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Dario Saric and the “science” of the way your shots go in

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This gets very stupid/brilliant very quickly.

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If you had the over on 14.5 articles Daniel writes for LB that are about players not on the current Sixers roster before the end of July, feel free to give yourself a high five.

But here’s the thing: Dario Saric on the Sixers and Dario Saric on the Timberwolves and Suns feel like two completely different personalities and players. 2017-18 Saric shot a blistering 39.8 percent from three and got to serve as a tertiary creator with the freedom to average 1.9 turnovers per game, but also create 2.6 assists each night. Come 2019-20, Saric has been reduced to a spot-up role for the wayward Suns, with averages of only 1.9 assists and 1.2 turnovers per game, and a subpar three-point percentage of 34.1.

Saric is set to either receive a qualifying offer or enter restricted free agency at the end of the bubble playoffs and/or the implosion of the world, and with him potentially being up for grabs, I wondered whether the Sixers should bring their Homie home.

Off the top of my head, I think it’s a good fit. The Sixers’ three best options at the four position are Tobias Harris should Al Horford be moved to the bench, Ben Simmons in an odd small ball-ish lineup, and Mike Scott. While the Dunder Mifflin Regional Manager proved to be a valuable piece to the Sixers in 2018-19, the same cannot be said for this season, as his three-point percentage dropped from 41.2 to 35.9. That still puts Scott at the 59th percentile of all power forwards in three-point conversion rate, but given that his shooting prowess is really his only plus as a rotation player, he would need to be closer to the 92nd percentile shooter he was back in his first half-season with the Sixers.

Thus, the argument for Saric as a better version of Scott is pretty simple — he’s younger, a far better passer and off-the-dribble player and, while being a poor defender, is an upgrade over Scott in that regard. So, yeah, even if Saric did drop off as a shooter, the Sixers should be more than happy to offer him the relatively small amount of money that they can for his services.

But still... does it not bother you that after two years apart, one of our own has regressed and not evolved? Why did a guy we all proclaimed “Wookie of the Year” degrade to the point that he was fending off Frank Kaminsky for minutes?

Well, back in 2018 (when more than 50 percent of the people who read my blogs had the last name Olinger), I kept telling everyone that I thought Saric would regress as a three-point shooter, that I didn’t trust his 39.8 percent mark. Why? Because I didn’t like the way his shots went in.

I played for my varsity team back in high school, and being that I was 5’11” and about as bouncy as a slab of concrete, a lot of my value derived from my three-point shooting. When you spend so much time trying to perfect your shot, you start to know what is a good make and what is a bad make.

Good makes are most often, but no exclusively, swishes. Sometimes they can hit the very back of the rim and drop straight through, and a hard rattle does not exclude a shot from being a good make. Whenever a good make left my hand I knew immediately that I had hit that shot and would start backing up toward half court. A good make means that there was no luck involved in what you just did to make that shot. You just drilled it.

Contrast that with what I called a bad make. Sure, I still took the three points every time, but if I was just practicing by myself in an open gym, I couldn’t end on a shot like that. A bad make usually hits the side of the rim and has to roll around a tiny bit. It can also make that ker-thunk sound upon going in hard off a line drive of a shot, showing that you lacked the soft touch on that release. Ultimately, these were threes that I didn’t know were going in.

It’s subtle and almost indiscernible at times, but I swear that it’s how I thought about my shooting.

And during the 2017-18 season, a lot Saric’s threes fell through the bucket in a similar fashion to the way my shots did in the clips above, and so, I figured he was due for a regression toward a percentage more indicative of his shooting skill.

That blatantly two-motion form combined with a shot-put off the right shoulder release just doesn’t look great even when it counts for points, and you can further tell in how flat the arc of the ball is on its descent toward the basket. I didn’t believe in Saric the shooter two years ago, and I’ve been largely proven right.

Thus, before I fully endorse the Sixers signing Saric in the post-bubble world, I needed to investigate whether he had finally fixed his problem of “making threes the wrong way” (so scientific, I know).

I watched all 399 of Dario’s three-point attempts from the 2018 season and all 214 of his three-point attempts as a Phoenix Sun in 2020, and charted them under four categories:

1) Good Makes, 2) Bad Makes, 3) Normal Misses and 4) Bad Misses (and the very few threes of his that were blocked were not included in any category).

NOTE: For misses, normal ones are what they sound like, and bad misses usually bounce pretty hard off the rim, sometimes don’t even come near the the rim and look like they have little to no chance as soon as it leaves the shooter’s hand.

Yes, it’s not an exact science. It’s based upon what I saw with my eyes as the ball went through the basket and what I would have thought if I had shot that ball. I probably made mistakes — it’s what humans do best. But the goal here isn’t to develop an exact model, but get a better understanding of what happened on the court based on visual and informed evidence. Think of it like a detective, who goes back and reviews the evidence of the case (such as watching Saric shoot all those threes), and then uses the experience and knowledge during his years on the job to make an informed decision.

Here’s the subjective statistics I charted while watching all those Dario Saric shot attempts using the NBA.com Advanced Stats tool:

Dario Saric Subjective Three-Point Shooting Numbers

Right away, you can see that a greater frequency of those made threes in 2020 were classified by myself as good than in 2018. Removing all three-pointers that were blocked in ‘18 and ‘20 (two and four, respectively), 48.4 percent of Saric’s converted three-pointers earned the distinction of a good make back in his final full Sixers’ season, compared to 58.9 percent this past season. Conversely, 51.6 percent of his ‘18 makes qualified as bad makes, whereas in 2020 that mark dropped down to 41.1 percent of all makes.

So what does this mean? Didn’t Saric still shoot five percentage points worse than he did in Philly? Yes, he did. However, that 39.8 percent mark was just a weird fluke in my opinion, and not who he actually is. The thing we can take away from that higher rate of good makes is that his 34.1 percent mark is accurate and that’s it’s very unlikely his three-point percentage falls any further. Sure, that means he’s not an elite marksman and a less exciting player than he was in ‘18, but I’d rather know that ahead of time then be deceived into thinking I’m getting some lethal floor spacer.

Not to mention, Saric’s three-point numbers were hampered by a brutally cold stretch from the end of December to the beginning of February, in which he went a ghastly 6-40 from behind the arc, and had two different streaks of eight straight missed in-game threes. Remove that spell from his shot total, and he otherwise shot a more than acceptable 38.5 percent on deep balls. Then again, he began his ‘18 season by shooting 33.7 percent on his first 98 attempts, then turned it on to shoot 41.2 percent from three over his last 301 attempts, so perhaps Saric is just a streaky shooter by nature.

However, studying what was going on with his misses actually caught my eye. The frequency of his misses that I deemed to be normal went from 75 percent in Philly to 59.9 percent in Phoenix, and thus, a whopping 40.1 percent of his misses came in ugly fashion for the Suns this past season.

Are those bad misses just what becomes of those missing bad makes? Does it show that Saric hasn’t fixed the lack of touch on his stroke? Is this getting way too convoluted and Daniel should just give up and go to sleep (at least we know the answer to that one)?

I don’t mean to boast, but I’m fairly confident that the theory I developed two years ago about Saric as a shooter has been proven true. The percentage of his overall three-point attempts that end in good makes took a small drop off from 19.1 to 15.9 percent in Phoenix. That seems insignificant when compared to his drop in bad make frequency, which dipped from 20.4 all the way to a measly 11.1 percent. All my aesthetic and subjective evidence points to the true Dario being the level of shooter he was in 2020.

You could honestly do this type of experiment with a myriad of players. Just look at Joel Embiid, who by year has shot 36.7, 30.8, 30.0 and 34.8 percent from behind the arc. A deep dive into how his shots go in the basket could perhaps explain that fluctuation. On the other hand, maybe Embiid is just a really streaky guy, and there is no rhyme or reason to who he is as a shooter.

But I think the bigger point is that you can’t just look at a number and assume that it’s telling you the truth. It’s telling you the result, the product spit out by the formula, but there can always be noise that clouds what’s actually going on. That’s why it’s important to go back and look at what happened on the court, to see that formula in work with your own eyes and attempt to deduce what it means.

It’s also important to not solely rely on anecdotal evidence and your own memory. Anytime someone claims that they know basketball and they can just tell who is good at what by just casually watching a game, they likely haven’t done statistical research to back up that claim or gone back and rewatched those same games to check their own memory. This whole article would mean nothing if I just told you all the Saric shooting theory without taking the time to watch, categorize and chart all 613 of those shots by Saric.

In the end, using this whole method of aesthetic analytics/subjective statistics, I can tell you that 1) If the Sixers were to sign Dario Saric, he would not be as good or as valuable as he was back in 2018, 2) Saric is unlikely to see another great drop in his three-point percentage, and 3) Saric is still a useful player and deserves a chance to rebuild his career in the place where he first flashed his desirable combination of talents.

At least, that’s what “the numbers” say.


Daniel is a rising sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a Staff Writer for Liberty Ballers and an Associate Editor for the Northwestern SB Nation Blog — Inside NU. He also runs his own personal blog called backtothebasket.org, and is very active on Twitter, and you can follow him @dan_olinger.