cite someone like Dirk Nowitzki as a guy who got a lot better despite a lack of supreme athleticism, but he has a rare ability to make difficult shots that only a 7-foot player like him can even attempt, much less connect on. Turk Nowitzki does not equal Dirk Nowitzki.
So maybe Ersan doesn’t ever get much better than he was last season. Does that doom him to be another poor Bucks off-season mistake?
I feel pretty confident saying … not yes.
Almost 12 years ago, the Bucks threw $67 million at Tim Thomas to make sure he didn’t end up a Chicago Bull haunting them for many years to come. He was everything Ersan isn’t. He could create his own shot. He could beat people with his athleticism. He was brimming with potential, enough that the Bucks were prepared to jettison a former first overall pick that had helped reshape the franchise to make room for him. He was everything.
And then he was nothing. To be fair, he wasn’t nothing – he was a guy who wore two headbands and played average basketball.
He never found the proper motivation to produce on a consistent basis as well as he did in the playoffs. Make no mistake – Tim Thomas was a Bad Dude in the playoffs. But he was just a bad dude in the regular season, talent be damned.
But it’s hard to envision Ilyasova could ever have a career like Thomas. It’s hard not to envy the effort Ilyasova gives on each possession. Guys who hustle and treat every possession with the utmost importance the way Ilysaova does usually end up producing something that far exceeds what guys like Thomas ever do.
I’m still fairly certain signing a guy like Ilyasova to a deal like the one he’ll sign tomorrow isn’t the greatest idea, but I’ve at least convinced myself this isn’t another Tim Thomas scenario. This isn’t the worst signing ever, but it isn’t the best signing ever. We’re in a familiar place Bucks fans – the middle. And I know I compared Ersan’s prospective deal to Dan Gadzuric’s the other day and in the long run, deals like this one and Gadzuric’s keep the Bucks firmly planted in the middle. But if you’re going to re-sign a guy, there’s at least some solace in re-signing guys who have discernible skills and match them with effort.
I used to have wait every game for Thomas to turn into the guy he was supposed to be. With Ersan, at least I can feel comfortable knowing he’s already that.
Jeremy Schmidt founded the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter.