Dario Saric

It’s impossible to dislike Dario Saric. Seriously, try to think of reasons to dislike the Croatian. It’s impossible. People questioned whether he’d come over for this season or not. Drafted in 2014, Saric still had years left on his Turkey league contract. Like international players before, Saric could have stayed overseas for another season to renegotiate a contract to make more money. True to his word, Saric opted against staying overseas for another season. He’s the only 76er to play every game this season, and because Joel Embiid will play only 31 games this season Saric has a chance to win rookie of the year. Saric and T.J. McConnell formed the saying “trust the friendship,” because McConnell angered Dario by pouring cold water on his head following a win at Brooklyn. Mostly Dario cares about playing hard, making the right play and winning. Again, it’s impossible to dislike Dario Saric.

It didn’t click right away for Saric. It rarely does for players entering their debut NBA seasons. With Ben Simmons sidelined, Philly opened the season with Saric starting at power forward. He had a tough debut, missing 10 of his 12 attempts. It got better offensively as he poured in 21 points in a last-second loss to Orlando three games into the season. But it was going to take time for Saric to figure out the NBA. Not just the speed of the opponents, but Saric plays with his instincts. He has a feel for the game that few players possess, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch Saric play basketball. Players play basketball for an assortment of reasons. Not everyone grew up obsessing over the game. Not everyone had a hoop in their driveway. It wasn’t a way of life for some players, but basketball is a way of life for Saric, and it’s evident every time he touches the floor. He loves basketball. He was born to play it. The wrap around pass to Justin Anderson that won Philadelphia the game against New York, the behind the head pass to Jahlil Okafor against the Sacramento Kings, the not one but two blocks against the Raptors. He makes winning plays, and it’s not always because he’s the most talented or most athletic; it’s because he knows how to play. Saric needed time to adjust, not just to a new league but to new teammates. And conversely his teammates needed time to adjust to Saric, because Saric sees things other players simply do not see. Take his pass to Okafor.

Every now and then I re-watch this pass that eventually led to a Nik Stauskas three. Dario will probably make this pass dozens of more time during his career. There’s something magical about a pass in basketball.  A well-timed bounce pass to a player who didn’t appear open a second ago, a Kevin Love full-court outlet pass that hits a streaking LeBron James right in the numbers, a no-look dime that not only confuses the defense but the man who somehow caught the ball. One of the greatest players in NBA history was given the nickname Magic long ago. A big man, Nikola Jokic, quoted Magic Johnson last month. “Passing makes two people happy. Scoring only makes one person happy.” It’s a wise thing for Jokic to say, and even though it wasn’t Dario who said the Magic Johnson quote, I felt appropriate to include it while discussing Dario’s impact on the basketball court. Philly forced a Sacramento miss with 8:40 left in the fourth quarter. Saric began the play with a one-handed pass ahead to McConnell near half court. Philly led by two points when McConnell passed to the trailing Saric. Saric noticed Okafor before Jahlil dived inside. You could tell Saric was making that pass, but he needed to draw in more King defenders. The Kings had three players in the paint, so it wasn’t a clear path for Okafor to score a hoop. He wisely gathered himself and found an open Stauskas for a dagger.

It’s refreshing watching Dario play basketball. He’s full of energy, full of life. He plays every game like a college walk-on practices. He’ll learn the different NBA nuances as he continues to grow as a player, but everything’s there. He’s actually better than imagined. During the dark days of a 10-win 2015 campaign, it felt like the team trended backwards. Too many questions surrounded the 76ers at the tail end of last season. Will Embiid actually play? Will Dario actually come over? What if the Lakers pick doesn’t convey, and Philly doesn’t even win the lottery? The stance on Dario coming over seemed to flip every single day, but Dario was animated from the beginning, saying it was basically a guarantee he’d be over this season. But even when over a thousand people watched a live stream of Dario arriving in Philadelphia, it was possible to question whether Dario would even make an impact. Sure, he blocked Pau Gasol in the 2016 Olympics. He not once but twice won FIBA Europe Young Men’s Player of the Year. But Jonas Valanciunas won that twice, and Ricky Rubio won that three times, and neither has established a larger NBA role than a fringe stater. Dario feels destined for better things than Rubio and Valanciunas.

Dario did a recent interview with a popular Croatian newspaper. tabslabblue over on r/sixers did a service to all for translating the interview. It’s a joy to read Saric explain his rookie season, his teammates and getting better. Dario said great things about Embiid.

First of all, we lost our best offensive and defensive player, Joel Embiid. He is the future of the NBA and I am sorry he wasn’t part of the NBA All Star game this year already. He deserve it. I feel sad because of what happened to him because two of us clicked in the court and outside of the court, we are good friends. I took more important role now without him, but honestly, I would be happier if he’s healthy, playing, wins ROY and we winning more games.

Embiid and Saric began the season starting together, but once Philly traded for Ersan Ilyasova in the first month of the season Dario went to the bench. But Dario and Joel were dynamic on the court together. In November when Dario and Joel played together the 76ers only outscored opponents by 0.8 points per possession. In January the duo played 81 minutes together and had a net rating of 23.4. Before Embiid went down, the 76ers were building something incredible with the two rookies. Dario’s success paved way for Philly to trade Ilyasova months after acquiring him. Power forward was Dario’s position now.

Ilyasova helped Dario adjust to the NBA. Ilyasova entered the NBA out of Turkey years ago. He knows what it’s like to be away from home.

They trade Ersan to make more room for me and that’s why this month is maybe the most important month in my whole career. I got a good friend in Ilyasova, and a mentor. We talked a lot, he help my transition goes more smoothly and I am very thankful for that.

Ilyasova was set to be a free agent this summer. It didn’t make sense to keep him. But it also didn’t make sense to keep him because Saric found himself. And it was time for head coach Brett Brown to let Dario be the focal point of the offense with Simmons and Embiid sidelined.

The next six weeks will be painfully difficult for Philly fans. It might not be 10-win bad, but it’ll be hard to watch Philly play without Embiid, Ilyasova, Simmons and Nerlens Noel. But Dario really has a chance to grow as a player. Over the past 12 games, only five players are averaging at least 18 points, eight rebounds and 3.5 assists per game: LeBron James, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook and Dario Saric. This season might be a wash for the 76ers, but at least they have something special in The Homie.

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