To say that it has been a roller coaster of a season for the Sixers would be the understatement of the year. It began last June, when the franchise’s first top pick since Allen Iverson posed on stage with commissioner Adam Silver, marking the beginning of a new era in Philadelphia basketball. We all held our breaths as Ben Simmons missed Summer League games with cramps, but knew that he and Joel Embiid would form a juggernaut at the Wells Fargo Center, and bring the Sixers back from rock bottom. However, when Simmons fell on Shawn Long’s foot and, in the process, broke his own, the dark clouds floated once again over the heads of the cursed franchise.
Luckily, despite the fact that the number-1 overall pick in the draft would not be playing for the foreseeable future, Joel Embiid brought joy to the Sixers universe. The 7’2″ Cameroonian, armed with a skill-set of three pointers, highlight reel dunks, thunderous blocks, and the occasional “Dream Shake,” was running away with the Rookie of the Year award just as fast as the team was running through their 2015-16 win total (which isn’t all that impressive). But a bone bruise (just kidding, it was a torn meniscus) later, Embiid is out for the rest of the season. Another season, another year of unwatchable Sixers basketball, right? Wrong.
The drafting of Ben Simmons was far and away the most exciting storyline of last offseason, and Embiid becoming healthy was a fairly close second. But the third is pretty great as well. Dario Saric, a 2014 first-round pick who the Sixers had stashed in Turkey, made good on his word and arrived overseas a season before it would have been financially sound for him to have. “The Homie,” as Saric was nicknamed by former-teammate Nerlens Noel, is making his name known around the NBA in a big way. Since Embiid’s injury dismantled his own rookie of the year hopes, Dario has stepped in to keep the crown in Philadelphia.
Before the most controversial of injuries took place, Dario was a solid role player; he averaged about 10 points and 6 rebounds per game through the first three months of his NBA career and was on track with where the Sixers thought he would be at that point. He provided a nice spark off the bench, and the team was winning games at an unheralded rate (at least compared to the previous three seasons). When Joel Embiid went down, Dario began his journey to fan favorite and offensive centerpiece.
In the five games (0 starts) that Saric played without Embiid in January, he averaged 11.8 points, 2 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game. He also shot 43% from the field and 18% from three-point range. One of the main critiques of The Homie’s game when he was drafted was his deep shooting. He was expected to struggle shooting from beyond a deeper three-point line, and those expectations have been true at times. Saric has been inconsistent from three throughout the season, but his low outside shooting percentages after Joel’s injury could have been a result of something out of Dario’s hands. Without the inside presence of Embiid, teams were able to more heavily contest on the perimeter and did not have to play as much help defense inside. Embiid’s passing also set up open shots for the wing players, who were left open as a result of team’s focusing on the big man.
Dario’s numbers spiked in February. He scored over five more points per game (17.0) than in January, raised his assists per game average to 2.8, and pulled down 7.9 boards per contest, three-and-a-half more than the previous month. In addition to the rise in base stats, Saric significantly upped his three-point percentage as well. He made 25% of his outside attempts last month. Although 25% from deep is still well below the league average, it was a major improvement from a player that needed to make a stride in that aspect of his game. Another event happened last month that was reflective of the front office’s trust in Dario: Ersan Ilyasova was traded to the Atlanta Hawks on February 22nd, and Saric was given the starting role.
After beginning the season as a starter and being demoted to the bench due to the acquisition of Ilyasova from Oklahoma City, Saric has taken advantage of his second chance in a big way. If the Sixers thought they were missing out completely on a point-forward when Ben Simmons fell to the injury bug, Dario has proven them sorely mistaken. He has not only doubled his assist numbers since January, but he is getting rebounds and immediately getting out into transition as the ball handler–a skill that Simmons was known for at LSU. Dario is not as athletic as Ben, and therefore does not get as many layups on the break, but his passing is at a high enough level that his pushing the ball is extremely effective. Most of the time he does not hit somebody in the face:
In 9 starts between the end of February and the beginning of this month, Dario is averaging 16.9 points, 4.1 assists, and 8 rebounds per game. He is beloved by Sixers fans, coaches, and teammates; he is also running away with the Rookie of The Year award that was once practically already in the hands of his teammate. Saric’s field goal and three point percentages have stayed constant since the role change, but the impact that he is having on each game is becoming larger and larger every time he takes the court. In fact, he dropped a career-high 28 points against the Trail Blazers in an overtime loss on Thursday night.
It has not been all pretty for Dario in the past two months, though. His defensive ratings of 110 in February and 118 in March signify the worst back-to-back months that he has had in his short career. In addition to the high defensive ratings, his average plus/minus in March is -22. In defense of Dario, the plus/minus stat is about as much about the players that are on the floor around the man than about the man himself. And, his offensive rating is as high as it has ever been.
There is no expectation for Dario Saric to be a future superstar, all-star, or even starter. However, with the way that he is playing for and leading the Sixers this season, the sky seems to be the limit for the young Croatian. Since Joel Embiid tore his meniscus and our hearts were broken by the lying Colangeo, Dario has brought happiness to a depressed fanbase. When Ben, Joel, and pick swap prize make their way into the rotation next year, The Homie will be ready to help get the team into the playoffs. But for now, while everybody is still injured, please watch this video of Dario Saric and TJ McConnell dancing to Bruno Mars together at a charity event together.
This team is almost too fun to watch at this point.
All stats accurate as of Friday, March 10th.
Photo by Olimpiamilano (via Flickr)