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Sixers Tinder: Dario Saric Brought the Thrills from Overseas This Season

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Saric provided some much needed fun for the Sixers.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been almost three years since Sam Hinkie and the Sixers orchestrated a Draft Night trade for Dario Saric and it feels odd that he’s already completed his first season in the NBA. The eternally out of reach and overseas Croat’s tenure as a “what-if” ace in the hole for the Sixers roster outlasted several romantic relationships on my part and at least two Eagles quarterbacks I assumed would win a Super Bowl in Philly. Considering the mythology around him, it’s weird to have 81 games worth of info on who Saric can be in the NBA.

Saric was good as a rookie. Not great, certainly, but good nonetheless. He did a bit better than I expected him to play and a lot better than most people reasonably expected. Everyone on the Sixers looked better playing alongside Joel Embiid, Destroyer of Worlds, but the Embiid-Saric pairing was their second-best two-man lineup this season by net rating (+6.4, min. 150 minutes) behind Embiid-Ersan Ilyasova (+8.2). Shooting 35.9 percent from three during his 53 games in a Sixers uniform, Ilyasova provided the sort of floor spacing one would hope Saric can bring to the court in time. Can Saric be the Silver Surfer to Embiid’s Galactus in the Sixers frontcourt?

I’m inclined to think that he can. A 6’10” guy with his passing ability and at least a league-average three-ball is the type of player to play next to Embiid. The 240-pound kangaroo in the locker room throws a wrench into that equation though. Ben Simmons replicates many portions of Saric’s skill set at a higher level with greater upside and increased athleticism.

I’ve written about fit between Saric and Simmons and the team-building that goes into that at length in the past. Here’s what I wrote regarding their offensive fit last month:

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.

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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.

As well as their fit on the other end of the court:

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.

I don’t want to come off as too dour here when talking about Saric. Hell, I’ve turned writing frantic hyperbole about Saric into a gig here at Liberty Ballers. This season was a friggin’ thrill with Dario.

The January win over the Raptors where Dario had those two monster blocks on back-to-back shots is my favorite regular season Sixers game of all time. I’ve never been more emotional about this franchise than when writing, “Here we are at the crossroads where all of that faith is processed and turned into reality, where a 7’2” Herculean man can seemingly be everywhere on the court at once and a 6’10” dude with a goofy haircut can ignite a crowd in this town as if he were Rocky Balboa himself.”

His post-game interviews and theatrics with T.J. McConnell, once screaming, “FUCK YOU, MAN!” on live TV after McConnell dumped a cup of water on his head, were a delight. There was his fire passing in an important win against the Kings in one of this season’s many Pick Swapalypse Bowls.

For a franchise bereft of exciting talent for years, the Sixers were fortunate to have two such players this year with Saric and Embiid. When Embiid went down, he carried that torch, gifting fans with a funky 25-9-6 line against the Warriors, 32 and 10 against the Bulls and a 29-7-5 performance against the Lakers in the Staples Center where he was clearly the best player on the court.

From getting traded for Elfrid Payton to getting his teeth knocked out in the 2014 World Cup to Lufthansa 426 to The Block Heard ‘Round the World, the focus has always been on the future with Saric. Even after an inspired rookie season, we’re still not close to answering all the questions we have about him. I guess this bodes well for Season 2 of the Dario Diaries at the very least.

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