The Philadelphia 76ers officially announced the signing of 22-year old Croatian forward Dario Saric on Friday. As of today, the details of Saric’s contract were not disclosed.
“Our 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 last few years” said Sixers President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo on Friday. “His game has really advanced to a level where we are excited to see where hit fits.”
Saric was originally selected 10th overall in the 2014 Draft by the Orlando Magic only to be traded shortly after to Philadelphia in exchange for point guard Elfrid Payton and future draft selections. Although Saric is still under contract for another year Anadolu Efes, a Euroleague team based in Turkey, there is a buyout clause in his contract that allows him to leave for the United States and play in the NBA. Recently, he told a Croatian website that “I have 1 more year with Efes & Perasovic [the head coach] wants me to stay, but I gave them [the Sixers] my word. My word means more than a paper.
Saric will wear the number nine on his jersey.
“But also just as a young man, you’re talking about a mature young man at 22 who’s been through a lot. That’s going to bode well in terms of his transition to the NBA. But also his integrity [is impressive]. He told us he was going to come here in two years, and he told us that within the past few weeks” Colangelo said.
“It’s hard to talk about myself, but I think I can do a lot of thing good,” Saric said of his game on Friday. “I can shoot pretty good, I can dribble the ball for my size pretty good. If there’s a slower player [guarding me] I can use my speed, and if there’s a smaller player I can post him up. I can do a lot of things”
Saric has played the last two seasons in Euroleague, the highest level of professional basketball in Europe. Most aspects of his play have steadily improved and he has received the recognition to back up claims of being a very talented prospect. His most recent accomplishment was being named MVP of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament last week, culminated by an 18-point, 13-rebound effort in the clinching game against Italy. In the tournament he averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists per contest.
So now the question remains; how does Saric fit into the Sixers’ roster?
Saric is a versatile offensive player that can handle the ball and has a knack for finding open teammates with his passes. If this sounds familiar, it should. Saric plays a similar game – and position – to that of Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s newest rookie selected first overall in this year’s draft. Both players are strong and athletic enough to play beneath the basket but posses very strong ball-handling skills in the mold of a “point-forward” (that is, a forward who can bring the ball up the court and initiate offense, as opposed to a traditional point guard). Some might wonder how these two players can co-exist, especially with an already crowded front-court consisting of players like Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor.
Saric does not share those concerns.
“I think we have similar skills” Saric said of himself and Simmons playing together. “On the court, it doesn’t matter [which position I play]. If you have five players who can run and who can fit [with] each other on the court, it doesn’t matter which position you play. It matters how you play and help each other on the court.”
Unlike the group of giants that will become his teammates, Saric has shown the ability to make jump-shots. While shooting was not considered a strength when Saric was drafted in 2014, his major shooting percentages (2 point shots, 3 point shots, and free throws) have increased in each of his three seasons with Efes. He’s not Steph Curry or Kevin Durant, but he has the look of a capable shooter at the NBA level. Even though his per-game averages don’t jump off the page, Saric has shown considerable growth as a player in terms of efficiency and versatility.
In the recent Olympic qualifying tournament, Saric showed an ability to shoot in a variety of ways; catch and shoot, off the dribble, posting up, and driving to the basket. Still, he isn’t the most explosive athlete and his touch around the rim isn’t great, so how well he can score in isolation sets remains to be seen. While he can be dangerous attacking the basket, Saric’s best trait on offense is undoubtedly his tremendous passing instincts. He definitely isn’t afraid to put some flash behind his feeds. Saric definitely has flash and style to his game and although he isn’t one to showboat, he has the confidence to back up his game.
“I’m not a guy who will trash talk, but if someone talks to me I know what to say in response” Saric said on Friday.
As much as Saric shines on offense, his defense is still a work in progress. Physically, he has the tools to grab rebounds and defend players comparable to himself in size. Listed at 6’10”, 225 pounds, Saric is a good athlete who can move up and down the floor in transition. He is a smart team defender on rotations and switches, and certainly isn’t lazy on defense. But he struggles moving side-to-side against quicker, smaller guards as well as holding his ground against bigger, stronger players in the post. Again, his athleticism isn’t the greatest so you won’t see him getting up to block many shots other than against shorter players.
His upside on this side of the ball is decidedly limited, although not for lack of effort. Against Greece in the Olympic Qualifying semi-finals, Saric spent a lot of time guarding Milwaukee Bucks’ forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and managed to hold the wiry Greek-Freak to just 9 points on 3 for 14 shooting. With shot blocking presences behind him and an NBA level coaching staff, there isn’t much reason to think that Saric will be a liability on defense.
Logistically Saric is a good fit for the modern NBA, especially on a team so bereft of legitimate talent like the Sixers have been for the past three seasons. Assuming that he is in the starting lineup defenders will have to respect his outside shooting, opening more space for Ben Simmons to attack the basket and operate as the primary ball handler. Without the ball in his hands, Saric’s strong instincts as a cutter mean he should be catching a lot of passes from Simmons as well. He is active and smart as an off-ball player, a crucial skill to find scoring opportunities. If Saric is relegated to a role coming off the bench, his offensive skills should shine even more against lesser second units of opposing teams.
Saric’s passing will benefit everyone, especially a player like Noel who primarily excels cutting to the basket and catching alley-oops. He works well in the pick and roll as a ball handler, and could be used as an effective screener as well. His weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball can be masked by assigning him to guard lesser offensive players, as well as the overall length and shot blocking ability that the Sixers have on their roster.
Obviously it will be hard to know who Saric is as a person until he begins to play here and we get to know him. But based on his brief interactions with the media thus far, Saric seems to be highly grounded and understanding of the work that lies ahead of him.
“You have players who in their first NBA season show something big. And you have other players who fight and after a couple of years they reach something special. You cannot compare me with someone else” Saric told reporters.
It is also worth noting that he’s giving up a considerable amount of money by signing with Philadelphia this year. His contract will be subject to the rookie pay-scale, meaning that he is limited in how much money he can earn. Had Saric waited one more season to come here, he wouldn’t be subject to any such restriction. But Saric seems eager to show what he can do.
Saric seems ready to make a name for himself in the NBA. He possesses a skill set tailor-made for the pace-and-space style that the league finds itself in. Not only does he appear ready for a higher level of competition, but he is actively choosing a challenge over a fair amount of guaranteed money. His arrival in Philadelphia is timely; both for the talent boost that he provides the team and for the monetary gains he is willing to forgo in order to play here. Sixers fans (and basketball fans in general) should be excited to see what he can do.