Hayes: Sixers rookies Saric, TLC more NBA-ready than one-and-dones

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Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot drives to the basket against the Celtics' Jaylen Brown.

N ERLENS NOEL got sued. Joel Embiid got fat. Jahlil Okafor might have gotten killed.

The Homie and TLC are getting buckets.

Rookie forwards Dario Saric and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot both are former Euro-pros and neither is a rookie headache. Whether they start or come off the bench, they approach that night's game like adults. They come to work and they do their jobs.

They don't worry about their hairdos or their nicknames or their draft slot, like so many one-and-done divas. They haven't trashed an apartment, as Noel was alleged to have done; they haven't mainlined Shirley Temples, Embiid's admitted weakness as he sat out his rookie season; and they haven't gotten into a single street fight, unlike Okafor. Super Dario and TLC have caused no problems for the Sixers, but they've been a pain for the opposition.

"Their background in European system and style, et cetera, completely helps them be expedited when they enter an NBA court," said head coach Brett Brown, "unlike a one-and-done guy from Kentucky or Duke."

Noel and Okafor are one-and-done guys from Kentucky and Duke, respectively. Embiid spent one season at Kansas, another holding pen for inevitable lottery picks. The three of them enjoyed blue-chip high school careers and coddled, eight-month college experiences.

Saric, 22, has been a pro since 2009. He has played at home in Croatia and in the raucous Turkish League. Luwawu-Cabarrot, 21, has played with professionals since 2012, first at home in France, then, last season, in Serbia. While Okafor and Noel bullied high schoolers, Saric and TLC were eating elbows thrown by men 10 years older than they were. While Okafor and Noel got ready for their proms, Saric and TLC spent lonely nights hundreds of miles from home. They lost a part of their youth, but the hard times seasoned them for this season.

"For sure. Definitely," Luwawu-Cabarrot said. "I've been living on my own in an apartment since I was 17. It's a different game, so I still had to adjust, but all of that, it helped me by playing overseas at first."

Certainly, neither Saric or TLC has the ceiling of any of the Sixers' Big Three; or, Big Two, now that Noel has been traded. Certainly, though, both Saric and TLC were better prepared for the NBA than any of the big men. It shows.

Entering Monday night's game at Orlando, Saric has not missed a game. He began the season as a starter and moved to the bench when the team traded for Ersan Ilyasova, but developed so completely as a reserve that the Sixers felt comfortable trading Ilyasova at the deadline. He leads all active rookies in points, is second in rebounds and is the Sixers' best player every night. Going into Monday night's game at Orlando, the Sixers are 8-9 since Feb. 9, the last time they visited Orlando, and Saric has averaged 19.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists and is hitting 47.1 percent of his shots.

Luwawu-Cabarrot has averaged 7.6 points in the same span. He became a starter on March 11 against the Clippers and averaged 12.4 points as the Sixers went 3-2 with a keystone win over the Celtics on Sunday, when both made grown-man plays.

In the second quarter, Saric, 6-10 and 223 pounds, tried to make a fastbreak layup with both Terry Rozier and Avery Bradley hanging on his arms. He finished on his back, but he made the basket.

"I had a similar play in the preseason in Miami but that was one man," Saric said. "This was two men. It's another level now."

Early in the fourth quarter, TLC, 6-6 but a wispy 205 pounds, drove hard past Gerald Green on the baseline, rose high and muscled in a reverse layup. Like Saric, TLC wound up on the floor. A few months ago, he wouldn't have risked the miss or the pain.

"I'd probably have just stopped and (avoided) the contact and thrown it back out," he acknowledged with a sheepish smile. "My mindset now is stronger."

With that, veteran Gerald Henderson, whose locker is next to TLC's, laughed out loud.

"What do I tell you every day?" Henderson said.

"Yeah, yeah," TLC replied. "He says: 'Don't use some French (crap).' "

"Yeah," said Henderson, shaking his head and flipping his hands around airily; "those pretty layups, all the gymnastics."

If Luwawu-Cabarrot, taken with the 24th pick in 2016, is a gymnast, Saric, acquired in the 2014 draft, is a more of a wrestler. Saric played in Turkey the past two seasons to make sure he could handle the grind.

"I decided to stay two years in Europe, go step-by-step against guys size and my body weight," Saric said. "When you come here, you still need an adjustment; everything's harder, faster. If a guy like (Celtics bruiser Al) Horford wants to push you in the back when you try for an offensive rebound - well, some guys, they are just rough players."

Embiid, 7-2 and 250, embraced contact . . . until his body fell apart for the third year in a row, 31 games into his long-delayed career. Neither Noel, in his fourth overall season, nor Okafor, in his second, handles the punishment well. Both missed time their rookie seasons and this year with knee problems.

Brown spent 17 years coaching in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). He believes the one-and-dones often don't get it done.

"The NCAA isn't FIBA. It isn't the NBA. It's a completely different brand of basketball. The rules are different. The strategies are different. The athletes are different," said Brown, who expected Saric and TLC to hit the ground running. "What's common in the world that they came from is the physicality. The grind. The pounding. They're playing against men."

And, 69 games into the season, they're playing - and acting - like men.

hayesm@phillynews.com

@inkstainedretch

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