Ersan Ilyasova had everything going for him coming into this season.
A breakout season in 2011-12 gave him the confidence that he belonged in the NBA. A new five-year, $40 million contract provided the comfort that the Milwaukee Bucks considered him a building block for the long term. And he had a spot in the starting lineup with the role of pounding the glass and spreading the floor to give his dynamic backcourt some room to break down defenses.
All that — everything besides the guaranteed money, of course — started to go down the tubes in the first month of the season.
The rangy power forward averaged just 6.9 points and was shooting 22 percent from 3-point range in the first 15 games, landing him in coach Scott Skiles' doghouse. His minutes dropped from about 27 per game to 22 during that stretch and Ilyasova seemed a little lost on both ends.
"It's not about confidence because coming from the season I had, I already knew what I had to do," said Ilyasova, who was in the conversation for most improved player last year when he averaged 13 points, 8.8 rebounds and shot 45.5 percent from 3-point range. "I never know what I should expect from the next game to the next game to the next game and that was disappointing for me."
It wasn't until the hard-driving Skiles and the Bucks parted ways Jan. 7 that Ilyasova finally started to get back to the difference-making "stretch four" that earned him all that money in the first place.
When assistant Jim Boylan took over for Skiles one of his first moves was to put Ilyasova back in the starting lineup and get him on more of a consistent pattern of playing time. The impact was almost immediate. Ilyasova is averaging 14.7 points and shooting better than 48 percent from long range under Boylan.
"He was anxious about scoring and now he's settled down into a nice rhythm and lets the game come to him," Boylan said. "He's very comfortable with the minutes that he's getting. He knows he's going to be out there.
"Earlier on in the year he was a little anxious and expected if he missed a shot or two he may come out of the game. We tried to eliminate that thought from his head and just told him to settle down and shoot your shots when you've got them, don't take bad shots. He's done that so far for us and he's been productive."
The 25-year-old from Turkey scored 84 points and grabbed 37 rebounds in a three-game span late in January, coming in the middle of a run of five victories in six games for the Bucks (26-25), who enter the All-Star break in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. He is shooting an NBA-best 50.5 percent on 3s since Dec. 1 and has hit at least two in 10 of the last 13 games.
"Ersan got his groove back," Monta Ellis said late last month. "He really has been playing well for the last few games and has given us a big boost."
Those around the Bucks can see the relief in Ilyasova's body language. This is the player he expects himself to be, and this is the player Bucks GM John Hammond expected when he signed him to that extension.
"It was really frustrating, especially knowing I just signed a contract and my expectation was to be really helpful to the team," Ilyasova said. "I'm really glad it's working (the) opposite way."
The Bucks hold a four-game lead over Philadelphia for the final playoff spot in the East and are just 1 1/2 games behind Boston for the seventh seed. If they are going to stay in that position, or climb the ladder at all, Boylan said they need the Ilyasova of the last month and not the first one.
"We need Ersan playing at a high level," the coach said. "We need him rebounding, we need his activity. So, if he's concerned about his minutes and his scoring, it detracts from the job that we really need him to do. That's to be that guy in there who's kind of the hustle guy, chasing down balls and keeping things alive. Then he steps out and makes timely shots for us. He's a big part of any success we have."
Now in a comfort zone, Ilyasova expects the big nights to keep coming.
"It's not just minutes," he said. "It's stable. You kind of feel free on the basketball court. When you're not thinking and when you're free-minded, you just flow."
AP freelance writer Joe DiGiovanni in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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