The second half of the month of November had not been kind to Dario Saric. After sitting pretty at 13th in the NBA in three-point percentage on November 16, things went south for Saric, sending him on a downbound train headed for the dreaded rookie wall.
In Saric’s previous 11 games before his coming out party as the Boston Strangler 2.0 on Saturday, he was downright awful. He shot just 34.7 percent from the floor and 31.7 from deep. He was relegated to the bench in favor of newcomer Ersan Ilyasova. His handle was sloppy, a far cry from the maverick who pushed the ball in transition off rebounds in EuroLeague for easy buckets, as his turnover rate rose to 17.3 percent on a usage rate of 22.3 percent during that stretch. My Twitter account grew questionably quiet. What if... I was wrong? What if he wasn’t good?
How quickly I forgot that real Gs move in silence, patiently waiting when counted out. The tides were turning. The honeymoon period spurred by the 46.2 percent he shot on three-pointers was waning. The trolls were out in full force. The “bull in a China shop,” to use the comparison Brett Brown frequently bestows upon Saric, needed a statement game. With Joel Embiid sidelined, he was the franchise’s best building block to reach the floor on Saturday night, and he played like it.
Against a Celtics team that was interested in drafting him with the sixth-overall selection in the 2014 NBA draft before he signed a contract overseas with Anadolu Efes, Saric proved that patience is a virtue, dropping 21 points, snatching 12 rebounds and making seven of his 12 shots, including three of six from three-point range. He also performed the greatest crossover a Sixers rookie has ever unleashed on an opponent, shaking Jonas Jerebko all the way back to Sweden and drilling a mid-range jumper in front of a shrieking Wells Fargo Center crowd, as the ghosts over Allen Iverson seemed to haunt the building and this team for the umpteenth time.
While that play will be the highlight that sticks the hardest for Saric from that game, and maybe, ultimately, from his entire rookie campaign, one play, a crunch-time situation with less than 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a two-point game, said more about Saric’s development after a rocky start to his NBA career.
Jahlil Okafor finds Saric finds posted up on the right block in a mismatch against the the 6’2 Avery Bradley, as the Sixers try to tie the game up at 100. While Saric clearly has the height advantage at 6’10, he’s struggled in post-up situations this season. The loose handle that had plagued him during his struggles this season, playing too wild, too frantic, too eagerly, only augmented when he was on the low block. With Bradley, an All-Defensive Team member last season with a steal rate of 2.2 percent, on him, it seemed entirely possible, and maybe even probable, that Saric would either get striped or fumble the rock into the hands of Bradley in a clumsy motion.
Saric, with a funky baseline move that ended with a nifty flick of the basketball over the other side of the rim into the net, staved off defeat for a brief moment, a second of play that reinvigorated the team that night in their futile attempt at victory and Saric for his overall season.
His play even drew praise from Boston Super Fan #99 Bill Simmons, someone who hasn’t been afraid to throw shade the Sixers’ way over the last few years:
Saric is terrific. They need to build around Simmons, Embiid and Saric and figure out how to turn everything else into perimeter guys.— The Ringer (@ringer) December 4, 2016
That stellar performance carried over last night in a close loss to the Denver Nuggets, as Saric added 17 points, while sinking three of his six triples, and eight rebounds. His cocky swagger and flashy passing was on display during the Sixers’ finest play of the evening:
Maybe the excitement over Saric’s play will be fleeting and he’ll return to the slumping shooter he’s been for the better part of the month. What’s the fun in thinking that though? Saric himself is the embodiment of hope, the tantalizing prospect refining his craft in a far-off land only to one day arrive and save the franchise with linchpins Embiid and Ben Simmons. Hope costs nothing and rewards absolutely. I’ll stay with the thought process that this was a turning point for Saric, a push towards an All-Rookie Team berth and a successful return on investment after Saric’s two years spent playing in Turkey.
Maybe I’m just a wistful person, but I’m more inclined now to daydream over Saric racking up a double-double off the bench in a crucial playoff game against Boston a few years down the road than I was before Saturday night’s contest, and for that brief moment that I’m caught slipping, thinking of him slapping the court or pissing off a packed house at The Garden, the more fun watching Saric during his rookie-year journey becomes.