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The Dario Diaries Vol. 6: A More Perfect Point Forward

Dario Saric unleashed his final form.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When the 76ers hired Brett Brown back in the summer of 2013, a time which seems several lifetimes ago at this stage of The Process, he was part of an offseason hiring spree that saw two coaches poached from Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio: Brown headed to Philadelphia and the Atlanta Hawks hired Mike Budenholzer. Popoivch headed a Spurs offensive system, one which led the team to a NBA Finals appearance earlier that summer and a championship the following one, predicated on ball movement, sharp passing and outside shooting.

With the help of an experienced roster, Budenholzer implemented a Spurs East regime in Atlanta and was leading the team to a 60-win campaign within two years. Brown, in a complete inverse of Budenholzer’s good fortune, was operating with an historically awful Sixers offense in Philly, a unit that was frantically disastrous in its pace and execution. Brown hadn’t forgotten the tenants that Popovich held sacred; it was just that his lineups were completely devoid of anything resembling a talented offensive player.

As I’ve covered, before, not all who wander are lost. Brown was treading in the murky waters of The Process, biding his time until the cavalry arrived and staving off unemployment. Enter a 7’2” Cameroonian superhuman and a version of Toni Kukoc jacked up on Adderall (as well as the Australian Point God who’s still in the waiting).

As I’ve written throughout this season, it seems that whenever Dario Saric appeared to be turning a corner, he was met with another roadblock, whether it be the addition of Ersan Ilyasova, which robbed him of his starting spot alongside Joel Embiid, or a shooting slump.

During the Sixers’ January run, Saric has had moments, though not quite the moment, the one that would make fans and critics alike think, “Ah, that’s why Sam Hinkie spent a lottery pick on him,” or “Oh, that’s why Shamus is a nut on Twitter.” Saric scored 18 points in Brooklyn and said, “FUCK YOU, MAN!” to T.J. McConnell on live television. He had 15 points and made four of his six threes against Charlotte. Saric put up a line of eight and nine, along with two monstrous blocks heard across the globe all the way back in Šibenik, in a definitive Process-era victory against the Raptors. He scored 16 and 17, respectively, in two Embiid-less wins against the Clippers and Bucks last week.

All of these events were fantastic for Saric’s development as an NBA player, as Brown himself even noted Saric would be a certain Rookie of the Year candidate in a season that didn’t also feature a rookie Embiid. They were fucking exhilarating for Sixers fans too. I teared up while writing my last ode to Saric after that win and those blocks against Toronto, succumbing to a cocktail of nostalgia, sentimentality, Jameson and hope.

Saric, from what I had seen following his game for almost four years now, just hadn’t reached his final form: a 6’10” three-point threat who crashed the boards like a bull in a China shop and whizzed passes across the court with both reckless abandon and pinpoint precision.

Last night’s Pick Swap Bowl was the closest Saric came to realizing his all-around potential stateside. With the “throw the ball to Joel Embiid and let him turn garbage into gold” option unavailable last night, Brown must have dusted off his old San Antonio playbook and rewrote Boris Diaw’s role for Saric. It all came to fruition for Brown and the Sixers in the third quarter, as Saric played catalyst for the comeback win. He had 17 points, five rebounds and six assists, a season high, while making eight of his 11 shots from the floor. A great stat line itself, but it’s the way it all unfolded that makes it remarkable.

Saric entered the game for Ilyasova with 7:01 left in the quarter and the score 72-64 in favor of Sacramento. He didn’t leave the game until there was 5:54 left in the fourth quarter. The score had swung to 105-99 Sixers in that span. Saric captained the comeback ship, becoming the offensive playmaker he had only hinted at previously in his rookie campaign, but had been on display for years in Europe.

During a fastbreak, an area Saric had killed with his court vision while playing overseas, the Sixers fired up some Spursian passing that would warrant a smile even from a curmudgeon like Popovich himself, as T.J. McConnell bolts up the court and finds Saric as a trailer at the three-point line, only for Saric to fire a no-look chest pass to Robert Covington under the basket for two quick points.

Success, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it may be, is what all teams strive for in the NBA. But as a fan of basketball, how could you not love that this dude flicked a no-look pass for an assist in transition as if it was the most routine of activities?

Sports are supposed to fun, none more so than a league like the NBA that lends itself to outsized personalities and clearly visible characters. Amidst the NBA’s cultural sphere, Saric is somehow Ivan Drago and Rocky Balboa. He’s easily vilified in the eyes of opponents with his goofy haircut-mustache combo and “hot-dogging” (imagine a 74-year-old white man saying that as he slaps a rolled up newspapers against his knee) passes, but heroic to his own, whether it be back in Croatia, Turkey or, now, South Philadelphia. His all-hustle throttle, penchant for three-point shot celebrations, and court vision had fans leaping out of their seats at the Wells Fargo Center as if Allen Iverson just crossed some poor soul up.

How many players in the league can make that pass? How many players even see the court as well he does? Just like some of his winning, effort plays, it’s the quiet things that no one ever knows and don’t show up in the box score that make him such a tantalizing player.

It’s a pass so unexpected, yet so on point and needed, that Jahlil Okafor is momentarily confused. “Why is there a basketball in my hands? How did it get here at that angle?” he thinks. “I have the ball. I better post up,” is certainly his second thought, before finding Nik Stauskas with a great pass of his own for the three-pointer. Until the NBA starts counting hockey assists, this Magic-esque (the guy, not the team) pass will have to live on and be tracked through video highlights solely.

There’s a future, not the definitive one, but a possible one where the Sixers start Ben Simmons at power forward with Embiid at center as their frontcourt. This leaves Saric and Nerlens Noel to oversee The Nightshift 2.0, a frontline that has starter (and, dare I say, star?) potential in its own right over the next handful of years. If that’s what the future holds for Saric, he’s already making good on developing a repertoire with Noel, a fantastic complement who masks some of Saric’s deficiencies and serves as an excellent pick-and-roll-and-lob-and-dunk partner with the Croatian, as seen with a sweet alley-oop the 1:29 mark of the below video.

With Ben Simmons and his own elite passing yet to take the court for the Sixers, plus possibly two more lottery picks on the way for the franchise this summer, the Sixers are finally closer to establishing the offensive system Brown was hired to execute. A team that can deploy not one, but two 6’10” point forwards with the vision of old-school point guards certainly puts Brown in a position to do so.

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