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Sixers-Pacers Preview: Philly Riding Saric To The Finish Line

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Saric’s improvement, plus a couple of things to watch for in tonight’s matchup with the Pacers.

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

Despite the disappointment of missing out on Ben Simmons and seeing mere glimpses of Joel Embiid’s brilliance, the in-house development the Sixers have fostered this season has been pretty remarkable. Much to the credit of Brett Brown and his staff, we’ve seen Robert Covington transform himself into a top-end defensive wing in the NBA, TJ McConnell blossom as a two-way ball-handler and even Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot get assimilated and grow increasingly comfortable on an NBA floor in his first season, earlier than I had anticipated. Not to mention, Richaun Holmes’ continued improvement since the trade deadline.

Which is what makes Dario Saric’s recent emergence as a clear future building block, rather than an ultimately dispensable supporting actor (think Rob Schneider in literally anything) all the more special for Sixers fans. Although it still remains to be seen if and when he’ll ever come over to the states, his performance since the turn of the New Year, and post-All Star in particular, has been spectacular. Despite an up-and-down three-point stroke, Saric has proved his worth as an all-around scoring threat, physical presence as a rebounder (and at least a competitor defensively) on the block and finally, the playmaker he was in Turkey.

His 19.8/7.7/3.9 line post-All Star on 45 percent shooting in 32 minutes per game is a far cry from the often lost, stiff-shooting kid we saw early in the year. Although not at all surprising, he’s admitted the adjustment to the speed of the game was a real challenge for him, as he told Ben Detrick over at The Ringer:

Saric acknowledges that the pace and athleticism of the NBA game initially threw him for a loop. “Everything was one step faster, speeded up,” he said. “When you come in summer, and you try to see something, it’s just so fast for your eyes. There’s more contact in the paint. Everything is higher around the rim. You cannot take the ball one-on-one with somebody, you need to box him out and take him off-balance to catch the ball. I needed some time for adjustment.”

While Saric began the season starting at power forward aside Embiid, the Sixers’ acquisition of journeyman and flopping virtuoso Ersan Ilyasova sent him to the bench. “I lose some confidence,” Saric said of transitioning to a reserve role. “I was a little bit worried and that comes in my head. And, because of that, I had really bad 3-point shooting from that part of the year until now. I think the biggest thing was rushing it. I get the ball and I would say to myself, ‘OK, I need to score now!’ and I would put pressure on me. But after two months, I’m probably more ready.”

Saric is certainly more ready. He’s scoring and attacking out of the mid-range with more confidence, throwing his weight around for buckets in the paint and doing Just Dario Things:

As the Sixers head into Indiana today and get into this final home stretch, it may not feel like anything significant. But even without the players the team hopes to build around for the next decade, it makes you feel something to see so many of these players finally turn a corner and stave off the tank with their talents; even more in The Homie’s case. And it’s okay to appreciate that.

(I’m sure now that this has been said, they’ll lose by 40 and Saric will lay an egg. Definitely happening. Whatever. Here are a couple things to watch for.)

Can the wings slow down Paul George?

Probably not. Not many can. But few teams have the depth in wing personnel that Philly has to play around with.

Luwawu’s length, Covington’s activity and precision and Anderson’s muscle give them a variety of approaches and styles to work with. Covington will surely be the primary stopper tonight, but they’ll need contributions from all three to have any hope of cutting off the head of the snake.

The Richaun Holmes-Myles Turner matchup

The Pacers feed their bigs out of the pick-and-roll with the league’s highest frequency (8.8 percent), and while their spacing and chemistry problems have kept them from really thriving (37.9 percentile), this will be something to watch for. Myles Turner is the largest benefactor of this, seeing 3.5 field goal attempts out of these situations per game and sporting a 54 percent effective field goal percentage in the process, per SportVU data.

Holmes has the shot-blocking instincts, physical upside and, from what I understand, the willingness to learn that give reason to believe he can improve in this department, but he’s still not an ace containing pick-and-rolls. He’ll have his hands full with Turner.

Turner too will have his work cut out for him containing the lobs and finishes around the rim that make Holmes dynamic. Holmes is shooting 73 (!!!) percent from within three feet of the basket this season, per basketball-reference.