Dario Saric Surging Toward Rookie of the Year

Dario Saric has been playing some serious ball. And it’s been a blast.

Already winning the NBA’s 2016-17 Best New Nickname Award (yeah, I’m a fan of “The Homie”), Saric’s recent play has put him in contention for a different prize: Rookie of the Year. His offensive development has been nothing short of tremendous.

For Philadelphia 76ers fans, Saric’s newfound role as the team’s offensive fulcrum is the silver lining to Joel Embiid’s injury woes. He simply doesn’t receive this opportunity if Embiid is healthy, as his usage rate has increased since the big man last graced us with his presence on Jan. 27:




Offensively, the Croatian is the embodiment of a jack-of-all-trades player. However, passing has become the most prominent of his abilities while he’s flourished in this enhanced role. He’s proved a confident distributor who, put simply tries stuff others wouldn’t:

Embiid used a ton of possessions when he was on the floor, while Saric lacked that same freedom. But the No. 1 pick’s exit, coupled with the 76ers trading Ersan Ilyasova, has provided the new ROY contender with a longer leash. Now, he’s running the show, and his potential is obvious.

He’s also quick to spot cutters:

Watching Saric pass, I get serious Draymond Green vibes. He has a decent handle, and when the 76ers allow him to bring the ball up the court, his head is on a constant swivel as he looks for teammates:

He’s also capable of making the cross-court feed, even from the post:

The dude is just fun.

And, of course, it isn’t only passing that’s sparked his breakout. As a scorer, Saric is just as interesting. He lacks explosiveness, but he possesses a nice array of scoring moves, including nifty floaters and hook shots:

Saric welcomes contact, which is important when most of his drives are methodical and fail to create significant separation from the defender:

An area of slight concern is his three-point shot—Saric is shooting 32.3 percent from deep this season, and only 29.9 percent since Embiid’s last game. The regression is largely caused by the increased attention he’s receiving from defenders, which is forcing him into taking pull-up shots with increased frequency:



He still projects as a solid three-point shooter. But for that to happen, he needs to develop more confidence in his shot.

Saric often hesitates on catch-and-shoots, pump-faking in an attempt to persuade his defender to jump and provide a driving lane. Opposing teams don’t show much respect to these attempts, which often results in him taking the shot after losing his rhythm:

The good news? Saric’s pull-up game looks comfortable:

But relying on pull-ups isn’t efficient, and Saric’s stroke looks much better when he catches and fires without hesitation.

This is crucial to his on-court compatibility with Embiid: You want the big man to have space down low, and if teams lack respect for his fellow rookie’s shot, the spacing diminishes. This issue will only be magnified once Ben Simmons (not known as a shooter) returns to the court.

To Saric’s credit, he’s been firing away much more confidently over the past few weeks, and his three-point percentage has improved accordingly. Over his past six games, he’s even shooting 41.9 percent from downtown, which has helped him steadily rise in the award race.

His primary competition for Rookie of the Year is Malcolm Brogdon, who’s been as steady as a rookie can be for the Milwaukee Bucks:



If the award were given out today, I would still hand it to Brogdon. Dismissing the steadiness and production of the rookie point guard over the entirety of the season is unfair and places too much emphasis on recent output.

However, Saric’s past six games have moved him onto an entirely different plane. The 76ers have 13 contests left, and sustaining his new level of play would be enough to vault him over his primary competitor.

And how fun would that be for Philadelphia? Saric is the third 76er this season thought to be primed for Rookie of the Year (see: Simmons, Ben and Embiid, Joel). Now, a pair of them have produced the highest net rating (6.4) among the Sixers’ enduring two-man possibilities with at least 100 minutes logged. When Embiid and Saric work together, they’re posting a mediocre offensive rating (105) and an elite defensive mark (98.7).

And that was before the forward got rolling. He’s a man full of confidence now, and it’s showing:

Excited yet, Philly?

 

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com and are accurate heading into March 20’s games. All videos from 3ball.io.