76ers

Dario Saric's production, confidence on rise as season pushes forward

Dario Saric's production, confidence on rise as season pushes forward

BOSTON — LeBron James. Blake Griffin. James Harden. Kevin Durant. Isaiah Thomas. Dario Saric.

The Sixers' rookie was among high-caliber company when the NBA announced nominees for Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week, honors that eventually went to James and Griffin for games played Feb. 6-12.

Saric is not an MVP candidate. He isn’t an All-Star. He isn’t even a starter. His performance of late has been so strong, though, he has made his mark in his rookie season.

“I can say I’m proud of myself to be in that group of players who are really, really good, who are stars of this league,” Saric said. “It’s one more thing to continue to work, to get better every next day and every next game.”

Saric is averaging 19.2 points (51.4 percent from the field), 6.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 26.8 minutes off the bench over the last five games. He has amped up his game in the absence of Joel Embiid, who has missed the past 10 contests with a knee injury. Saric continued his tear with a double-double (18 points, 11 boards) in Monday’s win over the Hornets.

“There is a confidence all over the place to shoot the ball,” Brett Brown said of Saric. “I think it’s the path, the link to him really being unique and spacing the floor. But it extended into putting the ball on the floor and making plays, rebounding and leading breaks, coming up with tough rebounds in traffic.”

Brown has maintained Saric would be considered for Rookie of the Year if not for Embiid’s dominance. Saric went through an adjustment period at the start of the season as he got acclimated to a new league, new team and a language barrier. He would become visibly frustrated with himself after a missed shot or a turnover. Now, Saric is more comfortable on the court and feeding off his strong team chemistry.

“Of course, it’s easier now after two, three months,” Saric said. “You can find the holes in their defense, you learn how to play defense, you learn some plays, you learn how to position yourself in defense and offense, and you learn that it’s easier to play and to find the open look.”

Brown has been able to rely on Saric for long stretches of play. In spite of the fact he played deep into the summer in the Olympics and barely had an offseason, Saric is logging significant minutes.

In Monday’s game, Brown subbed Saric in for Ersan Ilyasova with 6:41 remaining in the third. Saric played the remainder of that quarter … and then the entire fourth. He has played 30-plus minutes twice this month.

“Not so long ago, we would have been talking about Dario hit the rookie wall,’” Brown said. “We should all remember that conversation. He obviously hasn’t. He’s come out of that lull that most people experience in an NBA season and just jumped into it.”

Saric is hitting his stride and looks like he has put the early learning curve behind him. He is showing why the Sixers coveted him while he played overseas.

“I think he’s growing into himself and playing with a great confidence,” Brown said. “I feel like that last few weeks we’ve really seen him blossom.”

Sixers Talk podcast: Matisse Thybulle might already be the sixth man

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NBC Sports Philadelphia/NBC Sports Philadelphia

Sixers Talk podcast: Matisse Thybulle might already be the sixth man

Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss the amount of games they expect Joel Embiid to play, Ben Simmons' self-awareness and Matisse Thybulle already surpassing expectations.

• Will Embiid set a career high in games played with his new load management plan? The guys make a friendly wager.

• Simmons gave arguably the most thoughtful quote he's ever given.

• Is Thybulle already the Sixers' sixth best player?

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Sixers pick up Zhaire Smith's third-year option, make clear call to bank on his further development

Sixers pick up Zhaire Smith's third-year option, make clear call to bank on his further development

Zhaire Smith's role with the Sixers isn't yet clear for this season, but the 20-year-old guard has a future with the team.

General manager Elton Brand confirmed that Wednesday. The team announced it has exercised Smith's third-year option for the 2020-21 season, worth $3.2 million

The Sixers acquired Smith and the Miami Heat's 2021 first-round pick last year in a draft-night trade with the Phoenix Suns, who received Mikal Bridges. Smith played in six regular-season games his rookie year, averaging 6.7 points and and 2.2 rebounds per game, but that's far from the whole story. Smith broke his foot in August, then suffered a severe allergic reaction and subsequent complications that led to him losing over 35 pounds. Over time, Smith regained his standout athleticism and rebuilt his jump shot after changing his form to compensate for his loss of strength (see story).

Head coach Brett Brown described Smith during training camp as a "pogo stick" and has praised his talent for on-ball defense, comparing him on multiple occasions to Avery Bradley. However, Smith has not been part of the Sixers' rotation during the preseason. Brown has acknowledged that development is a great priority for the Sixers with Smith than immediate contribution, especially after everything he went through as a rookie. The emergence of rookie Matisse Thybulle and solid play of Shake Milton during the preseason are further reasons why Smith hasn't been playing with the Sixers' regulars. Smith played the entire fourth quarter Tuesday night of the Sixers' 106-86 win over the Pistons and had seven points and three rebounds.

"It's just a process, so I'm not worried about it," he said. "As long as we get the win, it doesn't matter."

Given the potential the Sixers saw in Smith — and continue to see — it never seemed plausible that they would decline his third-year option.

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