Out of all the impending Atlanta Hawks free agents to hit the market in the summer of 2017, Ersan Ilyasova was arguably at the top of the list of players who, most people thought, would certainly not be coming back to Atlanta next season.
It all seemed to make sense on paper why Ilyasova wasn’t expected back.
He was acquired mid-season from the Philadelphia 76ers — as an impending free agent — to add depth and shooting to a playoff team, which already placed him in the category of ‘possible rental’. More often than not, a player who is traded mid-season to a playoff team in a contract year doesn’t stay with the team he was traded to. That’s why most trades made in February are referred to as rentals, because that’s usually what they are: rentals... Ilyasova seemed to immediately fit this bill.
Over the summer, the Hawks also made it a priority to get younger and, perhaps, take a step back from a competitive standpoint with an eye on the future rather than the immediate present (this was reflected in their decision not to re-sign Paul Millsap — or even make him an offer — and their decision not to match the New York Knicks’ offer sheet that would’ve retained restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr., both of which would’ve affected the Hawks’ long-term flexibility which Hawks GM Travis Schlenk stressed huge importance over).
Ilyasova is also pure stretch-four in a league that places such a high value on perimeter shooting, and few come as efficient as Ilyasova at his position of power forward and size at 6’10”. You kind of just figured that either he’d be snapped up by a playoff calibre team or that Ilyasova himself would choose to avoid a possible rebuild if he could, and choose a scenario where he could be in a situation that would lead him to the playoffs, maybe toward a championship...
But no, in a surprise to many, Ilyasova decided to re-sign with the Hawks on a one year, $6 million deal, giving coach Mike Budenholzer at least one familiar face from last season to work with.
However, unlike last season where Ilyasova was brought in to add depth and shooting off the bench in the playoffs, things are going to be quite different for Ilyasova with the Hawks this season...
Yes, he’ll still be asked to hit threes at his expected efficiency but he’ll have a new role to play. With Paul Millsap no longer with the team, and John Collins a rookie, Ilyasova will be the starting power forward this season (at least to begin with) and — as one of the rosters more accomplished and able scorers on the team now — he has a big part to play in that role.
We saw last season that Ilyasova can shoulder part of a scoring burden that comes with young teams (who are sometimes offensively challenged); he did it with the Sixers where he averaged 14.8 points per game in his 53 games before his trade to Atlanta.
Ilyasova will probably have to revert back to his Sixers role with the Hawks this season, as many of the team’s leading scorers from last season — Millsap, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dwight Howard — are obviously no longer with the team, because on paper at least, one of the immediate concerns this team is likely to face is offense: who’s going to score consistently on this team outside of Dennis Schröder?
Kent Bazemore immediately comes to mind as someone who will have to step up offensively, and Ilyasova will likely have to step up too, but the good news — as he proved last season with Philly — is that he can do that, he can shoulder some of that scoring burden.
In fact, Ilyasova might even have the potential to be the second leading scorer on this team if Bazemore struggles as he did last season with his offense.
This could work out for both Ilyasova and the Hawks — and this could be why it made sense for Ilyasova and the Hawks to reunite for a season at least.
For Ilyasova, this is another contract year, and you’d imagine he has a green light — of sorts — on offense this season to showcase himself and show teams he’s worth more than $6 million a year, which (at least I think) he certainly is.
For the Hawks, if Ilyasova shoots well, a playoff team is sure to come knocking for his services (his quality of shooting at his size and position isn’t something that’s found in abundance across the league) and it could open an opportunity for the Hawks to land a potential draft asset from a playoff team/playoff contender, which gives them more flexibility and assets to play with.
So, we know that Ilyasova has a bigger role to play on the court this season — and how it could help him and the Hawks — but he has a bigger role to play off of the court too.
Ilyasova isn’t returning to the veteran group he joined in February. He’s returning to a team that has gotten a lot younger over the summer, and he suddenly finds himself as one of the veterans of the team, the second oldest player next to Marco Belinelli.
Ilyasova going to be one of the players that the younger guys look up to, the veteran of the group, the ‘OG’, the mentor, the teacher etc...
It’s a role that Ilyasova has said he is going to embrace, taking inspiration from Toni Kukoc, who helped mentor and inspire Ilyasova when he was a young pup coming from Europe to play with the Milwaukee Bucks. I’m sure the Hawks will be hoping that he can teach John Collins a thing or two when it comes to shooting from the outside, because that’s one of the areas the Hawks hope to develop with Collins and having a guy like Ilyasova around will certainly help.
So, what’s the conclusion here? Well, here’s how Ilyasova’s season is going to pan out, and it’s going to go one of two directions:
It’s either going to be what last season could’ve been where he played the role of mentor and veteran and a double-digit scoring starter on a young team (and yes, I’m ignoring the three games he played with Oklahoma City, because they really don’t count in the grand scheme of his season last year...).
Or, it’s going to be a repeat of last season where he starts out on a young team and ends up on a playoff team come February.
So, which route will Ersan Ilyasova’s season go? Time will tell, but he certainly has a big role to play in Atlanta no matter what happens — on and off the court.