For all the ways Ersan Ilyasova improved the Sixers during his brief time with them this season, Dario Saric benefited the most from having him on the team.
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When Ilyasova made his first return to the Wells Fargo Center since being traded to the Hawks in February, his impact on Saric played out on the court.
Saric was no longer the wide-eyed rookie trying to adjust to a new team in a new league and new country. After spending nearly four months with Ilyasova, he has transformed into a confident starter, a leading scorer, and a top candidate for Rookie of the Year.
"I think Ersan was great for Dario," Brett Brown said after the Sixers' 99-92 loss to the Hawks (see Instant Replay).
The Sixers acquired Ilyasova in early November from the Thunder in exchange for Jerami Grant and two draft picks. At that point, Saric was starting because the frontcourt had been hit with injuries. The addition of Ilyasova allowed Saric to shift to the bench and transition to the NBA without the pressures associated with the starting lineup.
Saric began to flourish as a reserve. By the time the Sixers traded Ilyasova to the Hawks, Saric was ready to step back into the starting role. Between the absences of Ilyasova and Joel Embiid, Saric's production has soared since the All-Star break as he has averaged 19.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 32.3 minutes.
"I think he always had the potential," Ilyasova said. "He's not just one kind of player, he's an all-around player. He can pass, rebound, shoot, defend. He still has a lot of room to improve … I think he's going to be really good."
Ilyasova also helped Saric navigate a new league. Ilyasova didn't speak English when he began his career with the Bucks, so he felt compelled to help Saric ease into a situation while not speaking his first language.
"He means a lot for me," Saric said. "He helped me a lot of times during the season with advice, with some things, how I am supposed to play against different kinds of players."
Ilaysova got the better of Saric in the Hawks' victory. He scored 14 points (12 in the first quarter) with three rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes. Even though Saric finished with one more point, he struggled with 5 for 18 shooting from the field and 2 for 8 from three.
Both Ilyasova and Saric were playing in the second night of back-to-backs. The frequency of contests plus the grind of 82 games in a season are challenges Ilyasova has been through and Saric is just learning.
"I was tired really," Saric said. "So many games. Like everybody knows, the Olympic games, national team, my professional team, Efes, how many games in a season. Now I feel like really, really, really bad. I was so excited in my head, in my heart, to shoot at every ball but sometimes your body does things a little bit different."
The ups and downs come with the territory. Saric has soaked up veteran knowledge from Ilyasova that he can apply to bumps he encounters the rest of the season.
"He has a bright future," Ilyasova said.