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The Dario Diaries Vol. 7: Who’s the best non-Embiid rookie in the NBA?

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The Croat GOAT is steadily improving.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“Podignite Mačku!”

I assume that’s what Dario Saric screamed after T.J. McConnell followed his game-winning basket with a game-sealing steal in the finals seconds of the 76ers’ win against the Magic last night. The Sixers players cleared the bench and mobbed the ecstatic Master of Grit himself, much like they did after his similar buzzer-beating jumper against the Knicks last month, and they all breathed a sigh of relief after ending a five-game skid.

While McConnell was deemed the Sixer most worthy of a post-game interview with Molly Sullivan and he’ll be the one who makes the highlight reel on SportsCenter, it was Saric who put the Sixers in a position for McConnell’s late-game heroics to happen at all. The Croatian scored a career-high 24 points, grabbed eight boards, recorded three steals, had Nerlens Noel’s back in a tussle against Serge Ibaka, and stole an infinite amount of hearts. He did so while shooting eight for 15 from the field and making three of his five three-point attempts. Sixers color commentator Alaa Abdelnaby made note of the improvement Saric has made on his shot arc, and the improved form is clearly paying dividends.

The steady rise is part of a trend for Saric. He did all of this on a back-to-back against Orlando after tying for a team-high 20 points the previous night in San Antonio, making four of his five shots from beyond the arc on Wednesday. This follows an improved January for Saric, a month he may be able to look back on eventually as the point he began to turn the corner in his rookie campaign, as he reached double-figure scoring numbers off the bench in seven of the Sixers’ 15 games for the month. Two monstrous, Olympic-caliber blocks against the Raptors that sent the Wells Fargo Center into a frenzy and a point forward passing clinic in a matchup with the Kings highlight his breakout month, and both came in home wins.

Always animated and ready to explode with the energy of a prime Kevin Garnett, he didn’t hold back after hitting a go-ahead bucket to leave the Sixers up one with 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter against the Magic in The Dario Celebration of the Night:

Even Joel Embiid is aware of how good Saric is becoming:

Saric’s thriving 2017 has quelled some of the doubters surrounding both his game and his status as a Sixer, enough so that Jack McCaffery, a reporter for the Delaware County Daily Times who has referred to sports scientists as “snake charmers”, tweeted this smoldering hot take:

*Warning: make sure to throw some oven mitts on before scrolling down further and reading*

That’s a take that even I, the guy who pretends to be Dario Saric’s best friend and drinking buddy on the internet, can’t get behind. Hell, I’m not even sure Saric himself could get behind that. But I think the point McCaffery is trying to get at is that despite all the hype Embiid has been getting, Saric has had a pretty nice rookie season for himself.

Is he dominating on both sides of the ball and making all of his teammates better every time he steps on the floor the way Embiid does? Of course not, because rookies as immediately impactful as Embiid are extremely rare. This ultimately left me wondering if, eschewing some of my own bias for a moment, Saric has truly been the best rookie in the NBA not named Joel Embiid this season.

Here are some of the other candidates who I see challenging for the Rookie of the Year silver medal (stats before yesterday’s games):

Dario Saric vs. The 2016-17 Rookie Class

Player MPG PPG RPG APG Shooting (FG/3/FT) TS% DRB% AST% Win Shares
Player MPG PPG RPG APG Shooting (FG/3/FT) TS% DRB% AST% Win Shares
Dario Saric 24.1 10.1 5.7 1.7 38.5/33.3/76.7 48.6 20.1 11.1 -0.1
Malcolm Brogdon 25.6 9.2 2.7 4.2 43.6/41.9/84.6 53.3 9.3 24.1 2.2
Buddy Hield 20.5 8.5 2.9 1.3 38.6/33.6/89.7 49.4 7.4 10.1 0.1
Pascal Siakam 17 4.4 3.5 0.3 50.3/0.0/68.8 52.2 15.2 2.6 1.3
Marquese Chriss 18.4 7.6 3.4 0.6 42.5/31.3/61.5 50.2 10.3 4.8 0.6

So how would I rank the league’s rookies? Embiid is obviously tops, regardless of how many minutes he’s played so far this season. It would take him not playing another minute all year to credibly not think he’s deserving of the award. After that, Brogdon is pretty clearly in line for that silver medal. He’s an older rookie, having spent four years at Virginia, but it’s hard to take away his positive impact on the court.

Saric has a real case for the bronze though, and it’s a toss up between him and Siakam for me. It comes down to what are you looking for in a rookie: Saric is more archetypal, a player taking a decent number of shots on a bad team and developing as his team does, whereas Siakam has 38 starts this season for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference while playing solid defense. So who’s the third-best rookie in the NBA?

Last time I checked, the title of this series is “The Dario Diaries,” NOT “The Siakam Stories,” so the nod goes to Saric. Brogdon’s efficiency has him beat for now, but don’t be surprised to see Saric garner the second-most votes of any rookie in this race after The Process himself come the end of this season.