Credit: AFP – Scanpix
Credit AFP – Scanpix

The last couple of years have been quite a wild ride for Sertac Sanli.

Sertac Sanli

Sertac  Sanli
Team: FC Barcelona
Position: C
Age: 30
Height: 212 cm
Weight: 115 kg
Birth place: Istanbul, Turkey

By the summer of 2019, the Turkish big man – then already 28 years old – had enjoyed a modest but unspectacular career at Europe’s elite level.

He had played just 12 games in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, averaging 2.0 points, and made a similarly unremarkable impression in the 7DAYS EuroCup with averages of 4.8 points and 3.1 rebounds over 18 appearances for Galatasaray Istanbul and Trabzonspor.

Then, however, came a remarkable transformation. Having spent the first few years of his career as a peripheral presence, never spending more than 11 minutes on the floor in any EuroLeague game, Sanli suddenly became a truly fundamental performer as Anadolu Efes Istanbul deservedly completed its three-year journey to the summit of European basketball.

Last season saw Sanli make 34 appearances in the competition, starting 19 games and averaging 14 minutes on the court.

That culminated at the Final Four, where he paired 19 points with 8 rebounds in the semifinal victory over CSKA Moscow and added another valuable 12 points in the championship game as Efes overcame FC Barcelona to take the title.

So what happened? How did a role player who never really attracted much attention suddenly become a key part of a European champion?

The answer is somewhat surprising. Rather than the expected revelation about an improved shooting technique or more time spent in the gym, Sanli believes his great step forward was less about how he played the game than how he thought about it.

“I tried to figure out how I could stay longer on the court,” he explained. “I became a better player mentally. Of course, I also worked on the physical side of the game and my technique, but the most important thing was that I improved mentally. It’s all about the mental side.”

Sertac Sanli

Sertac  Sanli
Sertac  Sanli
MIN: 14.05
PTS: 8 (57.14%)
REB: 2
As: 0
ST: 0
BL: 2
TO: 2
GM: 1

That process of thinking about how he could become a more productive performer for the team, which ultimately allowed him to also shine as an individual, involved a humble acceptance of the team dynamics.

In short, Sanli had to accept that other people – specifically two people – were more important than him and that his prime role was to serve them.

“In Efes, we all had roles because it was [Vasilije] Micic and [Shane] Larkin’s team,” he acknowledged. “They have the ball almost all the game and I needed to figure out how can I help them – maybe with a good pick, maybe with a rebound, maybe with defensive support. I figured it out in the second year and after that everybody trusted me. Then it was the easy part…I just kept playing!”

It’s important to note that this is all said without any trace of bitterness or jealousy. On the contrary, Sanli was perfectly happy to let Efes’s superstar guards Larkin and Micic take the spotlight, because he and his teammates understood they would all end up benefitting in the long run.

This is the key to understanding the elusive and hard-to-define but absolutely vital component known as ‘chemistry’, as Sanli continued: “You need to work with your teammates and know them – what they do, what they don’t like to do. If you know when Shane or Micic will shoot the ball, you can get into position for the rebound.

If you know when they will pass, you can know the right position to find. If you know where the open spot is going to be, and you see that before the defensive players, it makes everything easier.

“Everybody knows in the EuroLeague, last year in our team it was Larkin and Micic’s team. Okay, Kruno [Simon] played great, Beaubois played great, Dunston, Chris [Singleton], Moerman played great…but everybody knows it's Micic’s team, Larkin’s team.

But if you win, Anadolu Efes wins. If you lose, Anadolu Efes loses. And everybody knows that. It was Micic and Larkin’s team, but if they lose, we all lose together, and they also know that. If we win it’s all together, and we are all champions.”

A big part of the mental improvement that has allowed Sanli to take a huge step forward is studying – closely watching his performances and regularly talking to coaches.

He revealed: “When I go home after the games, I watch directly [on TV], because I’m thinking I can make that shot, I can pass that ball. I study a lot after games, After practices, I talk to my coaches to ask what can I do more, what can I do better, how is my shooting, my passing, my movement on the court. I try to talk a lot with the staff. I study a lot. As I said, I became a mentally better player.”

Now, of course, Sanli has swapped the Efes uniform for the team he helped to defeat in last season’s grand finale, FC Barcelona.

And his decision to leave the Turkish title-holders is just another aspect of his determination to keep on improving mentally, by forcing himself to confront and adapt to a demanding new situation.

“Of course, it was difficult to leave,” he says. “But winning the EuroLeague title with Efes was my dream from being a little kid. I completed that dream, I lived it, and after that, I had to make some hard decisions. I did my part with Efes and I’m really happy about that. I thank the whole Efes staff and players because, in the last three years, we shared everything, on and off the court.

“After winning the title, it would have been easy to stay with Efes – maybe sign a good new contract as a champion. That’s easy. But I need a new challenge. I could have stayed with Efes, or come to Barcelona to do different things.

To come here and achieve new things is something everybody can dream about. To leave my home country for the first time, adapt to a new team, new friends, new coach, new system…that’s a challenge and I am very happy to accept it.”

Sanli believes this kind of mentality – actively seeking out new and tough situations rather than settling for an easy life – is part and parcel of being a top-level sports star, saying: “If you want to be an elite athlete, you are always looking for a new challenge – every day, every game, every year.

“In the last three years with Efes, we had a challenge: to win the title. The first year we lost in the final, the second year we lost to COVID, and in the third year, we did it. The whole team completed the challenge.

Now it’s the same situation with Barca. They could have won the title last year but I’m happy they didn’t! This year I believe it can happen. I believe in my teammates and my coach.”

And now, everyone across Europe also believes in Sertac Sanli.

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