Ersan Ilyasova, the Turkish forward that just signed with the Utah Jazz, knows who he’s going to call to ask about the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.
He’ll call Mehmet Okur, of course.
“I’ve known him since I started playing basketball,” Ilyasova said. “He’s always was one of the guys who set an example not just on the court, but off the court as well. We played together on the national team on a couple of occasions, and he’s a great guy.”
The former Jazz All-Star center made a name for himself in Utah, and recently posted on Instagram that he hopes Ilyasova will become the second-best Turkish player to play for the Jazz — perhaps sending some slight shade to Enes Kanter.
But as much as the connection to Okur will help, it’s another connection that’s brought him to Salt Lake City in the first place. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik, a player agent before his NBA front office career, represented Ilyasova in the early stages of his career before being hired by the Jazz. When the Jazz were required to sign a player to get up to the 14-man minimum, Zanik thought of Ilyasova.
It might be harder for Ilyasova to contribute to the Jazz than it was for Kanter or Okur, though. After all, the 33 year old is joining the team mid-season, on a squad that’s already the best in the NBA. He has notable competition for his role in the form of Georges Niang, who has raised his defensive level this season. Job No. 1 will be to shake the rust off.
“I think he’s anxious to contribute in any way that he can,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said after Thursday’s practice. “We don’t expect him to show up and be ready to go right away. That’s not to say he won’t be in many senses. But there’s an adjustment period, and we’re patient with him.” Ilyasova, for his part, says he’s worked on his game during the time he was unemployed.
He does have an impressive resume. A 12-year veteran, the 6-9, 235 lb. Ilyasova has plied his trade for six different teams — though nine of those years came with Milwaukee. He’s averaged 10.3 points per game in over 800 contests, and was a strong floor-spacing big man, shooting 36% from deep over the course of his career. He’s played in 51 playoff games, including runs with the Sixers and, of course, the Bucks.
Perhaps Ilyasova’s most notable aspect is how frequently he takes charges: at a rate that is by far the highest in the league. Over the last five seasons, no one in the NBA has taken even close to Ilyasova’s charge count. On a per-minute basis, his rate nearly doubles the next-highest player.
That’s not to say Ilyasova is a terrific overall defender: he can be limited in one-on-one situations because of a lack of athleticism and foot speed. He’s not someone that you can necessarily rely on in a switching defense. But as a team defender, he gets a lot of plaudits from opposing head coaches, including Stan Van Gundy. Snyder specifically called out Ilyasova’s ability to guard multiple positions when asked about how Ilyasova will fit in to his group.
And there’s an optimism about how Ilyasova will be able to fit into the Jazz’s style of play. “This is simple basketball. The way they play, this is the way I play — obviously unselfish, if you’re open, shoot, and share the ball,” Ilyasova, who will wear No. 77 for Utah, said.
As Snyder said, “Dennis (Lindsey, Jazz VP of basketball operations) and Justin and their group wouldn’t have looked at someone you couldn’t plug and play.”
“I think this is a great opportunity. When you see the way they play, share the ball, move the ball, everybody kind of backs each other,” Ilyasova said. “I think this is what it takes to win a championship.”
And that accomplishment? Well, it might just move him up the list of great Turkish Jazz players.