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The Dario Diaries Vol. 9: What does the future hold for Saric?

Figuring out Dario’s destiny as a Sixer.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When considering how far Dario Saric has come this season, I think back to the Sixers’ first nationally televised game of the season, a Thursday night spotlight on TNT on the road against the Timberwolves. I’m not even referring to his play. Reggie Miller, the color commentator for the game, had an interesting take regarding the confusing pronunciation of Saric’s last name (Sharich).

You’re in America now. You have to Americanize that. You have to say it like it looks! Your name’s Saric man!

Miller’s jingoistic deriding, as if he was the bookkeeper at Ellis Island, seemed to be the ultimate disrespect for a guy in the midst of a rough transition to the American game. They don’t even care enough to say his name correctly!

Fast forward a few months later, and while Sixers fans will spender the remainder of the season fretting over ping pong balls, Saric’s progression remains the silver lining in an otherwise dreadful end of the year slog.

The Homie pulled out his whole arsenal of offensive tricks in a win against the Lakers on Sunday night. Pull-up jumpers. Three-pointers. Pushing the ball coast-to-coast. A give-and-go fast-break attack. Saric did it all against a Los Angeles squad featuring Former Future Sixers D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram on the way to 29 points, seven boards and seven assists. If someone watching the game wasn’t aware that those two are the reigning second-overall picks, they might even think that Saric was the best prospect out there.

Since taking over as the team’s starting power forward on February 24, Saric is averaging 34.0 minutes, 20.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and one steal per contest in 11 games, throwing himself to the top of the Rookie of the Year discussion along the way and getting a co-sign from Joel Embiid himself. While I was sheepish about Saric’s odds to win the award in early February given how dominate Embiid had been in his limited playing time and Malcolm Brogdon’s early season success, I’ve pushed all my chips into the center of the table and am now commandeering the Saric for Rookie of the Year runaway train down Pattison Avenue. I’m not even sure Malcolm Brogdon is a real player at this point. I’m not even sure Milwaukee is a real place.

His performance has been fantastic during this stretch, but it all feels so... unassuming. What does he actually do well?

Saric has no semblance of athletic ability, doesn’t possess a consistent outside shot, has a handle that is at times out of control and is still a clear liability defensively. Running him through any sort of athletic testing in a combine-like setting would produce laughable results. On an evening like Sunday, however, the Croat was somehow the best player on the floor, mastering his preternatural court vision while in the body of a power forward.

The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion summed it up well during the Warriors game from Tuesday:

During that contest in Oakland, where Saric’s near-routine 25 points, seven boards and six assists brought the Warriors to the brink of an embarrassing upset, his game stood in stark contrast to that of Golden State’s JaVale McGee. The much maligned McGee, a frequent victim of Inside the NBA’s ridicule on Shaqtin’ A Fool, is physically imposing. He stands 7’0”, weighs 270 lbs., possesses a 7’6” wingspan and can dart down the court. He’s also on his third team in four years because he’s an airhead who has never been able to fully harness his athletic gifts and work within a team setting.

A willing passer, an exceptionally gifted one at that, and a tough rebounder, Saric’s style fits perfectly within a team concept, but how exactly does he fit in with the Sixers longterm? He has the same passing gene that Ben Simmons possesses and it’s certainly not a bad thing to have several players on the court at once who will look to put teammates in positions to score.

The question regarding their fit offensively is whether the duo provides enough shooting to space the floor together. Saric is only shooting 32.2 percent on his three-pointers this season, but I have some confidence that he’ll become at least a league-average shooter from deep given an entire offseason where he can adjust to the NBA’s three-point line, the better defenders he’s facing stateside and recuperate from a year that saw him jump right into his rookie season after spending the summer swatting Pau Gasol at the Olympics.

Someone I’ve looked at as a potential comparison in terms of shooting is Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic. As a rookie coming over from the Spanish ACB league, Mirotic shot 31.6 percent on threes in 2015 before jumping to 39.0 percent during his sophomore campaign. While I wouldn’t expect that dramatic of an increase despite some of the noise that comes along with three-point shooting numbers, Saric should be a well-rounded outside threat by the time the team is involved in serious playoff games. Saric also improved his shot from beyond the arc every season internationally before connecting on 40.7 percent of his threes in 2016.

If Saric can knock down an outside shot with some consistency, Simmons’ shooting question marks can be played down a bit in lineups where the two of them are sharing the court. The ideal situation is one in which both turn into no-look passing wizards with the ability to nail three-pointers, but that’s certainly not a given. A situation in which Simmons is the de facto point guard and primary ball-handler along with two three-and-D wings, Saric and Embiid could work well enough in theory despite the lack of shooting touch from Simmons.

A more worrying concern is on the defensive side of the ball. Saric hasn’t been a full-blown disaster defensively this season, but it’s been pretty rough. The effort is there, but the aformentioned physical traits just aren’t there to make him a positive on that end of the court. He should be guarding power forwards in the future.

This leaves the Simmons-Saric pairing in a tricky position. Simmons frequently coasted defensively while at LSU, but he still has sizable defensive upside in a system that prioritizes switching and forcing turnovers to get in fast-break situations. Simmons may be best suited defending fours initially, as it would allow him to crash the defensive boards harder and lead some coast-to-coast attacks for this team. Saric has also had success doing that this season, but pushing him out to the perimeter to accommodate Simmons here seems unwise to say the least.

With the way Robert Covington has transformed into a menace defensively this year, it seems like both players would be better suited next to a wing defender of his ilk, something Derek Bodner has mentioned recently in his Patreon mailbags (which you should be subscribing to). Depending on how this summer’s draft shakes out and assuming they grab a combo guard of some kind with their first selection, I could see the team starting a lineup of Rookie Guard-Covington-Simmons-Saric-Embiid on Opening Night come October. That doesn’t mean that this construction will be the lineup all season, nor would I really advise that. I just find it a little hard to think Brett Brown would throw Saric back to the bench after a season in which he likely wins the Rookie of the Year award.

I don’t see Simmons having an immediate enough defensive impact to make that lineup work perfectly defensively, though an anchor like Embiid in the middle sure can clean up a lot of mistakes and make everyone else look good. Maybe as the calendar changes and 2018 hits, Brown utilizes a less super-sized lineup that places a more traditional wing opposite Covington and has Simmons as the lone point forward while Saric becomes the sixth man.

That may be the most effective idea long term, but I just don’t like the term “sixth man” here. I think it sells what Saric is capable of short. James Harden was the sixth man on a Finals team. Bobby Jones was a sixth man on the 1983 champion Sixers squad. Manu Ginobili was the sixth man on multiple championship teams. Given the obvious connection between Ginobili’s Spurs and Brown, I keep coming back to him as the best way to look at Saric’s situation.

Their games aren’t similar in execution, but the international flair that Saric brings as a passer feels like a spiritual successor to Ginobili’s. The Argentinian could’ve been a starter for years in San Antonio, padding his stats up and making several All-Star teams instead of just two, but Ginobili was smart. He bought into Gregg Popovich’s team concepts and forfeited some personal glories for four rings, a trade I’m sure he doesn’t regret a single day of his life.

Running the Spurs’ second units allowed Ginobili the artist to flow around the court, zip passes into spaces defenders couldn’t fathom existed and Eurostep his way to the cup. The sixth man title didn’t handcuff Ginobili, it set him free to play with reckless abandon, the same vivacity seen in Saric’s celebratory fist-pumps and cross-court passes now, to dominate other teams’ lesser players on his way to becoming one of the most efficient scorers of the century.

If Saric is playing 28, 29, 30 minutes per night, it ultimately doesn’t matter if he’s starting the game for the Sixers. He’ll likely be finishing them, as Ginobili once did, regardless. His game is utilitarian. He’ll make the players around him on the court better, whether that’s Embiid and the starters or T.J. McConnell and the Night Shift 2.0. If he’s anywhere near as impactful as Ginobili was during the Spurs’ various championship runs, I’m sure he won’t care what people call him.

Reggie Miller might still think Saric’s name is hard to pronounce by that point, but, hey, Ginobili used to be too.

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