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Dario Saric: A Rookie Campaign Years in the Making

The anticipation for Embiid has been just as great as Saric.

NBA: Preseason-Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“Is he ever coming over? Is he even real?”

Those are two questions that both media members and fans alike wondered about Dario Saric ever since the 76ers acquired him on Draft Night 2014. Well, I saw it with my own two eyes. Saric has finally come over to America to join the Sixers. He’s real and he’s spectacular:

The Ben Simmons injury, while quite unfortunate, is a bittersweet blessing of sorts for Saric. He’s better suited as a four defensively, and Simmons’ absence lets him slide into the starting power forward position to give a diet version of what Simmons would’ve brought the team: ball-handling, passing and the ability to push the tempo in transition. The Sixers are able to keep some semblance of the basic offense they intended to run through Simmons and hand the reins off to Saric.

The one area where Saric betters Simmons is shooting. Saric has improved his shooting touch from deep each season of his international professional career, going from 23.2 percent (56 attempts) in 2012, to 29.9 percent (77 attempts) in 2013, to 31.8 percent in 2014 (176 attempts) in 2014, to 32.9 percent (161 attempts) in 2015, all the way up to 40.7 percent (172 attempts) in 2016.

Saric’s form has improved over the years, but is still a bit flat, as apparent in the Vine below from the Sixers’ preseason opener:

There are two 6’10” international big man who’ve debuted in each of the last two seasons with success as shooters who might work as a comparison to a degree for Saric’s shooting: the Chicago Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic in 2015 and the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic. Mirotic, Jokic and Saric each had several years of pro basketball experience abroad and waited at least one year after being drafted before coming to the NBA.

In Europe, Mirotic shot 37.6 percent (197 attempts) from three in 2013 and then 40.9 percent (198 attempts) in 2014. In his rookie year in 2015 with the Bulls, Mirotic’s rate fell to 31.6 percent (313 attempts) on threes before steadying himself as a sophomore in 2016 at 39.0 percent (346 attempts).

Jokic had much less success on his three-pointers in the Basketball League of Serbia. He shot 31.5 percent (111 attempts) on threes in 2014 and then 32.6 percent (144 attempts) in 2015. He then shot a respectable 33.3 percent as a stretch-five for the Nuggets this past season.

Every prospect is different in their skill sets and progression. Mirotic, Jokic and Saric all share some similarities, but are all unique players in their own right. This is just an example of why a drop off in his rate from deep will likely occur.

Even though it’s unrealistic to expect him to shoot over 40 percent again as he adjusts to American competition and a three-point arc that’s further away from the basket, he can at least be near league-average as a shooter from three. I would predict he shoots 35 percent from beyond the arc this year. That aspect of his game wasn’t even considered to be in his arsenal before the 2014 draft. The court vision and handles of a point guard in a power forward’s body is what initially drew scouts to Saric, the 12th selection in that draft.

Saric still went in the lottery despite the understanding that he wouldn’t come over to the NBA for at least two years and with question marks surrounding his outside shot. If he decided to come over immediately, it’s possible that the Boston Celtics would have selected him as high as the sixth pick, given their stated interest in him pre-draft. Even though that draft class has yet to live up to the lofty expectations thrust upon it, Saric is a legitimate top-six talent. Just two years later, he’s markedly better at his second-biggest weakness (with his lateral quickness defensively being the top concern) while continuing to make strides as a ball-handler and rebounder.

That’s some projecting on my part, but it’s conceivable the Sixers will be starting two rookie top-five draft talents on opening night despite Simmons’ injury. Saric has a real shot to blossom over the next three months — and possibly the entire season — as the starting four next to Joel Embiid with Simmons sidelined. In a season where so many other first-year players will see more limited roles, Saric is a serious dark horse candidate for the Rookie of the Year crown.

Rookies overwhelming aren’t positive contributors to their teams. It just simply takes time for new players to mesh stylistically and physically in the NBA; however, Mirotic and Jokic are two of the few of qualified rookies to post a positive Box +/-, per basketball-reference, over each of the last two seasons.

Mirotic led all rookies with a BPM of 1.2 in 2015, just ahead of Marcus Smart (1.1) and the Sixers’ own Nerlens Noel (0.8). Jokic led all rookies with a BPM of 4.8 last year, a rate that was good for 11th-best in the entire league, above Karl-Anthony Towns (2.8), Willie Cauley-Stein (0.7), Nemanja Bjelica (0.3) and Kristaps Porzingis (0.1).

Disregarding the freak of nature that Towns is, those two players fall into two camps: defensive stalwarts (Smart, Noel, Cauley-Stein) and guys who already had professional experience across the globe (Mirotic, Jokic, Bjelica, Porzingis). Saric slides right into the latter group. He has looked like the Sixers’ most competent player thus far in the preseason and for good reason: his time playing against grown men in the Adriatic League and Turkish Basketball League have prepared him to square off against the physical veterans that populate every NBA team.

Saric can be more than just good by a rookie’s standards for the Sixers. He can contribute by the standard’s of a veteran NBA role player. A productive year in which he leads the team in rate stats like Win Shares/48 and BPM would be unsurprising.

It’s lit, Philadelphia.