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NBA Rookie Preview: Dario Saric

Dario Saric’s NBA arrival has been in the works for years. He was a star prospect as early as 2012, finally entered the draft in 2014 and remained in Europe until this summer. The 6’10” Croatian forward will bring versatile skills and loads of pro experience to the Philadelphia 76ers, a club thirsting for both of those attributes.

After successful stints in both the Adriatic League and Turkish BSL League, Saric is ready to immediately enhance Philly’s attack. He’s blessed with magnificent instincts on both ends of the court, along with deft ball-handling skills and uncommon toughness.

Saric showcased his multifaceted impact in modest doses during the preseason. He’s just as comfortable stretching the floor and creating from the perimeter as he is mixing it up in the middle. Even though he’s a lower-tier athlete, Saric has plenty of tricks in his arsenal to outshine most other rookies.

Offensive role, expectations and limitations

Saric’s role and usage increased when fellow rookie Ben Simmons was sidelined with a foot fracture. Nevertheless, his mantle with the Sixers will be slightly different than the one he had in Europe.

On his clubs and the Croatian national team, he was a primary creator who could maneuver wherever he wanted. He’ll do some slashing for Philly, but he won’t consistently get separation off the bounce. Saric is a mid-to-lower tier athlete by NBA standards, so he’ll have to get buckets and make plays based on timing and scoring touch. He’ll have to play in the post more often and rely on angles to make an impact.

Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer explained the adjustment Saric needs to make as he enters the sport’s highest level:

…he doesn’t have a particularly strong first step to blow past guys off the dribble, and he doesn’t have the explosiveness to finish over the top of bigger NBA defenders in tight spaces. He has to take advantage of cracks in the defense… Saric needs to be able to pepper jumpers from beyond 23 feet and force defenders to press up on him. Otherwise, he’s better off as a secondary creator, taking advantage of defensive rotations and creating plays within the flow of the offense.

Fortunately, Saric has the tools required to adapt and be a net positive for the Sixers this season. He owns an effective combination of strength, craftiness and touch around the bucket. That enables him to hit hook shots, turnaround jumpers and put-backs through contact.

Coach Brett Brown won’t run many traditional post-ups for him, but there will be opportunities early in the offense. Saric is adept at finding good position, surveying the floor and attacking his opponent’s weakness. Against longer, more athletic opponents, he uses pump fakes and step-backs to score in the low-post and mid-post.

Saric flexed his post-up muscles during the preseason. His ability to turn over either shoulder and dribble with either hand makes him an unpredictable threat. Here’s a sampling of his exhibition post play, including a nice spin move, baby hook and even a Dirk-leg fadeaway. His game is eerily reminiscent of Boris Diaw:

 

While he won’t be an electrifying slashing weapon, his dexterity and vision will still put teammates in good position. Here’s a glimpse of his drive-and-dish timing and poise:

 

Saric could potentially multiply his offensive impact by consistently drilling outside jumpers. He hit just 5-of-16 (31 percent) from distance during preseason, so the jury is still out on how efficient he’ll be this year.

He shot 41 percent from the international arc last year, so there’s a chance he could quickly adapt and shoot 35 percent or better from NBA range. Saric is comfortable on catch-and-shoot plays as well as dribble pull-up jumpers.

Saric’s form is fundamentally sound and repeatable, with good footwork setting him up for success. He puts less arc on his shot than most shooters, but his release is smooth:

 

Thanks to his toughness, Saric will also scrounge up sporadic buckets via the offensive glass. But those opportunities will be limited because he’s not vertically explosive or particularly lengthy (6’10” wingspan).

Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor will get the lion’s share of touches on offense, but Saric will be Philly’s third-leading scorer and secondary creator. He’ll mesh well with point guards T.J. McConnell and Sergio Rodriguez. His numbers won’t be eye-popping, but rock solid for a rookie: 25-27 minutes, 9-11 points, 4-5 rebounds, 1-2 assists, 47 percent shooting and 34 percent on three-pointers.

Defensive and rebounding outlook

The pros and cons to Saric’s defensive skills are crystal clear. Brown can count on him for intensity, physicality, terrific timing and smart rotations. He cannot count on him for speedy isolation defense or above-the-rim acrobatics.

Saric was a tough defender in Europe, guarding 3s, 4s and sometimes 5s. But just like the offensive end, his defensive transition to the NBA will be tricky. He’s not quick enough to guard most NBA wings, and several of the speedier power forwards will give him trouble.

That being said, he won’t be a total liability if he’s switched out onto guards. He moves his feet well, doesn’t give up on plays and earnestly contests shots.

To be clear, the following clip isn’t proof that Saric is an interchangeable defensive wizard. It merely shows that opponents won’t walk all over him. He did a great job sticking with Kyrie Irving, not falling for jukes and contesting the shot (even though it went in):

 

In the paint, Saric’s 6’10” wingspan and short reach will surrender a bunch of buckets to athletic bigs with 7’2″ wingspans. Depending on the matchup, Brown will likely try to avoid putting Saric on opposing centers. He should be able to hold his own against power forwards, though.

The lack of length will also limit his defensive rebounding production. He could work hard and grab 4-6 boards in 25-plus minutes this season, but don’t expect much more than that. There are a slew of high-flying athletes ready to take rebounds away from him.

The two things Saric has going for him are timing and toughness. He battles for position, stays focused and has great instincts as a help defender. In the Olympics, he proved he can protect the rim from the weak side when he gets a running start; just ask Pau Gasol. Saric only recorded two blocks in preseason play, but he prevented several shots and redirected some when opportunities arose.

If Saric remains disciplined and isn’t caught in too many mismatches, he’ll be a respectable rookie defender. He might not be a plus-defender, but he could hold serve, so to speak. Factor in his offensive contributions, and he’ll post one of Philly’s best net ratings this season.

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