Ersan Ilyasova, the Turkish pearl

Ersan Ilyasova, the Turkish pearl
Jan 05, 2005, 03:07 am
(All photos from FIBA Europe)

Ersan Ilyasova is someone who you can see really loves to play the game, cadets Turkish coach Nihat Izic said after winning the Albert Schweitzer tournament in Mannheim (Germany) last year. Ilyasova, who plays for Ülker Istanbul, is regarded as a very special player since he was the leader of the Turkish team in the 2003 European Cadets Championships held in Spain. He had been dominant throughout the tournament until the fate met him: the kid twisted his ankle, suffering a fracture that left him in a wheelchair for a while. However, Turkey finished second, losing the final against Nemanja Aleksandrov's Serbia & Montenegro, while everyone was asking themselves, "what if Ilyasova were not injured?".

Back in Turkey, there was a big crowd of people at the airport waiting for the team. It was odd to see Ilyasova in a wheelchair carrying his silver medal while the media was taking some pictures of the team.

I won't forget that day and that situation. He did not speak to anyone and looked as if his career was over before it had started, coach Izic said later in an interview. But what Ilyasova didn't know at that moment was that he already was a player every scout and expert had an eye on.


And there are reasons enough: beyond his health issues, the kid is a wonderful prospect, a forward full of strengths, from which he fully takes advantage. He has a good feel for the game, knowing when and how to use certain moves and shots. He has great ball handling and enjoys nice coordination. He has improved his outside game a lot after being focused on penetration for so long. He always liked the midrange jumper, but now he can hit it consistently and shows a nice touch from mid to three point range, making him more of a perimeter guy. But his very mature and athletic body allows him also to post up and fight under the basket. That's why you can see him getting some nice rebounding numbers.

Probably his real position right now is something between small forward and power forward, although the three spot should be waiting for him in the pros. He is a tremendous finisher on the offensive end, has the ability to create his own shots and already shows good concentration while on the court. But what makes him more valuable is his will to win. He is not afraid of taking big shots in crunch time and he never disappears from the game when his team needs him.

Are there any weaknesses? Of course there are, but his biggest problems are not on the technique side.

Despite being pretty focused in the game, Ilyasova is not always consistent enough. That's why you can eventually see some unconventional field goal percentages in his stats. As for almost every European player who wants to play in the NBA, he needs to work on his defense. He is not that bad of a one-on-one defender, but he forgets to help his teammates when opponents use screens, only focusing on stopping his own man. He also needs to be more aggressive on both ends of the floor if he really wants to become an outstanding player. There are good signs regarding this matter, though, especially when playing for the national teams, where he's well coached in motivation and aggressiveness.

However, some people are careful when speaking about the kid being a top Turkish talent, because some time ago, the Uzbekish basketball federation sent a complaint to FIBA by asserting that Ersan Ilyasova was their player. There are plenty of rumors about this topic and many experts still analyze this story.


The most spread theory says that Ülker Istanbul brought in a guy called Arsen Ilyasov born in 1984 from Uzbekistan and organized a Turkish passport for him, changing his name to Ersan Ilyasova while reducing his age by three years in the process.

The fact is that Arsen Ilyasov crossed the border on August 7, 2002, but never showed up again. On September 19, 2002, a man named Semsettin Bulut told the Turkish authorities that he had forgotten to register his fifteen-year-old son, and so he registered him as Ersan Ilyasova. A long investigation held by the Turkish authorities showed that there wasn't any previous data about the kid in their files.

Anyway, the conflict between the Uzbekish and the Turkish federation ended when FIBA adjudicated for the Turkish federation, while the player has been able to preserve 1987 as his year of birth.

Ilyasova still plays for Ülker Istanbul, although last season he was loaned to Yesilyurt, a second league team in Turkey. There was some big criticism about this move. Even though Ülker had some superior forwards like Kutluay and Yildirim, and the team was heavily relying on foreign players like Melvin Booker, Joseph Blair and Efthimios Rentzias, many experts thought it would have been better to keep Ilyasova and let him play at least the domestic competition. The criticism rose when Ülker finished a bad season both in the Euroleague and Turkish league.

Last April, Ilyasova played outstanding games with the junior national team in the Albert-Schweitzer tournament in Mannheim/Germany, leading Turkey over Argentina in the final. He earned MVP honors, posting 19.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. It was like a comeback party for him.

But once again his fate: he got injured and had to undergo an operation in the United States – successfully finished, by the way. For the second summer in a row, the Turkish national team missed him, this time for the European Junior Championships played in Zaragoza, and especially in the final, where Turkey couldn't stop the hosting Spanish team, led by a very inspired Sergio Rodríguez.

Looking at his different injuries at such a young age, you may wonder if Ersan will face such problems again and will become a perennially injury-prone player. Well, these kinds of questions are hard to answer. It seems more like an eventuality rather than an extended time issue. But of course, it will be very important for him to play consistent minutes without any injuries in the next months.


Now, it's time to look forward. He's the most interesting prospect in Turkey. But unfortunately there are still problems, and it has little to do with his performance level. It will be hard for him to see any playing time with Ülker next season. Turkish teams are not particularly known for playing those young guys, especially the Euroleague clubs Ülker and Efes Pilsen.

There was some big pressure last year on his club to let Ilyasova play. The pressure is not going away. On the contrary, it will increase. It isn't enough for the kid to play only on the national youth teams, because he needs to learn how to play against the big ones in the Euroleague. That's the only way he can really work on his game.

Looking at the current roster of his club, there are some not so good signs. Lithuanian forward Saulius Stombergas starts, but there are way too many guards and forwards who can start and also be backup. Starting with Dion Glover - ex-NBA player -, David Jackson - ex-CBA player and defender of the year - and Serkan Erdogan, though he plays more the two, he can also be used at small forward. Rumors say that Ülker wants to sign Dusan Vukcevic, another small forward. So you can see that there is a big fight for the minutes with excellent players, and we also have to consider that Ilyasova will be coming off an injury. Some minutes at the Turkish league seems the only realistic possibility right now.

Considering his profile as a prospect, it's pretty logical to see him listed at the third spot in his age group, just behind Nemanja Aleksandrov and Yi Jianlian. But again the decisive issue here is his age. Is he really a 1987 born player? This question is very important for scouts and his possible NBA future. There's a huge difference between being 17 or 20 years old in terms of potential. Being older would significantly restrict his room for development. But even if he's actually a 1984 born guy, you couldn't say that he's no longer an interesting prospect, as he already has a body ready to use against much tougher opponents at his position, and a nice set of skills.

In Turkey, many people expect Ersan Ilyasova to be the leader of the national team in the future, when players like Kutluay finish their careers. Ersan is not a person who shows big emotions. It's even hard to find any comments made by him to the media. But when he's on court, you can see his will to be a true leader.

Before finishing, I would like to add my share of pressure to his club: it would be sad to see him again on the bench, and I can guarantee that neither Ilyasova nor his club Ülker would have any regrets if Ersan gets his minutes.

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