Role players usually have to adjust to the stars around them, rarely the other way around. In the case of 2017 Dario Saric, his starry talents took a proverbial backseat to Ben Simmons and his bouldering creation volume.
Now, more unforeseen happenings are looming which forces Saric to adjust his game to another level, inviting a bevy of obstacles that leave to question whether Saric would be better off performing solo. Simmons is (evidently) attempting to add a mid range shot and improving in post-ups, and putting a focus on cutting more to diversify his own scoring portfolio. However, those improvements impact the players around him, and to a greater extent, Dario Saric.
Already proving capable as a spot-up shooter next to Simmons, Saric needs to cut more effectively when defenders overplay him and Simmons dribbles in orbit. Those two attributes blanket Simmons’ shooting struggles (which let’s face it, aren’t disappearing), while also opening up avenues of personal scoring which are already sacrificial to a pass-heavy lineup.
And while Saric complements Simmons in some aspects, Saric is also piecing together his own deadly skill-set. Attaching a pull-up jumpshot to his spot-up strap keeps defenders guessing and parts driving lanes like the red sea. His play without Simmons begs the question: Can Saric come off the bench and still impact the team like last season where he started 73 of 78 total games?
And while personal improvements are welcomed in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia molding an offense to his strengths are even more staggering, since a players are as good as the sum of their parts.
Saric in the starting lineup
Last season, Saric faced the obstacle of becoming an offensive chameleon while Ben Simmons soaked in colors as a creation-inclined forward. Through the first 5 games, Saric was out of sync in a tertiary role, where his drives dovetailed. In that span, Saric shot 3-14 from deep and his 2.6 drives per game paled in comparison to the 3.7 the season prior.
In the following two games, Saric’s outside shots skyrocketed, raising Philadelphia’s offensive ceiling and versatility. Over the remainder of the season, the forward’s shooting increased from 2.8 in the first 5 games to 5.3 overall.
When you glean at Second Spectrum tracking data, similar conclusions can be drawn. From 2016-17 to 2017-18, Saric’s drives decreased from 5.5 to 3.7, while his catch and shoot attempts increased from 4.8 to 5.9. Not only that, Saric handled the ball less. Across the board, a dip in usage occurred; 3.41% less front court touches, 35.7% decreased time of possession, and 61.2% fewer dribbles per touch.
The willingness to step outside his comfort zone to bend the floor (taking jump-shots and decreasing drives) moved the needle for lineup variance, allowing Brett Brown to play Simmons and Saric at the same time.
“That is the single thing that has made Dario different,” 76ers coach Brett Brown told Yahoo Sports. “You need a stretch four that can shoot 3s. Europe taught us that two decades ago. And when you look at the modern-day sport, and when you look at end-of-game situations, and it’s only going to be magnified in the playoffs. Watch that position. And he can do it.”
The Ben Simmons effect
The real reason Philadelphia starved for a stretch-four resulted from a defect in their starting lineup: Ben Simmons’ jump shot.
98.9% of Ben Simmons’ shots, last season, were 2-point field goals, a number which doesn’t figure to dip all that much. Based on the Boston series, defenses will scheme to form a brick wall in front of Simmons, applying kryptonite to superpower. It’s a true and tried theory that strips Simmons of iotas of his monstar talent. But relying on a full reclamation project of the 21-year old’s jump shot is simply too much to ask, and so a teammate needs to pick up the slack, per se, in that spectrum. Hence, Dario Saric in the starting lineup.
A ‘pick-your-poison’ situation arises when Simmons glides forward and Saric fades back, especially in pick and rolls where Saric was in the 78.6 percentile of spot-up shooters in 4.6 possessions, 4th for players who dressed in 50 games. Saric’s floor-stretching and spot-up ability act like flex tape to the flow of Simmons’ drives, where he picked up his dribble and needed a safety valve to overcome a flood of defenders:
If Simmons does tack on a mid-range shot, a 4 or 5-out transition offense optimizes his open-court speed. This is an extremely tiny sample size, but: Simmons shot 31.5% on mid-range shots with Saric on the floor while he shot 20.0% when Saric was off (again, these stats are microscopic in a petri dish). Saric is a threat as a cutter, spot-up shooter, and big screening for Simmons:
While Saric cuts 1.6 times, a relatively high number, he can improve in that facet. He was in the 32.3 percentile of players, scoring 1.18 points each diving opportunity.
Even though he is proficient in creating for teammates, Saric struggles mightily in creating shots for himself. His lack of lateral footwork means he won’t be able to play small forward consistently. He shot 27.6% on 0.9 possessions per game in pull-up jumper situations. Without a pull-up materializing, defenders may start to sag off as he trains full head of steam from the perimeter, taking away the paint.
Philadelphia’s success correlated with matrimony of its pinnacle of powers; one that combined getting out in transition and making the extra pass. The starting lineup of Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid was the best team to play over 400 minutes together, with a whopping offensive rating of 117.1.
In that lineup, Saric was increasingly used as a catch and shoot player, while his ‘creative 4’ profile was a casualty of faulty lineup decisions. Unfortunately for the development of Saric, he may retain a similar role next season. The loss of Ersan Ilyasova means Saric could see more minutes as a stretch-4 specialist.
Saric off the bench
If Saric is forced into being a sidekick, his true potential may never be reached. The unique combination of natural scoring, passing, and outside shooting make Saric deadly setting screens, kicking out passes, and in the high and low-post.
In pick and roll sets, Saric hunts down smaller opponents, using his 243-pound build to bury them in the post:
On the outside, Saric baits defenders with his jump-shot, darting past slower forwards if they run him off the line. Once he penetrates the lane, he utilizes a diverse passing skill-set to scope out shooters around him:
In the backup lineup, for Saric, it’s essential he gets the ball in high-low situations. In the post, he backs down smaller defenders, forcing double teams to swarm him.
In the high-post and short-corner, he keeps his head up and finds players screened, whipping over-the-head passes into their shooting pockets when they fade or finds them in stride when they curl:
Shaping an offense around Dario Saric
The argument for Dario Saric is this: Ben Simmons is too similar as a creator as Saric in half-court offense. That’s not to say Saric is a 6’11’’ point guard — he is most definitely not. But when Saric does not have the ball, you’re wasting a big man who can pass exceptionally, or so the argument goes.
Where Saric can create is in the high-post, on the elbow. And with a willing passer like T.J. McConnell feeding Saric, he more often receives the ball in pockets of the court where he excels. Here Dario makes a simple but important read to Redick coming off a screen:
And when he doesn’t get the ball right away, he can pop and cut off-screens.
His shooting ability enabled him to deny screens and pop off them, adding a new dimension to the offense:
When defenders bit on his jumper out of horns, Saric dove to the rim by shaking his defender and rubbing shoulders off-screens:
If Fultz and Simmons buy into a jump-shot revival, Saric is better served with more volume off the bench. However, betting on improvement from those two is overvaluing a volatile stock. If jump-shots don’t surface and everything else remains, investing in Saric in the starting lineup spaces the floor, diversifying each starter’s scoring and creating portfolio.
All things considered, Saric has the talent to be more than a role player and it may be worth the risk of a deflated team offense for the development of an intriguing player.