Al Thompson
Dario Saric handles the ball against the Charlotte Hornets on February 13, 2017 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Sixers rookie power forward has become a force in all phases of the game. The 6-foot-10, 243-pound Croatian was drafted 12th overall by the Orlando Magic in the 2014 NBA draft, then traded to the 76ers the same day. Photo courtesy of NBAE.

The most consistent thing about the 2016/17 Sixers, is their inconsistency, not to mention a stunning level of bad luck.

What NBA team, or really any pro sports team, has three players they picked in the first round, not play a minute of his or her rookie season? I can’t think of one either.

Between 2013 and 2016 the Sixers took Nerlens Noel (via trade in 2013), Joel Embiid (2014) and Ben Simmons (No. 1 overall pick in 2016). With Simmons now out for the season, the Sixers earned that most dubious distinction.

This year the Sixers struggled early on rolling to a 4-18 record. There were more than just a few whispers the Sixers were tanking again. Then the team woke up and went on a 10-3 run at the beginning of 2017, elevating expectations along with a the birth of Embiid Nation. Not to fast Sixers fans, put the cat down.

Now Embiid’s knee injury may end his season and any slight chance for a playoff run. It got worse when the team traded popular players Ersan İlyasova and Noel.

But one thing Sixers fans can look to for a ray of hope it the emergence of rookie forward Dario Saric, selected with the No. 12 overall pick (swapped with Orlando who took Elfrid Payton) in the 2014 NBA draft.

Because he had signed a 2+1 contract in 2014 with the Turkish team Anadolu Efes, the Sixers had to wait until this season to catch a glimpse of their young star.

It appears to have been worth the wait. The 6-foot-10, 243 pounder is blossoming into one of the most promising players in the league.

Playing limited minutes because of the log jam of players at his position, Saric was averaging just over 24 minutes a game. He still averaged 11.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Now with all the trades and injuries; over the 10 games preceding March 1, Saric is up to 17.2 ppg and 8.1 rpg.

“I try to find myself with my new role,” said Saric, still finding his way with his English. “I try to play, try to run, try to catch the rhythm of the game which is the most important thing in basketball. But I am not shooting good enough from the three-point line right now, I need to get better at that. Maybe it is my legs, they are not the same as they were at the beginning of the season. I played 35 games last year. It is not my ability, I should be doing better. I hope to in the next game.”

Saric has a humility about him. Growing up in Croatia, he has lived in a part of the world that is anything but stable.

For the 22-year-old it is all about his team.

“We give 100 percent always,” Saric said after scoring 20 points and pulling down 11 rebound in a 120-112 win over the Washington Wizards. “We try to win. If somebody messed up on defense, if somebody is late (on an assignment), you always know your teammate has your back. We also share the ball. We attack from the wing, from the inside, from the pick and roll, we attack from the fast break, we have so many options.”

Saric talked about a teammate, another big, Richaun Holmes and his new role as the team’s main rim protector now that Noel is gone.

“I think he has jumped into Nerlen’s (Noel) situation, his role,” Saric said. “He is really playing both ways. Everybody knows he is around the rim, finishing around the rim. He has stepped up in Nerlen’s place. He replaced him unbelievably good. I hope he will get the same minutes for the next game because we have Jahlil (Okafor), he is a post up player, more of a scorer from the low post block and we need a guy like Richaun who can play both ways…he can play defense and on offense can set good screens and shoot long shots as well.”

Holmes said he relishes the role Saric described.

“Shot blocking is something I’ve been doing for a while,” Holmes said. “I just go out there and protect the rim.”

His teammates, including Robert Covington, have watched Saric since he fled the violence going on in Turkey to join the Sixers a year sooner than expected.

Covington talked about Saric’s expanding role.

“Dario has done a lot throughout the year,” Covington said. “You see glimpses of it throughout the year. Dario is a very special player. He’s able to do so much on the court. Tonight (against the Wizards) was an all around game for him. You saw every aspect of his game. You’ll see him guard, defending, rebound and make the plays on the offensive end. That’s what Dario does. Now that he’s going to play more, he’s in the starting lineup, that’s really going to help him take his game to another level. It’s just a matter of him embracing (his new role) and keep working.”

Sixers Brett Brown said Saric was known in basketball circles for many years as a prospect and is glad the Sixers took a chance with him.

“You’ve all heard me talk about him under the roof that he was raised to play basketball,” Brown said after the win against the Wizards. “If you really knew his pedigree in Croatia and his family tree, and the notoriety and profile he has had since he was 12, then 14, then he enters this country. He’s a professional basketball player and he’s been that for a while.”

Saric says he likes his team, and believes the future is bright.

“I believe in these guys,” Saric said to finish this session. “They can play really good basketball.” *

1 Mar 17 - Basketball, NBA - Al Thompson - No Comments

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