Krunoslav Simon of Anadolu Efes Istanbul is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his nine in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. He has averaged 10.5 points, 3.3 assists and a PIR of 12.4 this season, his best numbers since he joined Efes before the start of the 2017-18 campaign. Perhaps most impressive of all is that Simon is playing his best at age 35!
Even Simon himself struggles to find a proper explanation, so he joked about it. "Good question. It is hard to say. Maybe it is that time enjoying every day with these guys, in this team, surrounded by these people," Simon said. "I feel great and I am very happy that I can help the team to reach our goals."
Among his highlights this season was making one of the biggest shots in EuroLeague Playoffs history. It was do-or-die Game 5 of his team's series against Real Madrid. The game was tied at 80-80 and Efes had the ball, but the shot clock was winding down. Simon had just enough time to dribble once and heave a nine-meter prayer over Trey Thompkins... Nothing but net. Efes took the lead for good and that shot was the key to punching its ticket to Cologne.
"I am very happy that I played four years in [Coach Ataman's] system."
"I will always remember that shot. It was a big moment for me, for my team," Simon said. "It was 3 seconds on the shot clock, you must shoot the ball. It is the easiest shot in the world, when you must take it. Fortunately for us, it went in so everything else... you saw! Of course, it was a big thing but still, it was 40 seconds on the clock and we didn't lose our focus. We still knew that it was not a game-winning shot, that we needed to bring the game to the end. And we did it."
Things have not always been bright for Simon in Istanbul, but that ensures he appreciates the team's current journey even more. Simon was one of the three players – along with Bryant Dunston and Dogus Balbay – who were with the team in the 2017-18 season. Coach Ataman joined in late in the season but Efes finished last overall with a 7-23 record (23.3% winning percentage). In the last three seasons, however, Efes has a 72-31 record (68.6% wins).
"It is a big satisfaction. It is not easy to be in the last place. After that year, we changed the team. We brought a lot of new players who showed themselves as great players, so we are now here where we are in the last three years," Simon summed up.
Simon has become just one of four players - along with Nick Calathes, Rudy Fernandez and Dimitris Diamantidis - to record 2,000 points, 700 rebounds and 600 assists in EuroLeague history. He said that he believes Coach Ataman has to do a lot with his current level of play.
"The best thing for me is that he is giving a lot of freedom to his players and he has faith in the players, so it is very good, from that point, to play for him because you know that you can show what you got," Simon explained. "In these new times, some other coaches are thinking more about systems, about changing players and everything, and our coach is not coaching that way. For me, as a player, is a great thing and I am very happy that I played four years in that system."
Up next for Efes in the semifinals is a rematch of the 2019 championship game against CSKA Moscow. Efes has not changed a lot since then and Simon said he felt that is something that could help the team in Cologne.
"It is a big advantage that we have. Almost the whole team has been together for three years and it is much easier to play," Simon said. "Every player knows which role he has, so it is much easier. I think it is our biggest advantage for this Final Four."
The teams' regular-season games make this Final Four showdown even more unpredictable. In December, CSKA overwhelmed Efes 100-65 in the Russian capital. Efes returned the favor with a no-doubt-about-it 100-70 victory in Istanbul on March 4. Even though both games were blowouts, Simon does not expect the semifinal to be anywhere similar to those showdowns.
"It will be a close game. I don't want to compare it with this game two years ago because they changed the team a lot," he added. "We changed a few players, so it will be a different game. I think we are close and details will decide the game. We must be ready. We need to give our best and do everything to win that game."
"I am very happy that we are playing after last year, when everything stopped."
Simon is thankful and blessed to have another opportunity to win at the Final Four. He previously played the competition with Zagreb, Unicaja Malaga, Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar and AX Armani Exchange Milan and did not even reach the playoffs with any of those teams. Things are different with Efes as Simon is a pillar of one of the powerhouses in the competition.
"First of all, I need to say that the organization is great, that I am very happy that we are playing after last year, when everything stopped," Simon said. "The whole world was in some kind of shock. I think it is a great season, not only for us as a team but for the whole league because all of us see that we can fight with this thing and... Okay, maybe it is hard to play without fans and some things are new, but things are going well, and I am happy that everything is going that way.
"It is a big thing for me, for our club," he concluded. "We need to do our best to try to win it, and to enjoy - that is the most important, you know? This is pure joy, we deserve our place there. We are in the top four teams in the whole league, so let's enjoy two more games and try to win."