Sixers fans are quietly optimistic these days, which is not something you would expect after a 10-win season. Nonetheless, there are several good reasons to expect improvement in Philadelphia, including the arrival of Croatian forward Dario Saric.
Saric distinguished himself at the recent Olympics, leading Croatia to a fifth place finish overall. He was the hero of a 72-70 victory over Spain in which he blocked Pau Gasol’s attempt to tie the game at the buzzer. In some ways, he is Croatia’s next great basketball hope as he heads to the NBA. Aside from 2015 draftee Mario Hezonja of the Magic, the nation hasn’t boasted many players of consequence in recent years.
The incoming players appear to have given Philadelphia coach Brett Brown a new lease on life. In a recent press conference, he said: “I’m really, really, really excited to watch Dario play alongside the team we have in place.” Brown also called the offseason shuffle a “reset button” for the direction of the franchise. Building for the future is a noble goal, but eventually everyone wants to see potential show itself in the present.
Heading stateside at age 22, Saric represents an intriguing blend of youth and experience. According to Saric: “I wanted to play against the best players in the best league in the world to see what I can do.”
Why is such a downtrodden fan base so full of anticipation? The arrival of Ben Simmons is an obvious reason, but don’t sleep on Saric. According to teammate Roko Ukic, “He can bring so much different stuff to the table.” That’s not simply a friendly compliment, either.
Saric actually possesses some skills that remind you of Simmons himself. Despite his height of 6’10” and a lack of extreme quickness, he can handle the ball like a point guard. In fact, Saric might be a logical backup for the recent #1 overall pick. The duo might also be able to coexist on the floor if Saric is confident shooting NBA threes. Simmons looked hesitant to fire away in Summer League, but he could open up the perimeter game for Saric.
Some scouts believe that Saric’s three-point shot is a work in progress, but it can become a weapon especially if it makes him a stretch-four. He did make about 40% last year, albeit in low volume. Golden State may be able to roll out full lineups that can shoot from the perimeter, but Philadelphia has not employed someone with good range at the 4 position in quite some time. Saric needs to do better in spot-up shooting chances, but he does well finding open space and cutting to finish at the hoop.
Part of the fun in projecting his role is thinking about how many different lineups the Sixers could have at their disposal, and Saric certainly factors into that discussion.
Saric may never turn into an All-Star at the NBA level, but he’s also unlikely to become a bust. His seasoning in Europe has made him readier for the big time than he would have been two years ago upon being drafted by Orlando. The Magic later dealt his rights to Philadelphia in a trade for Elfrid Payton.
Saric often plays facing the basket, but he does have a post game to complement his outside shooting. The bigger worry is whether he can guard NBA power forwards. In international play, some opposing big men have been able to bully their way past Saric on their way to the hoop. Saric did distinguish himself on the boards, grabbing over 8 rebounds per 36 minutes last season.
Saric began his professional career back in 2011-12 with KK Zagreb in Croatia’s capital. In 2013 he began playing for KK Cibona, another team in Zagreb. For the last two seasons, he was a member of Anadolu Efes in Istanbul, Turkey. By most accounts, he was underutilized by coach Dusan Ivkovic, which may have led to some bad habits. Frustration with an inconsistent role might explain his drop in assists per game from 2014-15 to 2015-16. In any case, Saric became good friends with teammate Furkan Korkmaz, a sharpshooting small forward. Interestingly, they may end up together again in future seasons because Korkmaz was selected by Philadelphia in this summer’s draft. However, Korkmaz will remain in Turkey for at least another year.
While the 76ers could still end up in the basement of the Atlantic Division, their roster should be more fun to watch. Effort is never an issue with Saric, who should occupy a role of some significance this coming season. The Croatian will make Philadelphia less predictable offensively and his passing ability figures to be a legitimate asset from the start.
Saric has proven he can rise to the occasion and was named MVP of the tournament in which Croatia qualified for Olympic play. President of Basketball Operations Bryan Colangelo seems almost as excited as Brown to watch his new import. As Colangelo put it, “Our basketball team stands to benefit from both the on-court development and physical maturation of Dario as a professional player in Croatia and Turkey over the past few years.”
photo via llananba