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Dario Saric Is the Ben Simmons of Croatia

What might the incoming rookie’s role on the Croatian team tell us about his future in Philly?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dario Saric is making a name for himself at the Olympics, following a game-saving block of Pau Gasol at the buzzer against Spain with a near triple-double against Argentina in Croatia’s first two games. Saric, who was a lottery selection acquired by the 76ers from the Magic in a 2014 draft-day trade, is coming over to the NBA after spending the past two seasons in Turkey, and he looks ready to make an immediate impact. He stuffs the stat sheet and plays with a combination of savvy and toughness unusual for a 22-year-old.

At 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Saric is a classic combo forward type who would have been used as a 3 a generation ago. He is Croatia’s 4 in Rio, and that’s the role he’s best suited for in the modern NBA. Croatia is playing him next to Miro Bilan, a traditional 7-foot big man, and three guards in Roko Ukic, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Krunoslav Simon, allowing Saric to operate in space, where he is most effective. Depending on the situation, Saric is the man bringing the ball up the court to initiate the offense, playing out at the 3-point line, or sliding into the post.

Saric is at his best when he has the ball in his hands and is making plays for others. He’s an excellent passer who has a great feel for the game and who knows how to manipulate the defense. He has an eye for cutters on the move, and can make tight interior passes through traffic. He’s always looking to move the ball and he rarely forces shots. In the context of Croatia’s offensive attack, he’s usually making the right play.

If there’s a concern with his performance so far, it’s that his jumper has not come across the Atlantic with him. The outside shot was the biggest question mark about Saric coming into the draft two seasons ago, and he has diligently worked on improving it in Europe, going from 32.9 percent from 3 in 2015 to 40.7 percent in 2016. The numbers are a little deceptive, though. Saric has never been a volume shooter from deep — he averaged fewer than three attempts from behind the arc in 61 games last season. He uses the threat of his 3-point shot to open up the rest of his game. The problem in Rio is that defenders are playing off of him, which means the right play is to take the open shot, and he hasn’t been making them. He is shooting 8-for-23 (34.8 percent) from the field and 0-for-8 from 3, despite the arc being much closer than it will be in the NBA.

It’s far too soon to come to any conclusions from such a limited sample size, but there’s a clear effect on his game when defenders don’t respect his jumper. While Saric is a solid athlete for his size, he doesn’t have a particularly strong first step to blow past guys off the dribble, and he doesn’t have the explosiveness to finish over the top of bigger NBA defenders in tight spaces. He has to take advantage of cracks in the defense, and there are fewer angles to exploit when the defender is playing 3 feet off of you. One way to counter that is to take smaller defenders in the post, but Saric doesn’t have the overwhelming size or length to bury them under the basket. When he’s playing with his back to the basket, he’s more comfortable drawing help and finding the open teammate.

Saric’s physical limitations haven’t been exposed much in the games against Spain and Argentina, but his lack of exceptional length (he boasts a 6-foot-10 wingspan) or athleticism would be an issue against Team USA. Teams don’t fear switching bigger defenders on him, and he was not able to create good looks at the basket in one-on-one matchups with Pau Gasol and Luis Scola. To reach his potential, Saric needs to be able to pepper jumpers from beyond 23 feet and force defenders to press up on him. Otherwise, he’s better off as a secondary creator, taking advantage of defensive rotations and creating plays within the flow of the offense.

On the defensive side of the ball, he’s usually in the right place at the right time and he’s not afraid to stick his nose in the action or bang against bigger players. But while he can do a credible job of switching screens, his average lateral quickness could turn that into an issue at the NBA level. He’s not long enough to contest shots without getting up in the air, which makes him susceptible to pump fakes that will get him into foul trouble. Like most young players, he would be best with an elite rim protector who could cover his mistakes and allow him to be more aggressive on defense.

The concern for the 76ers is how well his skill set complements no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons. Saric is essentially playing the role for Croatia that Simmons will play in Philadelphia, but what will happen when they’re asked to play together? Playing Saric and Simmons at the 4 and the 5, respectively, would mean a lineup without a lot of rim protection, and playing them at the 3 and the 4 would mean one without a lot of floor spacing. They could be really interesting pushing the ball in transition, and would be a dynamic pick-and-roll combination, but finding the right mix of players to put around them will be tricky, even before the issue of allocating playing time up front for the 76ers’ three lottery centers in Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor.

The key to making it work is Saric’s jumper, as he has shown way more growth in that department than Simmons, who pointedly refused to shoot from the perimeter at LSU. If Saric can be a consistent 3-point shooter, he will open up the floor for Simmons in what would be one of the most distinctive two-man games in the league. If he can’t, though, they might be better off playing without each other and taking turns running the offense. That’s a potential reality that highlights the biggest issue with the Sixers’ process over the past few seasons: Drafting for talent rather than fit works until you have to assemble all that talent into a puzzle — and none of the pieces fit together.

Saric looks great playing for Croatia, but he’s not going to play in that type of space with the 76ers, and he’s not going to be in as many lineups that accentuate the strengths of his game and mask the weaknesses. His playmaking, rebounding, and overall activity level have been huge in Rio, but what’s going to make or break his time in Philadelphia is whether or not his jumper is falling. That’s the biggest thing 76ers fans should be watching for in the rest of his time at the Olympics.