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October 26, 2018

Sixers mailbag: Should Dario Saric be a fixture in Philadelphia's long-term plan?

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102618-DarioSaric-USAToday Jeff Hanisch/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers forward Dario Saric (9) looks to shoot around Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) during the second quarter at Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center.

The Sixers have finally given us some real basketball to talk about, and the opening of the season can only mean one thing: the return of the mailbag is upon us. You have burning questions about Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid and the rest of the gang, and I'm here to give you the best answers I can give throughout the season.

This year, we're going to lock in on a question and answer article that will be available for you every Friday during the season, alternating between detailed mailbags like these and rapid-fire live chats where you can pepper me with questions while you're eating lunch and waiting to get out of the office. Next Friday will be the first live chat of the season and the first I've actually done for PhillyVoice, so if new questions pop up between now and next week, prepare to fire away then.

As for this week, the team's 2-3 start has provided us with plenty to debate already. Let's start with a question that's pressing in both the short and long term, and we'll work our way through from there.

It's sort of impossible to know whether Saric's 2017-18 campaign is an outlier or not, specifically at the three-point line. With the volume he had from beyond the arc last season — 399 total attempts or 5.1 per night — it's hard to just dismiss the season altogether. "Outlier" is not the right word, even if he comes down a bit from the 39.3 percent mark he hit in 2017-18.

But it's entirely possible that slight regression and adjustments to how teams play the Sixers will make it hard for him to be a key contributor in Philadelphia. And for those reasons, he has always (and will continue to be) a prime candidate to be traded in the not-so-distant future.

Many of the skills that made Saric a valuable prospect have been muted in the setup the Sixers have. They don't need him to do point-forward things when they have Ben Simmons running the show, they don't want him posting up as much as Joel Embiid, and the best thing he can bring to the offense is floor spacing on top of the nitty-gritty plays he tends to make fighting for rebounds.

They are right to turn him into more of a role player than his more talented teammates, but in doing so, his individual value takes a hit. And while he's savvy enough to make it work, there is a considerable downside with Saric both on this team and in the new-look NBA generally.

Saric may compete hard, but he's an easily-attacked link in the defensive chain, particularly in slower, grinding matchups in the playoffs. Teams hunt switches in the postseason, and Saric will be a perpetual target against the more athletic teams they face in the postseason. It doesn't help his case that the Sixers have natural fits to slide up in the defensive rotation in Simmons and Robert Covington.

This is all before mentioning his future payday, which is coming sooner rather than later. The Sixers will likely lock up Simmons on a huge extension next October, leaving Saric to restricted free agency in the summer of 2020. The time to move him is before he gets close to that period, so another team can get him in their system to evaluate before committing big money to him.

The downer here? I'm not sure how much value Saric has on his own. He's a nice piece but feels like more of a luxury player with the league going smaller and more athletic. He's an odd player to gauge the market for, because any team acquiring him will have the same questions about his place in the league hierarchy the Sixers would.

I would be chasing as many athletes as I could if I were in charge of the Sixers, so Saric would absolutely be on the table. I suspect they'll certainly entertain the thought.

I don't think his basement is that much lower than what we're seeing right now. Maybe he totally falls apart with his jumper again and we see him revert to last year's tragic results, but there seems to be a bit more of a stable baseline after the summer of work.

Projecting a ceiling is damn-near impossible, because the questions Fultz has to answer aren't as simple as an evaluation of basketball skill. As I've pointed out repeatedly, the problems aren't exclusively the results and are more often the refusal to even attempt shots and plays he should. This is despite thousands of people having seen him play in college and summer league, where his scorer's mentality was everpresent through tough results.

I have never seen that sort of thing disappear in basketball. Most guys who enter the league that way have a tough time shaking that habit even when it's to their detriment — players with bad shot selection early often carry it late into their careers, or flame it altogether because their confidence outstrips their ability.

There's no basketball history to draw from on this. What I will say is that if the high ceiling many (including myself) thought was there last June was still present, we likely would have seen it flash in some form by now. Draftees from the 2018 class — guys like Trae Young and Luka Doncic — have already made big-time flashes in the first two weeks of their careers. Even players who were panned for their issues last year like LA's Lonzo Ball had moments of brilliance along the way; Ball put up a 29-11-9 game late last October, and was an above-average defender pretty much right away last season.

I wouldn't put Fultz's season-ending triple-double last year in that category, and while he has had less time to get his feet under him than many peers in the 2017 class, there has been zero evidence at the NBA level to suggest there's a realistic path to stardom. He hasn't been able to effectively use his athleticism at this level, is lost on defense, and has all the offensive warts we've discussed to death.

I'll let his ceiling materialize on its own time. Right now, it doesn't look super promising, but no one thought we'd be where we are today, either.

My prediction prior to the season was that the Sixers will trade McConnell before the year is up. Granted, this was before we saw Brown sort of shoehorning him into lineups and playing him both on and off the ball — which he said he wasn't planning on doing when he spoke before the season.

But I'll stick to my guns on this one and say yes. Only been five games, after all.

Korkmaz would have to start offering almost anything of value to prove he deserves time on an NBA floor. His Summer League outburst notwithstanding, he has offered almost nothing in meaningful basketball games.

If the argument is that he needs meaningful minutes to show he can do something with them, I don't know that his play in garbage time has shown he's worthy of them, and we don't get to see most of what he offers in a practice setting. His ability to shoot and put it on the floor is completely theoretical right now, and Landry Shamet showed more in four preseason games than Korkmaz did in over a year in Philly. That's kind of telling.

He is currently the owner of a 1.8 PER. An "average" player is typically around 15. He has no natural defensive position with the amount of weight he gives up, has fouled too often in limited minutes, and hasn't been helpful on offense, where has the clearest path to contributing.

But besides that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

I think this is a much more complicated topic than it's given credit for. As one example: there was an extended debate between media members about the role unconscious racial bias plays in how different Sixers players are received this week (and if you're inclined to open that can of worms, you can check out the back and forth here.)

To start with, I think there's a certain divide between the pro-Process people and anti-Process people, and Covington is an easy avatar for that divide. The fans who watched him turn from nothing more than a volume three-point shooter to a valuable team defender and important cog don't like hearing him criticized, while those who hated the rebuild see him as a limitation of the rebuilding process they went through, out of his depth and overrated.

I'm more pro-Covington than anti-Covington, but I can understand why people on both sides would overreact on some level. At his best he's a terror in passing lanes and a piece of an elite defense, and at his worst he can be blown by and look unremarkable. The truth is, that's a dynamic for many good role players around the league, and fans who only watch their team in any sport fall victim to thinking it's only true for their role players.

And for whatever it's worth, I do think there are unconscious biases that impact how fans treat different players. Covington plays and works as hard as anybody on the team, but he had a much shorter rope than some of his peers even before he got paid. Some boo him on the very first shot he takes at the Wells Fargo Center if it doesn't drop, even if it's wide open. That's not all attributable to people just thinking he's overrated or takes tough shots sometimes, and I'll leave it at that. 

The Sixers aren't playing their current starting lineup because it's working well. By the numbers, the starting five with Fultz has been bad at a catastrophic level, most of which comes down to the predictable problem they've had trying to space the floor around anything Embiid and Simmons want to do in the paint.

It's the defensive end, though, that really drives home what a struggle it has been to incorporate Fultz at the expense of Redick. I mentioned this in my recap of the Bucks loss, but the Sixers go from a team with a -34 NETRTG to a +6.9 by simply replacing Fultz with Redick. I doubt that would hold up to that extreme level over a longer period of time, but for the moment it's a pretty accurate reflection of all the problems they're having.

What I would like to see some more of, particularly if Saric continues to struggle, is a Fultz-Redick-Covington-Simmons-Embiid lineup. I think the shooting versatility of Redick is a better bet to balance the lineup and spread the floor than Saric, and I think that look is much more suited for where the league is at. Brown has only very briefly tried this grouping but if they're committed to developing Fultz they might have to try this sooner rather than later.

As for comfort, Redick has been so good and so important to the Sixers as a bench weapon so far this season that I don't think it's really up for debate that he's comfortable in whatever role he's asked to play. He knows he's still going to play major minutes and in crunch time, and I don't think it goes much deeper than that. 

I dove into this a bit in the write-up following the Bucks game. You can read a few thoughts on the problems there if you wish, but in short: they've added a bad defender to the lineup, lack lineup versatility, and have struggled to cope with Embiid being dragged out to the three-point line.

I'll skip the prediction game for a 20-point outing, but I would bang the under hard here. There has been nothing to suggest Fultz is capable of producing a 30-point game this year, and the longer the Sixers struggle with him in the lineup the harder it will be for him to play enough minutes to produce high-volume numbers.

Stranger things have happened — Corey Brewer once dropped 50, after all — but seeing is believing for me. Go out there and prove me (and plenty of other people) wrong, kid.

I would argue this is already happening. Fultz has been horrific at times, and a lot of coaches in Brown's position — under more pressure than ever after a 50+ win season and a stated season goal of making the NBA Finals — would not keep going back to him or start him in the first place. Important as his development and the discovery of his value is for the Sixers, the Sixers have lineups that work just fine without him and could fall back on that whenever they choose.

Forces larger than Brown are at work here, so I don't think it's strictly, 100 percent his decision to start Fultz. The front office may have lost Bryan Colangelo, but the remaining group has a ton riding on this kid in their own right. He has been and will be given his chance to succeed, and it's up for him to take it. 

Definitely not. I don't think the catch radius is there, and his ability to separate on the outside would definitely be in question. Given how meticulous he is about his craft as a shooter, though, I could see him being one of those obnoxious-to-cover slot guys who never bust off big gains but somehow always find a way to get open because of how good their route-running is.


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