November 03, 2017
A Rookie of the Year candidate from last season is building off a brilliant start and looking like a franchise player. That's Joel Embiid. A Rookie of the Year candidate this season is head and shoulders above his peers, drawing comparisons to Oscar Robertson. That's Ben Simmons.
There's another one of those guys lurking in the Sixers' rotation, but he's struggling to find his way with the new-look Sixers. That's Dario Saric.
We've come a long way from making jokes about when Saric is coming over, but his struggles have gone a little under the radar during the team's hot start. Saric's numbers are down almost universally. His coach has tried a bunch of different things to try to get him going, and early on nothing was working.
Some of that comes down to a simple reality: Saric has to make three-point shots in order to be effective. The Sixers are running a lot of their offense through Embiid in the post, and putting the ball in the hands of Simmons, who still is a long way from being a shooter. Because of that, there is a desperate need for all the other Sixers, Saric included, to be reliable shooters when their number is called.
A lot of these shots won't have a high degree of difficulty. The attention drawn by Simmons and Embiid is significant and frees up acres of space for their teammates roving on the perimeter. Stepping into the starting lineup against Dallas on Oct. 28, Saric was able to make the Mavericks pay for giving him extra space, hitting four of his seven attempts from deep.
His coach knows shots like these are the key for him.
"I feel that his true impact will be greatest felt with his three-point shot," said Brown at a practice prior to the Dallas breakout. "He comes in and we get how tough he is, and he's learned how to take his level of athleticism and maneuver inside ... I think that he can rebound and lead a break, he has guard-type skills. But his real ability to make a difference is going to be that, can you stretch the floor?"
Brown is happy to mention that there have been improvements to Saric's shot on a mechanical level. Six inches of arc have been added to Saric's stroke, and small details like his elbow placement and follow-through are trending in the right direction. Those details weren't connected to any results in the early part of Philadelphia's schedule; in seven games during the month of October, he was shooting a paltry 35.6 percent from the field, driven by his sub-par 33.3 mark from three.
Maybe you're seeing now why his coach wasn't panicking, and why he made the choice to thrust a struggling player into a starter's role. Saric has been sensational as a shooter in November, knocking down 41.2 percent of his threes on nearly six attempts per game. Even that number sells his production a little short; Saric was at 48.3 percent on threes in November prior to an 0-5 night against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday. That's not just an improvement, it's elite-level production, and it has a gigantic impact on the offense around him.
Based on numbers collected prior to the games on November 14, the Sixers' current starting lineup of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid is the best five-man unit in the league. With a NETRTG of 29.6, they are far and away the best group by the numbers, with the usual sample size caveats attached.*
*This lineup data included only five-man groups that have played at least 50 minutes together. There are 51 groups leaguewide to have done so.
It's important to note that with the way Embiid, Simmons, and Covington are playing, you could put a ton of guys in those other two spots and look like a dominant unit. That said, Saric is currently part of the best unit in the league no matter how you slice it.
The obvious benefit of moving Saric to the starting lineup is having him spend more time on the court alongside Simmons. Simmons' ability to push the pace in transition has opened up easy looks for trailing shooters in transition, something you'd expect to benefit the likes of Robert Covington and JJ Redick. But Saric has gotten into the act himself lately, providing Simmons with an outlet at the top of the perimeter.
That above-the-break three is quickly becoming Saric's bread-and-butter shot. According to data provided by NBA.com, 49 of his 121 total shot attempts this season have come from that area, and he's connecting on almost 37 percent of those. It's already an improvement from last season, when he shot 30.6 percent from the same shooting zone, and it's truthfully the only area we have enough data to look at on his shot.
It makes complete sense that he's getting lots of looks above the break when you think about the team construction. Covington and Redick occupy the wings, Embiid holds down the paint, and Simmons is in perpetual motion, probing for cracks in the defense. That leaves the top of the key for Saric (or another shooter) to slide into.
Saric has to connect on these shots, because he's a much more dangerous player when defenses treat him like a credible threat from outside. A major part of Saric's appeal comes from his multi-faceted package of skills, and it's easier for him to utilize those and shed athleticism concerns if he hits shots.
He had his best game of the season against the Utah Jazz, hitting five threes en route to 25 points. The more shots he made against Utah, the more they began to respect him, which opened up lanes for cutters and gave him a chance to show off the passing gift we all know he has.
When Saric is able to get his defender to commit to defending the three-point line, he uses the extra attention against his defender. He's a smart cutter rather than an explosive cutter, and needs to plant those seeds of doubt in his opponent in order to create the separation needed to attempt shots in the paint.
Those inches of separation may seem minuscule in that cut away from Ryan Anderson, but they are critical. Saric has been horrific in the restricted area this season, making only 33 percent of his shots there, as compared to making 55 percent of his looks there last season.
What's more, 70 percent of the shots he's made there have been assisted (vs. 54 percent last year), which spells out his predicament pretty clearly. Saric is not going to be able to create high-percentage looks for himself at the rim, and that adds pressure for him to make shots elsewhere. It's always been a limitation of his due to his athleticism and style of play, and it's exacerbated this year by extra defenders sagging toward the paint in lineups where he plays with Simmons. Help defense looms over his attempts inside more than ever.
Saying, "He needs to make threes" is fairly true of any NBA player fighting for a role in 2017, but Saric's usefulness is predicated on his shooting rhythm and confidence more than a lot of his peers. The decision to keep going to Saric in the face of poor results was a direct acknowledgment of that fact by Brett Brown.
It's a piece of his overlying coaching philosophy to let young players learn through experience and failure, but even as the pressure to win has grown, Brown continues to let Saric play through ups and downs. Against the Clippers, Saric was providing very little value outside of the bulk he offered in the post against Blake Griffin. With his shot failing him, Saric was tentative about shooting in the second half, which played a part in Philadelphia squandering a good-sized lead.
This is a common sight when Saric can't get himself going early, and was too common when he was coming off the bench.
Yet there he was against the Clippers, in the lineup during the guts of the game and making Griffin fight for every inch of real estate. And when he was called upon to make a play on offense, he rewarded his coach's faith with a crucial assist to Robert Covington, a play that put them ahead for good.
That makes for a great story, the plucky fan favorite who shook off a bad game and came up big down the stretch. The only problem is the day is fast approaching when Brown will not have the same ability to let Saric play through his slumps. Markelle Fultz is going to have a domino effect on the rotation, and (I assume) Covington will eventually slide into the four spot during crunch time.
Regardless of whether he's in the starting lineup or asked to spark the Sixers from the bench, the conversation with Saric starts and ends with his shot. If he can settle his percentage into the upper-30's from downtown, or with any luck, the low 40's, the base of an impactful player is there. The Sixers dominate teams on the glass in the ultra-big lineups they're employing with Saric alongside Simmons and Embiid, and Brown would love to be able to have his guys impose their will on teams trending down in size.
For that to be an option, Saric has to punish teams for leaving him open at the three-point line. He has begun to do so from one area of the court, but extending that from corner to corner could be the difference between being a key contributor and just a situation player moving forward.