DETROIT – Dario Saric emerged as a 6-foot-10 playmaker as a 76ers rookie last season. He could initiate the offense, put the ball on the floor and distribute. His size, fluidity and ball skills created mismatches. His 3-pointer was unreliable, though.
That’s the profile of a helpful player.
The only problem: Philadelphia had another – higher-upside – player in the same mold: No. 1 pick Ben Simmons.
Simmons sat out last season with injury, leaving Saric to seize that role and finish second for Rookie of the Year. With Simmons healthy this year, it was unclear how the two would coexist. Only one could handle the ball at a time. The other wouldn’t space the floor.
Saric provided a solution. He increased his 3-point percentage from 31% to 39% while launching 3s even more more often.
“That is the single thing that has made Dario different,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “It’s The. Single. Thing. that’s made Dario different.
“You need a stretch four that can shoot 3s. Europe taught us that two decades ago. And when you look at the modern-day sport, and when you look at end-of-game situations, and it’s only going to be magnified in the playoffs. Watch that position. And he can do it.”
That might be the biggest thing, but it’s not the only thing.
Simmons has become the NBA’s biggest point guard, and Philadelphia’s offense runs through him. Saric’s seconds per touch are down 17%, and his dribbles per touch are down 38%. Only Carmelo Anthony had greater reductions in both categories from last season (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season).
Yet, Saric looks comfortable deferring to Simmons. Saric is making the quicker decisions necessary to thrive as a secondary ball-handler and passer. With the ball less often, Saric has also committed to hitting the offensive glass harder.
“The way he’s been playing helps me, and me improving my game is going to help everybody,” Simmons said.
Saric’s improvements and adjustments have unlocked the NBA’s best heavily used lineup. The 76ers’ healthy starters – Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Saric and Joel Embiid – are outscoring opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions, best among the 28 lineups to play 300 minutes this season. That unit scores better than the league’s best offense and defends better than the league’s best defense.
Here are the league’s top lineups with at least 300 minutes, showing the spread from defensive rating (left) to offensive rating (right) with net rating listed. The gray bars represent the NBA’s best defense (Celtics) and best offense (tie between Rockets and Warriors):
Philadelphia obviously needs an injured Embiid back to use this lineup again. The 76ers have been outscored when Simmons and Saric play together without Embiid. The star center is still so important to this team.
So are Covington and Redick, who are often involved in cross-matching defensively – a necessary product of starting a point guard and power forward of the same height. Saric’s athletic shortcomings limit him defensively, but he makes up for them with high effort.
All in all, Saric has improved from 1.0 win shares last year to 6.5 win shares this year. That 5.5 win-share increase is the NBA’s largest from a previous career high to this season.
Here are the biggest win-share gainers, with the spread from their previous career high (left) to this year (right) and the increase listed:
Not only has Saric improved immensely, he improved in the exact ways a 76ers team with Simmons at the controls needed.
Even if he needed a season to adjust from the shorter 3-point arc in Europe, few saw this coming from Saric, who had only one good 3-point season overseas. With a massive jump of 31% to 39% from deep, how could anyone have seen this coming?
But those around him aren’t terribly surprised, either. They saw how much he improved throughout his rookie year, and – even if they didn’t know exactly how it would manifest – they believed in him.
“He’s just got that demeanor about him,” Covington said, “that he really took on everything that came his way.”