Cooney: Additions of Sixers' Embiid, Saric cause for excitement

Dario Saric in Rio Olympics on Aug. 7 7, 2016
Croatia's Dario Saric (right) blocks shot by Spain's Pau Gasol during Rio Olympics.

RIGHT NOW, and for the past couple of months, there is nothing to deflate the excitement surrounding the upcoming season for the 76ers.

Rookie Ben Simmons had a summer that exceeded the expectations of Sixers' fans, with his precision passing, court awareness and guard-like ballhandling ability.

Fans are also anticipating the contributions of a finally healthy Joel Embiid, the 7-foot, 280-pounder center who possesses the footwork of a soccer player, the shooting touch of a shooting guard and the athletic ability of a point guard.

Embiid, who the Sixers drafted third overall out of Kansas in 2014, broke his right foot twice and has yet to play an NBA game. There is talk of easing him into games with minute limitations and the team may be reluctant to play him in back-to-back games at first.

There is still the issue of how Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor fit into the scheme of things. Noel is a premier rim protector that every NBA team covets, but is lacking at the offensive end. Okafor possesses superior low-post scoring skills, but suspect defensive skills. Still, what a nice dilemma for coach Brett Brown to have concerning these two when it comes to scheming on the court, especially with the other weapons he now has available to him.

That includes Dario Saric, who had an Olympic performance that amped the anticipation of Sixers' fans and Brown.

"Maybe the biggest problem Dario will have with the NBA is that he truly believes he will be a superstar wherever he plays," said one NBA scout. "He has been since he was playing, but he won't be in the NBA. How he'll be able to handle that will be interesting."

There's nothing wrong with Saric thinking he's going to be great. Who doesn't want a player on their team who believes that much in himself?

The reports on Saric from many of the scouts I talked with before the Olympics were spot on. At the offensive end, Saric is a phenomenal passer both in the running game and in the halfcourt. At 6-10 and with guard-like ballhandling and passing ability, Saric can instantly turn a defensive rebound into a fastbreak with a few dribbles and either a leak-out pass or drive to the basket. His outside shooting is still something that needs to improve. Saric's lack of ability to beat anyone off the dribble, coupled with suspect shooting skills, will enable defenders to play off of him on the perimeter, thus clogging passing lanes. He needs to at least be a threat from the outside to force defenders to close out on him.

Defensively, Saric seems to be a little too slow to guard small forwards consistently in the NBA, so he will have to battle against power forwards much of the time. He is athletic enough to get out on hybrid fours and tough enough to battle under the boards.

But Saric's biggest asset, which I saw during the Olympics, is how well he sees the game. Both offensively and defensively, he is a step ahead of the game. His anticipation on both ends of the floor help him make up for any athletic deficiencies that he possesses.

The best example came during Croatia's win over Spain. With his team leading by two and Spain inbounding the ball under its own basket with 1.8 seconds left, Saric knew where the play was going and who it was going to before Spain even started the play.

Basically ignoring his defensive assignment out on the right wing, Saric curled toward Pau Gasol just as he accepted the inbounds pass in the lane. Gasol spun and attempted a righthanded jump-hook, which Saric blocked to preserve the win.

The overriding feeling of the scouts that I spoke with about Saric, all of whom had seen him play in Turkey with Anadolu Efes, was that Saric could become a very good rotation player in the NBA.

I didn't see anything in the Olympics that made me think otherwise, and the Sixers just may be the perfect fit for the 225-pound, 22 year-old. Think of the skills Saric possesses. Sound familiar? Remind you of a rookie on the team? Saric's game and that of Simmons' have many similarities and it may be difficult for the two to be on the court together for extended minutes. And that isn't a bad thing. Having Saric come off the bench for Simmons will enable the team to still play the up-tempo style Brown so desires and still enable his club to have an offensive mismatch.

A very good rotation player is something the Sixers sorely need, and right now there's no reason to believe Saric can't be just that. He may not be in the Sixers' starting lineup when the team opens with Oklahoma City on Oct. 26, or maybe not at all during the season. But it'd be a good bet that when Brown finds his team in close games this season, Saric will be on the floor to help close it out.