Sixers' Dario Saric is tirelessly improving his game

Sixers coach Brett Brown said it was a fight getting Dario Saric to sit out the first two preseason games.

“He hates it. He can’t stand it,” Brown said of Saric’s reaction to forced rest. “He doesn’t want to let people down, and he wants to fight through things.”

Dario Saric loves playing basketball. His attitude toward not wanting to take a break is a characteristic that makes him beloved in Philadelphia.

More than anyone, though, Saric deserved a break.

Saric went from playing with Turkish club Anadolu Efes, to playing for Croatia in the 2016 Olympics, to playing his first NBA season with the Sixers — in which he narrowly missed out on being named rookie of the year — and took a short break before joining his national team in the EuroBasket tournament this summer.

The Sixers’ head coach has an extensive international background, which includes coaching the Australian national team, so he’s all too familiar with the time demands placed on foreign basketball players.

“When he came back, I asked if he was tired and he said, ‘No I’m fine, I’m ready to go.’ I was surprised because I was watching him play while we were at home resting,” Ben Simmons said.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Dario Saric has improved in several areas since last season, when he finished second in rookie of the year voting.

Saric finished his rookie season with the Sixers on an incredibly high note, with many wondering whether he could get any better. It’s important to remember that the 23-year-old is heading into only his sophomore NBA season, and his full potential is still unknown.

Despite any fatigue Saric may be experiencing, it hasn’t slowed him down. In fact, in three preseason games, he’s shown improvement in nearly every stat category. His turnovers are down, he’s shooting the ball better, and he’s playing more effectively on the defensive end.

2016-17 Season 2017-18 Preseason
FG% 41.1 53.1
REB 6.3 6.7
ST 0.7 1.7
PTS 12.8 14.3
TO 2.3 2.0

With the long-awaited addition of Simmons to the roster, Saric will assume a reserve role this season. He’s taken his new position with grace and looked for the silver linings. He said that being with the second unit allows him to play against the other team’s bench players, which can be an easier game. He added it’s not about who starts, but who finishes.

“Of course, everybody wants to start, but I don’t have a problem coming from the bench,” Saric said. “I hope I will be in that unit who will finish the game. That unit who can win the game, that’s more important than who is in the starting five.”

Brown wanted Saric to improve the form of his three-point shot over the summer. Specifically, the coach wanted Saric to use his legs more effectively to elevate the arc of his shot by six to eight inches. Even with limited time to work on the intricacies of shooting after EuroBasket competition, he managed to do as he was asked.

The result of Saric’s attention to detail has made him a long-range shooter the Sixers can rely on more consistently than they could last season.

In a preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, Saric finished 5 of 8 from three-point range and scored a game-high 26 points.

Additionally, Brown has started experimenting with Saric at center in a small-ball rotation.

In today’s NBA, end-of-game situations are often dominated by smaller lineups. Against the Nets, Saric succeeded in that role, pulling Timofey Mozgov out of the paint, making it easier for other guys to score, but also hitting threes when Mozgov sagged away.

On top of his on-court abilities, Saric has proved to be a consummate teammate, with an infectious personality and sense of humor.

Fellow Sixer Furkan Korkmaz, who was a teammate of Saric’s in Turkey, said he leans on Saric for advice, especially from the international perspective.

“Everybody knows he’s a funny guy. We played two seasons together, and he was the funniest guy in Turkey, too,” Korkmaz said. “He tries to help me every day.”

Saric has had considerably more experience playing professionally than domestic players have heading into their second season. He realizes it makes him seem older but doesn’t want to be overbearing with his advice to younger players. He said that he wants to be looked at more like an older brother than a mentor, but that he will always give a helping hand if asked.

So what could be left for the Croatian sensation to work on?

Brown said that communication and knowledge of the league would help Saric in continuing to improve.

“At times, there’s a language barrier,” Brown said. “But because he’s been with me now for a year, it’s a little bit less and less. And the knowledge of the NBA and referees and personnel, that’s an accumulated sort of thing that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet.”

Saric has said he doesn’t know how to slow down or do anything other than give it his best effort, a sentiment his teammates and coaches have noticed with enthusiasm.

That passionate play was evident last season, and has been clear during training camp and preseason. Saric doesn’t give up on plays; he fights for possessions, sacrifices his body for plays, and sees the floor with the clarity of a point guard. He could trade in rookie of the year votes for sixth man of the year recognition.

Before training camp started, Brown spoke in length about how important Saric would be to the Sixers this season and beyond.

“He was born to play basketball,” Brown said.