Ilyasova looks good in warm-ups
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BURSA, Turkey Four minutes. Two days. Five thousand miles worth of travel. Stranded in the middle of Turkey without an interpreter.
Insider's Chad Ford once again has gone in search of hoops and NBA prospects in distant lands. He'll be reporting from Turkey all week, then heading to Moscow to cover the Euroleague Final Four.
• Tues.: Scouting in Turkey
• Wed.: Ersan Ilyasova
• Thurs.: Embracing contradiction
• Friday: Euroleague Final Four
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On Tuesday, I said the worst fate of any scout was to travel halfway around the world only to narrowly miss out on seeing a phenom have the game of his life.
Tuesday's result ranked a close second: traveling halfway around the world to watch a phenom wave a towel.
After scoring 14 points and grabbing nine rebounds Monday, Ilyasova played an uneventful four minutes. He missed the only shot he took a desperation 3 at the end of the first quarter. No plays were run for him. He didn't grab a rebound. Didn't even have time to foul.
We are leaving Bursa in the morning empty-handed. Sort of.
Here's what Insider learned about Ilyasova on Tuesday.
He's actually not from Uzbekistan as we reported on Tuesday. He told us that he grew up in Tajikistan and moved to Uzbekistan when he was 13. He and his family moved to Turkey when he was 15. Glad we cleared that up.
He claims he was born May 15, 1987. I say "claim" because no one here seems to believe it. The popular story is that he was born in 1984 and that basketball officials in Turkey changed the date on his passport. Anything's possible. But Ilyasova looks and acts a lot like a 17-year-old.
Of course, if we always went by looks, then we'd be calling LeBron a 27-year-old phenom, not a 19-year-old.
Ilyasova's favorite NBA player is Andrei Kirilenko, which is funny considering that scouts like to compare the two. Maybe they read Ilyasova's bio.
He looks tall. I'd say 6-foot-9. He has long arms and says his wing span is 7-foot-4, which could be accurate. He has a slightly heavier build than Tayshaun Prince.
He has no idea why he declared for the draft this year. He said something about wanting to "play" in the NBA the interview was translated for the most part even though he doesn't "play" much in Turkey.
He's a nice kid with a sense of humor, and he knows his stuff. He and two of his teammates wanted the skinny on the upcoming age limit. For the record, they think it's "bull----." Maybe he knows why he's in the draft, after all.
Is anyone ready to take him in the lottery yet?
Wait, there's more.
In his four minutes of game time, plus another 10 minutes warming up in the pregame and between halves, we got a pretty good handle on his basketball skills.
He was perfect in the layup drills.
He swished a couple of 3-pointers in his warm-ups.
He's pretty quick. We saw him spring off the bench several times during timeouts. He was always the first guy in the huddle.
During the game, he ran up and down the floor several times.
He was active on defense, though he never had to defend anyone with the ball.
He did bring the ball up the floor once and looked competent.
He tried to take his man off the dribble once. He got by him but was met on the rotation by the other team's center. He kicked it back to the perimeter to an open teammate, who proceeded to clank a 3.
About 30 seconds later, his coach pulled him from the game for good.
Heat scout Adam Simon stood up and loudly proclaimed, "We're taking him at number 10!"
This was Simon's second trip to see Ilyasova this year. The first time, he actually logged three minutes. Miami, of course, doesn't have a top-10 pick though you never know. The guy the Heat drafted last year, high schooler Dorell Wright, got about as many minutes all season as Ilyasova did that night.
By the time we wander out of the gym at 11 p.m., I don't know whether to laugh at or feel sorry for Simon and Pistons director of basketball operations Tony Ronzone.
There is enough anecdotal evidence out there in the form of grainy videotapes and scouting notes from a junior tournament a year ago to suggest that Ilyasova has a lot of potential.
But how do you take the leap of faith on a kid you've never seen play with your own eyes? Most would simply say you don't and get Wayne Simien's agent on the line.
It's never that easy. No one wants to pass on the next Kirilenko a guy who, like Ilyasova, was seen by almost no one before he was drafted.
Ilyasova is fine with staying in Turkey a couple of more years to develop. Maybe he's worth the investment. Then again, maybe he'd be in the same boat with Nikoloz Tskitishvili three years from now.
As we weaved through the riot police and out of the smoke- and body-odor-filled gym into the crisp, cold air of Bursa, Ronzone decided it was time to make the trip memorable.
We hopped into a taxi and asked to go to a restaurant, any restaurant. The driver didn't speak a word of English, but there's an international symbol for eating everyone understands. Open your mouth and pretend like you're shoveling it in, and you'll eventually end up somewhere where people serve food.
Our driver was creative. He popped in some sort of Turkish soft porn DVD don't ask me how taxi drivers in Bursa have flat screens and DVD players in their taxis and proceeded to take us out of the city up a winding road into the mountains.
We had no idea where he was taking us. The lights of Bursa kept getting dimmer. He couldn't communicate with us. We were basically trapped in the backseat until he stopped somewhere.
He finally arrived at a beautiful restaurant at the top of a mountain. He took whatever remaining cash I had for the taxi fare and left us there on the doorstep.
There were a bunch of older Turkish gentlemen dressed in black overcoats huddled around two tables in the restaurant. It was essentially empty, and we didn't feel particularly welcome.
We sat down, and for the third time in the last 18 hours, were handed a menu with no English on it. Before, we were able to find someone a busboy, a customer to translate the menu. This time, we were out of luck.
Intercultural communication is tricky, but there is one universal principle that has held true in every country I've traveled in. If you don't understand it the first time, it will be repeated louder and louder the second and third time.
Somewhere in our DNA, humans have a gene that intrinsically tells us that when someone can't understand a word you're saying just shout it louder. It's not that I don't understand a word of Turkish. It's that I'm hard of hearing. Right?
Within minutes, we're screaming at each other and still don't have a clue what we're talking about.
I wish there were universal symbols for things like chicken and beef. I've tried mooing, even the chicken dance, but no one ever seems to understand.
Ronzone, resourceful as always, called a Turkish friend and asked him to order for us. A long cell phone conversation between the waiter and Ronzone's friend ensued. The waiter hung up and disappeared into the kitchen.
This would be interesting.
A few minutes later, the waiter brought out a blob of sour yogurt, followed by a tomato, cucumber and hot pepper salad. Then came the meat, grilled on skewers. Everyone likes a good kebab, and I've found that the key to loving them is just to never ask what it is.
Ronzone, who loves meat more than anyone I've ever met, orders more before he takes his first bite.
Well past midnight, the restaurant was empty, and it was clear everyone wanted us to get the hell out. Ronzone's stomach was the only one not translating the international stink-eye. He kept ordering more meat. After Ronzone's fifth order, Simon and I had to physically restrain him.
The highlight of the evening comes with the check. No one bothered to ask before we ordered everything in the kitchen whether they accepted credit cards.
I barely had enough Turkish lira to buy us a cab ride home. Ronzone and Simon had nothing. It's times like these when the writer in you goes to war with the survivor in you.
It would be a much more interesting story if the waiter didn't know what a credit card was. However, I wasn't sure I was ready to be chased if we had to run for it.
Simon sheepishly pulled out the credit card and handed it to the waiter, who looked confused. I made sure my shoelaces were tied.
The waiter disappeared into the kitchen as we all took bets about who would be the first to run. I was sitting by a window, and it was already unlatched.
A few minutes later, he returned with a credit card receipt and herded us out of the restaurant. I told Ronzone that if he waited a little longer, they might throw in a side of beef just to get him out.
On the way home, Ronzone and I got sentimental about the draft. Remember when college seniors still had upside? When scouting for the draft consisted of calling up a college athletic director for two posh seats in Chapel Hill? When college recruiters scouted the McDonald's game? When Euroleague MVPs were the only international players that found their way across the pond?
Whenever you're far from home, familiar things call out to you. It's late; we're exhausted; and the call home seems louder than ever.
Is it really worth it? No sleep. Long plane rides. Weird food. Danger lurking around every corner.
Most of the players we find, no matter how much upside they have, aren't making it. Maybe it's time to let Dirk be Dirk. Let Gasol be Gasol. Let Yao, Kirilenko and Stojakovic go and move on.
Then we remember the first time we saw Darko Milicic swishing 3s in a frozen gym in Serbia. Seeing Mickael Pietrus rising up above the rafters in France. Watching 7-foot-5 Pavel Podkolzin do crossovers in Varese, Italy.
Dinners gone wrong in Belgrade. Bouncy prop plane rides to unfamiliar places with names we cannot pronounce.
But soon there are smiles. Then laughter. Ronzone talks about nearly getting abducted in Kazan, Russia, last year. Simon swears he'd never go back. In two days, they'll be back there, searching for ghosts both real and imagined.
The thrill of the hunt the search for something special in the darkest of corners of the world sustains them.
Even if it lasts just four minutes.
Chad Ford covers the NBA draft for ESPN Insider.
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