January 19, 2017
Nobody will confuse Dario Saric for Joel Embiid or Nerlens Noel in terms of rim protection, but as we saw in the Olympics (sorry, Pau), the 22-year-old forward certainly can time up a weak-side block once in a while. And when Saric met the ground-bound Jared Sullinger at the rim and denied his dunk attempt in Wednesday night's 94-89 victory over the Raptors, the Wells Fargo Center was rocking.
So were his teammates. Noel roared in approval. Gerald Henderson shoved him in the chest incredulously, a la Elaine Benes. And nobody in the entire building enjoyed the play more than Embiid, who leapt from his customary resting positon on the baseline and jumped for joy.
“They said he was never coming back,” the President of The Process said (and later tweeted) with a smile, referring to Saric’s overseas obligations. “But Dario’s here and he’s making big plays for us.”
As always, Embiid was the story on a night the Sixers again ratcheted up the defense, holding the NBA’s best offense coming in (yep, even better than that juggernaut in the Bay Area) to a measly 89 points. But outside of his usual all-around brilliance, no play registered more than Saric successfully contesting two straight Raptors dunk attempts on one important fourth-quarter possession.
Saric is a limited player in a few ways, but it sure helps that he consistently plays with maximum effort. Šibenik, Croatia is a long ways away from Philadelphia, but on nights like Wednesday, it sure feels that he ended up in the right city.
“There is an appeal, I feel, he has developed from our fans,” Brett Brown said. “They respect him. How can you not? He’s so blue collar. And I think the plays that he makes, the effort-based plays, the physical plays, just count for everything. They helped turn this game.”
Particularly for a home crowd, that type of consistent energy from a player can prove infectious. On a night when the Sixers won their seventh game in the last nine, Saric hustled his way to eight points, nine rebounds, and of course, those two blocks. But his impact felt greater than what the box score would tell you.
For someone who is still learning the language — Brown yelled at Saric to “f#@$!^& move” on a slow-developing offensive possession at one point — a motor that doesn’t stop can speak volumes.
“Sometimes games give you open shots, sometimes games give you situations where you can do nothing,” Saric said. “I tried to come there and bring some energy, tried to change the game in that way.”
Unlike Embiid, Saric’s transition to the NBA game hasn’t been all smooth sailing. While his 35.8 percent three-point shooting is encouraging, he has frankly found trouble adjusting to the athleticism in the NBA. In particular, Saric has struggled finishing around the rim.
It’s worth pointing out that the circumstances haven’t been perfect for the rookie. The addition of Ersan Ilyasova as well as the twin tower lineups Brown experimented with at times this year have forced Saric to both play out of position at small forward and primarily off the bench (which of course means missing out on time with the team’s best player, Embiid).
“There is an appeal, I feel, he has developed from our fans. They respect him. How can you not? He’s so blue collar. And I think the plays that he makes, the effort-based plays, the physical plays, just count for everything."
“Of course it would be a little bit easier to play [in the starting lineup], that’s for sure” Saric said. “But I’m happy in my role. I don’t know, it’s on coach to decide whether he’ll play me on 3 or 4.”
To become a rotation player on the type of team the Sixers hope they can be in a few years, there are a few areas of Saric’s game that need to be tightened up. But in a disappointing class, the 12th overall pick from the 2014 NBA Draft ranked 3rd on the latest NBA.com rookie ladder.
“If Joel Embiid weren’t in the league, you’d have to talk about him in consideration for rookie of the year,” Brown said. “Like we should really look at what he’s doing as a rookie.”
Embiid is in the league and in a league of his own, which is the reason that the Sixers are rolling. But even as he tries to adjust to the highest level, Saric already brings a level of toughness that both his teammates and fan base appreciate.
Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann