The 2014 NBA Draft left many Sixers fans at odds with each other. For the second straight draft, the team selected a severely injured big man and that was not even the most controversial pick of the night. The pick that drew the least favorable reaction from Sixers fans was the selection of Croatian forward Dario Saric with the 12th pick. At the time, Saric had just signed a new contract with Turkish powerhouse Anadolu Efes which teams knew would delay his arrival in the United States. The Sixers obviously had no qualms with that because they were aware of Saric’s talent so they pulled the trigger.
Saric’s main value as a player comes on the offensive end. Here, Saric is a jack-of-all-trades. His main value comes as a playmaker who can create from almost any spot on the floor. Dario just has an incredible feel for the game. He knows where to be and when to make a pass. Saric’s passing is really something special. He can make both the highlight reel passes and the simpler passes needed to keep the offense moving. He is also an excellent ballhander for a player of his size and position who can go to the basket with either hand. His combination of passing and dribbling helps him to operate as an effective pick and roll player. Saric can also score and create for others from both the high post and on the block. Dario also is an excellent player in transition due to his combination of rebounding and feel for the game. He not only can take the ball end to end on his own but can also effectively run the floor and fill the lanes on the fast break. Saric is one of the most versatile offensive prospects that league has seen in the past few years.
Saric is obviously not without his flaws on offense. There are three main concerns with Saric on this end of the court: shooting, turnovers and athleticism. Saric is an improving shooter but still is not consistent enough to space the floor adequately for the team. The poor shooting also hurts his own ability to get to the basket because it allows defenders to sag off of him. He only shot 30 percent from three last year and does not have the best form. The shot isn’t particularly smooth and the ball comes out flat. Saric is decent enough when he shoots with his feet set but really struggles off of the dribble from beyond the arc. He also really needs to cut down on his turnovers. Saric sometimes has the tendency to make too many risky passes or commit lazy turnovers. It is understandable that he committed so many turnovers considering his usage rate and his age compared to the age of his opponents but it still is not great. However, thankfully for Sixers fans, Saric cut his turnovers per 36 minutes this year to 2.8 which is a very good improvement for him. He has more work to do in this regard, but it is promising to see his improvements and think about how the 20 year old can get even better. Saric’s athleticism is another potential roadblock to his NBA success. He is not a particularly explosive or quick athlete, nor does he have the strength or length to make up for it. He will get stronger and his skill as a basketball player will allow him to get past some of that, but these remain legitimate concerns for Dario.
Saric’s lack of athleticism and strength also hurts him on the defensive end. He is a bit of a tweener on defense. He does not have the foot speed to guard most small forwards and does not currently have the strength to guard most power forwards. If you are the Sixers, this definitely is an area of concern. Still, there is not a lack of hope here. Saric is an incredibly active defender and a fierce competitor. He uses that tenacity and combines it with great defensive timing to make up for many of his physical deficiencies. Saric averaged 1.1 steals and .7 blocks per game this past season in Turkey. The numbers will probably not translate to the NBA but the ability to not be a liability on defense certainly may. Also, as I have said with many others players, Saric’s ability as an individual defender may not matter as much as his ability to defend within the team’s system. Saric will never be a plus defender, but he can get himself to the point where he doesn’t hurt the team on that end.
After flushing out some of Saric’s strengths and weaknesses, where does that leave him with the team in the future? That is a question that needs to be answered on many levels. First of all, the team needs to get Saric to come over to the states to play for them. There was some speculation earlier this summer that Saric may join the team as early as this season but that never made any sense for him considering the reality of his buyout. Saric will probably come over either for the 2016-17 season or the 2017-18 season. If Saric comes after this year, there is a much more plausible buyout and he is still bound by the NBA’s rookie scale which would pay him a little bit over 2 million dollars annually for the next four years. However, if he waits until the 2017-18 season, there will be no buyout but Saric will be free to negotiate a contract with the team that is not bound by the rookie scale. Obviously the team would prefer that Saric comes over sooner so they could minimize the amount of salary cap space they use on him and integrate him into team sooner. I think it is about a 60-40 proposition that he comes after this season. Dario has always said that the plan was to come over to the NBA no later than two seasons after he was drafted and every quote from him makes it seem as though he is really itching to get over to the US. The 40 percent of doubt comes from the fact that it makes more financial sense for Saric to wait, but my guess is still that he wants to come over as soon as he realistically can. It also would not be the end of the world if Saric didn’t come over until 2017-18. He may not be bound by the rookie scale, but the Sixers would still be the only NBA team that Saric could sign with, meaning that the Sixers would only be bidding against European teams. With the cap going up and Saric’s potential, I would not balk at the idea of paying him decently greater than the rookie scale to bring him over.
Another question concerning Saric’s future is where the team will play him in terms of his position. Saric almost exclusively plays power forward in Turkey, but there is some concern with his ability to play there full time in the NBA due to a lack of strength. Some think Dario may be best used as a small forward, but I really don’t think that works for a number of reasons. I highly doubt Saric can guard small forwards in this league and he does not space the floor well enough to be a wing player. I think Saric is better served both offensively and defensively as a power forward. On offense, he can take bigger guys to the basket more easily than wing defenders. Also, if Saric is playing at power forward, his shooting improvement does not need to be as dramatic and will not be as crucial in his development. Saric is an excellent rebounder and in today’s NBA, with so many teams going small, it will make more sense for him to play as big man. Defensively, I trust Saric’s ability to add strength much more than his ability to suddenly gain the necessary athleticism to guard small forwards effectively for long periods of time. Saric may be able to play the small forward position in spurts, but I trust him much more as a power forward and think he pairs well with both Noel and Okafor.
The final question concerning Saric is whether or not he has any future with the team. This may seem like a strange question, but I think it is totally reasonable. It is certainly possible that Saric could be a part of a future package in a trade for a superstar. He is honestly an ideal candidate if the trade happens sometime within the next year or two. Saric has not played an NBA game yet. It may seem like this would hurt his value, but it could possibly help it. Dario is essentially an unknown quantity when it comes to the NBA. There is no telling if he will be any good, but the uncertainty also allows us to project more upside. Once a player gets extended time on a basketball court, it becomes more apparent what he can do in this setting and that generally puts a cap on our expectations for the player. There are obviously players who have improved their trade value with their play in the past, but it is hard to make it in this league so the majority see their trade value dip after a season or two in the league. Saric’s value could theoretically be at its highest point right now. Also, as a player who is not currently on an NBA roster, Saric could be traded without using up a roster spot on his new team and without any outgoing salary, which may make the trade easier to facilitate. There is also the fact that Saric has never played a game for the team so it would probably be easier to trade him than it would be to trade a player like Nerlens Noel or even Robert Covington who have already succeeded within the team.
I have no idea if the Sixers will trade Saric at some point nor can I really predict when he will join the team with any real confidence. However, I am pretty confident that if he joins the team, Dario will be a good player for the team. He certainly will never be a star. His ceiling is probably as a pregood starter in this league, but I think he is destined to be a great sixth man. I love the idea of Saric as the first man off the bench who can provide some offensive creativity for the team and possibly even run the offense as a point forward type player for periods of time. I could really see him in the role that Lamar Odom had on those championship Laker teams in the late 2000s. That may not be a glamorous role, but it certainly is an important one and would be very good value with the 12th pick in that draft. Saric may not have been the player that some fans wanted at the time and some fans still don’t believe in the Croatian, but I think he could be an integral part of the Sixers future even if he never plays a game in Philadelphia.