One of the questions posed to Dario Saric during his media day presser Monday concerned the Sixers-Celtics rivalry. Why, exactly, a 23-year-old Croatian would be asked about a rivalry that has been largely dormant since 1985 is not quite clear, but so it goes.
And Saric, bless his heart, gave a long, thoughtful answer.
That’s him, though — always trying to supply what’s needed, regardless of the situation.
It’s why the second-year forward is such an integral part of the Sixers’ operation — why, I would submit, he needs to be on the court at the most critical moments.
It’s not so much a matter of stats as spirit — “fighting spirit,” as general manager Bryan Colangelo said when asked about the 6-foot-10 Saric. And not so much a matter of fit as feel. The Sixers are better when he is in the game. More cohesive. More combative.
While coach Brett Brown told reporters Tuesday he has yet to settle on a starting lineup, he hinted last week he is leaning toward a quintet of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Robert Covington and JJ Redick.
Assuming good health, of course.
OK, fine. But if Saric doesn’t start, he most certainly should finish. He should be out there when the game is tight and a play needs to be made. Because there’s no doubt he will be looking to make it.
Asked last week where he might use Saric, Brown answered simply: “Anywhere.” Maybe small forward, he said. Maybe power forward. Maybe even small-ball center at times.
“The gym’s going to tell us a lot,” he said, meaning that much can be learned about lineup permutations during camp this week, in the team’s practice facility.
Question, if you will, who Saric might replace in a late-game situation? Simmons and Fultz are the Sixers’ primary ball-handlers, Redick their best long-range threat, Covington their best perimeter defender and Embiid the obvious centerpiece, meniscus willing.
But understand this is a team that won 28 games last year. All options are on the table, as well they should be. And the best option, it says here, involves Saric in some capacity. Because he is versatile and adaptable. Because he can pass and post. Because he handles and hustles.
Asked about his role Monday, he said he hoped to play as many minutes as he did as a rookie last season — 26.3 a game — while acknowledging that that might be difficult.
“I think I’m on a better team this year,” he said. “Of course you are ready to take any role that they give you. That’s how I feel now.”
Saric was second to Milwaukee guard Malcolm Brogdon in Rookie of the Year voting in 2016-17 (with Embiid third), averaging 12.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists. His PER was 12.8, which is below the league average of 15.0, his three-point accuracy a subpar 31.1 percent. (He also shot just 27.5 percent on jumpers from 16 feet to the arc, per Basketballreference.com, underscoring the major weakness in his offensive game.)
Yet Saric always seemed to be right in the middle of things, always seemed eager to provide whatever might be needed. He was the one who feathered an alley-oop to Covington for the game-winning hoop against Minnesota in early January, when at long last the team displayed a pulse. He was the one who seemed most exultant after a March victory over Boston, and nevermind the Eastern Conference finalists didn’t have Isaiah Thomas that night.
“We deserved it, and the better team won today,” Saric said after scoring 23 points and assisting on Covington’s go-ahead triple late in the fourth quarter.
It was the Sixers’ first victory over the Celtics in four tries last season. In the first three, Saric said, the Sixers were up and the C’s rallied “like some kind of machine.”
Not this time, though.
All of that gets to the heart of who Saric is — how much he appears to care about the game, and why he appears willing to do anything to win one.
So if he has to adapt now, no worries.
“Everybody’s good people,” he said. “Everybody will share the ball.”
And he is more than willing to share knowledge with younger teammates, to serve as the “little bit older brother,” as he put it. Furkan Korkmaz, the rookie guard from Turkey, is quite certain that will be the case, having seen the way Saric operates when the two of them were teammates at Anadolu Efes, in Istanbul.
“Dario’s a very funny guy,” Korkmaz said. “Everybody loves him.”
The 20-year-old Korkmaz went so far as to call Saric “a really good friend,” and noted that they talk all the time.
“Not just about basketball,” he said. “We talk also about life.”
Colangelo believes Saric will be fresher physically this year, seeing as in 2016 he was going from a professional season in Turkey to his responsibilities with his national team (in an Olympic year, no less) to his rookie year with the Sixers.
This year he had some time off between the end of the Sixers’ season and the beginning of preparations for EuroBasket, then another gap between the Croatia’s elimination from that tournament and the start of camp. He said he was “a little tired” on Monday, nothing more.
He had already fielded the Sixers-Celtics question by then, about whether the rivalry might be rekindled, with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in Boston and so many promising young players here.
Of course, Saric said, he was aware of the teams’ long, storied history. At the same time, he wasn’t sure if or when a new chapter might begin.
“I can say the 76ers for sure will have rivals,” he said. “For sure we’ll be good. For sure we’ll be, like, a really good team in the next couple years, because we are young and have a lot of good talent here. That can be against Boston. That can be against anyone else in the league.”
However things play out, Saric needs to be a central figure. Where the Sixers are concerned, things always seem to go better that way.