On Sunday afternoon, Dario Saric likely locked up the 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year award. This year’s "race" has mostly been notable for the paucity of qualified candidates, but the young Philadelphia power forward cemented his case with 23 points, six rebounds, and four assists (including a pair of highlight-reel, no-look dimes) in the Sixers’ 105–99 victory over the Celtics. With members of the commentariat class itching to gnaw off each other’s limbs in the impending MVP debate, it’s reassuring to have one postseason honor in the can.
The unique element of Saric’s freshman campaign is that he’s now the third Sixers rookie to become the front-runner for this season’s award. Ben Simmons (who was the preseason favorite) and Joel Embiid (who was the consensus choice during the first half of the season) are both sidelined with injuries, but the trio is a testament to the talent-glomming strategy of deposed Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie, who figuratively gave his life for the team’s sextet of lottery picks over the past four seasons. A week ago, Embiid offered an endorsement of his teammate: "He’s the Rookie of the Year," Embiid said, following a victory over the Lakers in which Saric dropped a career-high 29 points. "That’s the guy."
"It’s a bit untypical," Saric told The Ringer. "For example, if Ben was ready with me and Joel, we would be in a fight for the award." The 22-year-old Croatian’s English is good enough, but he has a tendency to entangle phrases, especially when animated. "It’s not something I wake up every morning like, ‘I need to be Rookie of the Year,’" he said. "I just want to come in the game and try to win. Try to fight, try to be coachable, try to be a good teammate. What the end of the season gives me, gives me. It’s not pressure on my back."
Since the All-Star break, Saric has averaged 19.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists an outing. Basically, he’s been racking up Blake Griffin or Paul Millsap numbers. It’s reasonable to suggest Saric has amassed gaudy stats because of the dearth of talent on his injury-depleted 26–44 team, but they’re not unforgivably hollow. Even as feverish tanking efforts incapacitate Los Angeles and Phoenix, Philly has won three of its past five games, including a 42-point massacre of Dallas.
In a league where freakish measurements like Inspector Gadget arms, antigravity leaping, and shuttle-run agility are coveted, Saric is more of a Vitruvian Man. He is a huge person of normal proportions (his height and wingspan are both 6-foot-10) who doesn’t jump particularly high or swat many shots. He’s not a bricklayer from the perimeter, but he lacks the feathery touch of a stretch big like, say, Kristaps Porzingis. And, while mobile, Saric runs like a nightclub bouncer who just noticed his car being towed down the block.
When Saric was selected with the 12th pick in the 2014 NBA draft by the Orlando Magic (who dealt him along with picks to the Sixers for Elfrid Payton), some speculated that his physical limitations would cap his stateside effectiveness. "[Hedo] Turkoglu represents Saric’s upside," analyst Nate Duncan wrote at the time, in a scouting report that outlined Saric’s potential stumbling blocks. (That’s not an unflattering comparison, really: Turkoglu had a similar combination of size and playmaking ability, and averaged 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and five assists with Orlando in 2008.)
But Saric is gifted in ways that are trickier to quantify. He is an exceptional passer, able to shred defenses by handling the rock in transition, crafty around the rim, and an indefatigable competitor who plays hard as shit all the freaking time. This is a mulleted goon who had six teeth knocked out in a FIBA World Cup game against Argentina and stayed on the court.
On a typical possession these days, Saric starts behind the 3-point arc, uses pitter-patter crossovers and behind-the-back dribbles to get into the paint, shoulders the defender a few times in the solar plexus, and then employs an annoying array of pump-fakes before laying the ball off the glass or slipping the ball to a cutting teammate. While that sounds like your stepdad playing in the driveway after four Genesee Cream Ales, it’s a delightful combination of earthbound effort, brutality, and finesse.
"I think he was just getting his feet wet at the beginning of the year," said point guard T.J. McConnell, who is one of Saric’s best friends on the Sixers. "Now he understands the offense and is comfortable. You see what he’s able to do in the open floor. When you see a guy at his height and size be able to do that, it’s special. As unfortunate as it is to lose guys like Ben Simmons and Joel, it’s been great for Dario, in a sense, where he’s been able to grow as a player. The way Dario has stepped up as a rookie is truly remarkable to watch. You’re happy for a guy like that. He’s truly one of the best human beings I’ve come in contact with."
The blossoming kinship between Saric and McConnell has been an endearing soap opera during a Sixers season marred by injury and front-office ineptitude. They have engaged in on-court spats, thrown water and towels, and given each other piggyback rides.
"Sometimes in the games, he got one opinion and I got another opinion," said Saric. "And we just talk about it. But that’s brother love. I love him so much. He’s got his fiancée, he getting married this September. He called me and said, ‘Can you come? Can you come, please?’ But I have a national team [obligation] in that time. Probably, I will not come." The friendship will survive this.
Back in the ’80s, Dario’s father was a professional basketball player for the Croatian club team KK Sibenka and a teammate of Drazen Petrovic, the New Jersey Nets star who was killed in a 1993 car accident on the autobahn. Predrag "Sisi" Saric would later run a trucking company; his wife, Veselinka, was a secretary. "I didn’t feel the war in Croatia or that region," said Dario, who was born in Sibenik in 1994, a year before the end of turmoil in the splintered nation of Yugoslavia. "I had a normal childhood." At 8, he started shooting hoops. "I was very hyperactive and my mother sent me to take a class on basketball," he said. (Over the past month, Veselinka provided yet another assist by visiting Philadelphia and supplying Dario with home-cooked meals.)
A basketball prodigy from the start, Saric began playing professionally in his mid-teens. After a stint with Cibona Zagreb in the Croatian League, he signed a three-year deal with the Turkish franchise Anadolu Efes right before the 2014 NBA draft. Hinkie dealt for him anyway, and was scrutinized for selecting not only a center with a broken foot (Embiid), but also acquiring an overseas prospect who was unlikely to arrive for at least two years. Another complication: Saric could have avoided the NBA’s rookie pay scale by staying in Europe for another year and negotiating a more lucrative contract (as the Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic did in 2014). But Saric had given his word to the Sixers.
"After the NBA draft, I say I think I need to stay two years and play Euroleague," he said. "I choose my own way and I can’t put the finger to someone else to say, ‘You messed up my career.’"
The collective anxiety over whether or not Saric would ever play in the NBA is a thing of the past, but it’s been commemorated by Process-trusting fans this season in a running joke. As Dario has risen, fans have tweeted about his steadily improving play, all with the same kicker: It’s a shame he still hasn’t come over — a dig at Hinkie’s impatient critics over the past two seasons.
Still, earlier this season, it was unclear if Saric could acclimate from the smaller pond of the Adriatic League to the deep waters of the NBA. He clanged 3s, was smothered at the rim, and rarely displayed the passing flair that made him such an intriguing prospect in Europe. For a while, ESPN’s composite metric real plus-minus pegged him last among power forwards. "He was struggling shooting and he was really down on himself," said McConnell. "People told him to keep shooting and things are going to go up for him. He took that and ran with it. You can see how things are turning out for him, like we all knew it would."
Saric acknowledges that the pace and athleticism of the NBA game initially threw him for a loop. "Everything was one step faster, speeded up," he said. "When you come in summer, and you try to see something, it’s just so fast for your eyes. There’s more contact in the paint. Everything is higher around the rim. You cannot take the ball one-on-one with somebody, you need to box him out and take him off-balance to catch the ball. I needed some time for adjustment."
While Saric began the season starting at power forward aside Embiid, the Sixers’ acquisition of journeyman and flopping virtuoso Ersan Ilyasova sent him to the bench. "I lose some confidence," Saric said of transitioning to a reserve role. "I was a little bit worried and that comes in my head. And, because of that, I had really bad 3-point shooting from that part of the year until now. I think the biggest thing was rushing it. I get the ball and I would say to myself, ‘OK, I need to score now!’ and I would put pressure on me. But after two months, I’m probably more ready."
Although his 3-ball remains dicey (he’s shooting 32.4 percent from deep), the key to Saric’s surge in scoring efficiency has been finishing around the basket. Before the break, he shot 52.1 percent from within 5 feet of the rim on 3.4 attempts a game. Since then, he’s converted 61.1 percent on 6.5 attempts a game from that area. Over that same span, Saric is 16th in the NBA in points scored on drives per game, ahead of both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. LeBron James is the only "big" ahead of Saric on that list — and someone he greatly admires. "LeBron James is the guy that understands basketball better than everybody," Saric said. "He understands he cannot win games alone. He shares the ball, he makes other players involved in the game."
James is a singular deity constructed from alien DNA and anti-ballistic Kevlar, but big guys with outlier passing abilities like Golden State’s Draymond Green or Denver’s Nikola Jokic have become stars by how they’ve blessed their offenses with fluidity and unpredictability. Saric might be trending in that direction. His playing time has expanded since the deadline trade of Ilyasova, and he’s averaging 4.2 assists per game over the past month. Only a handful of power forwards or centers notch that many. "I try to pass the ball in every moment I have an opportunity," Saric said. "Now I have more minutes, I have more balls in my hand. There’s more focus on me, man."
If Saric does become the second European player to win Rookie of the Year (Pau Gasol was the first), attention will inevitably magnify further. So it’s imperative that he sorts out his nickname situation as soon as possible. Fans have embraced "The Homie," a handle that, like everything else joyful in Philly, emanated from Embiid’s Twitter account. Saric doesn’t quite get it, but the best sobriquets aren’t self-selected anyway. "I don’t know how I get the nickname," he said. "I think it’s some kind of friendly neighbor, something like that. I like Super Dario more, but Homie is OK. It means they love you."