An integral part of The Process, Dario Saric would be super as Sixers' closer

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An integral part of The Process, Dario Saric would be super as Sixers' closer

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.

Sixers' summer league run fizzles out with loss to Grizzlies

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Sixers' summer league run fizzles out with loss to Grizzlies

The Sixers’ summer league campaign fizzled out Sunday night with an 82-73 loss to the Memphis Grizzles at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. 

After an 0-3 start, the Sixers made a surprising run to the quarterfinals, but the Grizzlies ended any hope of a championship run.

As they have throughout summer league play, the Sixers started slow, falling behind 26-11 early, and the Grizzles stayed in command for most of the night.

Here are five observations from the loss: 

1. Furkan Korkmaz became the face of the summer league Sixers, and he seemed to embrace that responsibility Sunday. Korkmaz appears comfortable with a constant green light on offense, which bodes well for him possibly taking on some of Marco Belinelli’s “instant offense” role off the bench. That’s not to say Korkmaz will singlehandedly replace Belinelli, but if his aggressive mindset and scoring ability could translate off the bench, it would be a big boost for the Sixers.

Along with his three-point shooting (4 for 9 from long range), Korkmaz also showed a soft touch on a couple first-quarter floaters. 

After a 19-point effort Saturday against the Bucks, Korkmaz posted 18 points, five rebounds and three assists. Outside of clunkers in the Sixers’ second and third games, when he shot a combined 1 for 18 from the floor, Korkmaz had a stellar summer league. 

2. We’ve already talked a lot about the ways Zhaire Smith can refine his game as he works on becoming an NBA wing after playing at power forward in college. One of the where Smith can improve is his finishing around the rim. He has the explosiveness to get into great positions, but he doesn’t have much variety or touch near the basket. On one play in the middle of the first quarter, Smith took the ball into a crowd of defenders, twisted into the air and flipped up a shot more in hope than anything else. His first instinct is to dunk the ball, which is certainly not a bad thing, but a little nuance would help him in the NBA, as would a dependable floater. 

Smith continues to show good vision and feel for the game, like when he found Isaiah Miles inside with this no-look dish.

Smith had five points on 2 for 8 shooting, four rebounds and four assists. His only field goals were a late breakaway dunk and a patented putback slam. 

3. Jonah Bolden admitted Saturday night he hasn’t been satisfied with his summer league performances, citing his inconsistency. After his best showing of this summer league campaign on Saturday, with 13 points and eight rebounds, Bolden was disappointing against the Grizzlies.  

In 24 minutes, Bolden had five points and four rebounds and was a minus-22. His tendency to disappear for extended stretches is somewhat concerning, since, along with his shooting ability and defensive versatility, you’d want Bolden to provide energy off the bench in the NBA. 

4. At just 18 years old, Jaren Jackson Jr. is seriously impressive. The No. 4 pick in the draft immediately took control of the game, with seven points, three rebounds and a block in the first three-plus minutes, helping the Grizzlies take an 11-2 lead. In that stretch, he made a three-pointer from the right wing, blocked a seemingly wide-open Bolden at the wing and finished inside with his left hand. Jackson posted 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.

He has a promising future, but Jackson has the versatile, modern game to make a significant immediate impact.

5. Another Jackson, the Sixers’ Demetrius, has quietly been solid throughout summer league. He hasn’t done anything that screams NBA player, and at 6-foot-1 it’s a struggle for to find space inside, but Jackson, who entered Sunday night’s game averaging 7.6 points, 5.0 assists and 3.8 rebounds per contest, has been a dependable playmaker in his third summer league campaign. He had 11 points, two rebounds and two assists this game. 

For Jackson, what might hold him back from carving out an NBA role is his size and lack of a standout skill. As a two-way player, Jackson appeared in three games late last season for the Sixers. He’s also had brief NBA stints with the Celtics and Rockets. 

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Furkan Korkmaz the hero in Sixers' win over Bucks in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

Furkan Korkmaz the hero in Sixers' win over Bucks in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

With a quarterfinal berth nearly in their grasp, the Sixers fell apart in the fourth quarter Saturday night but Furkan Korkmaz was there to save the day again.

Thanks to a furious late run and an and-1 from Korkmaz with 3.6 seconds left, the Sixers pulled out a miraculous 91-89 win over the Milwaukee Bucks to advance to the quarterfinals of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League. They'll play the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday at 10 p.m. 

The Sixers led, 71-61, early in the fourth quarter, but some sloppy play and stagnant offense allowed the Bucks to go on a 15-0 run. But the Sixers made a strong late push. Trailing 88-80, Korkmaz and the Sixers went on a run of their own. Two free throws from Korkmaz with 36.1 seconds left cut the deficit to 89-87. Then, with the clock ticking down, he drove from the left wing and converted his decisive leaner, the shot rolling around the rim before dropping in. Korkmaz calmly made the free throw to give the Sixers the lead.

Jonah Bolden broke up an inside pass intended for Milwaukee’s Christian Wood on the ensuing inbounds play. He made one of two free throws with 1.2 seconds left, and the Bucks couldn’t get off a desperation heave.

Let’s get into five observations from Saturday’s incredible win:

1. Even before his late-game heroics, Korkmaz’s assertiveness was noticeable Saturday night. With the Sixers’ offense floundering, Korkmaz confidently pushed the pace and looked to score. He wasn’t always in control, but to see him create his own offense instead of camping out in the corner and waiting for the game to come to him was encouraging. 

"Of course I feel proud of [my performance] because I just got here," Korkmaz told ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth after the game. Korkmaz arrived in Las Vegas after competing in FIBA World Cup European Qualifiers for Turkey. 

"The guys are really positive guys. We stay as a team and we play together. If I need to talk about myself, I feel good on the court. I just try to play more aggressive and that's the point for me."

There was absolutely no hesitation on this coast-to-coast drive and Euro step finish from Korkmaz in the second quarter.

Korkmaz’s trust in himself as a ball-handler and shot creator could be an important element of his game. That said, showing the same conviction against physical NBA wings is, of course, a much bigger challenge than doing it in summer league.

After the game, Korkmaz reiterated his aggressive mindset.

“I feel more confidence in this summer league … When I feel good on the court, I start to play more aggressive," Korkmaz told reporters. "I just need to keep it up in all [my] minutes.” 

Sixers summer league coach Kevin Young felt he could trust Korkmaz with the ball in his hands late.

“He’s been hot or cold all tournament long, but the thing I love about Furk is he’s a gamer," Young said. "He’s played in a lot of big games, happy to get the ball in his hands, and [I] let him kind of make a play.”

Korkmaz had 19 points on 6 for 13 shooting Saturday night. 

2. Throughout the Sixers’ five summer league games, Zhaire Smith’s instincts have stood out. Offensively, he cuts well, darting backdoor at the perfect moments. His teammates often have missed him, but that shouldn’t be the case in the regular season. Defensively, he tends to make the right read, knowing when to help off his man and when to stay home. And his hands are active, like on this steal against the Bucks’ Sterling Brown and finish in transition.

It’s clear that Smith has a lot of areas to grow as he transitions to being an NBA wing. That was evident again Saturday, as he shot just 3 for 11 from the field. But those high basketball IQ instincts combined with his elite athleticism should help him improve and adjust at the next level quicker than many people may expect.

3.  If Jonah Bolden can put it all together, it’s easy to see how he could be a productive piece for the Sixers. He just seems to struggle to show all his skills on the same night. 

Saturday, Bolden again showed glimpses of his ability, like when he squared up his defender and knocked down a three-pointer on the right wing in the second quarter, or when he smoothly pulled down offensive rebounds. There weren’t any sustained stretches of consistently solid play, but his performance against Milwaukee was his best of summer league. Bolden had 13 points on 5 for 10 shooting and eight rebounds against the Bucks.

“To be completely honest with you, up until this point, I think I might’ve played better last summer," Bolden said. "Not to say I’ve played terribly, it’s just not up to my personal standards. And I feel I’ve gotten better and better each game. Still not up to where I’d want to be, not up to the same standard, just the consistency from Game One last summer to the end, whereas this summer has kind of been starting lower and getting up there game by game.”

At a minimum, the Sixers want to see consistent effort and defense from Bolden. Through the first four games, Young was happy with what he’d seen in that regard. 

“Offensively, he’s struggled,” Young told reporters Friday. “He’s not in a great rhythm; he kind of came in late. I think that probably hurt him a little bit just in terms of individual rhythm. But defensively, he’s been good. He’s a high-energy guy. he can guard a lot of positions, which for him I think is something that is really valuable for his NBA life. He’s versatile defensively in terms of being able to guard inside against big guys, guard smaller guys. So that’s really where he’s at his best for us.”

We saw last season how Brett Brown valued Amir Johnson’s defensive presence over Richaun Holmes’ offensive spark. If Bolden is going to earn a spot on the Sixers this season, his defense may be the key. 

4. Cameron Oliver has a serious affinity for attacking the rim. The Blue Coats forward, who entered Saturday’s game averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game in summer league, has had far more than his fair share of emphatic dunks. He added another to his collection against Milwaukee.

Oliver’s game is still raw and at 6-foot-8 he’s on the shorter side for an NBA power forward, but his explosiveness and fearless approach is impressive. He’s a developing player worth keeping an eye on this season in Delaware. 

5. Christian Wood looks like an NBA player. He’s already been one, in fact, albeit for only 17 games on the 2015-16 Sixers and 13 games on the 2016-17 Hornets. With his length, athleticism and activity, Wood seems like someone who should be able to secure a spot on an NBA bench. Saturday, he posted 27 points and 12 rebounds. The Sixers organization knows Wood well; along with that brief NBA stint a couple years back, he starred last season at the G-League level in Delaware, averaging 23.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. 

Speaking of Delaware, Newark’s own Donte DiVincenzo suited up for his second summer league game Saturday night.  After missing Milwaukee’s first three games with a right groin strain and playing just 10 minutes Thursday against the Spurs, the Villanova product looked rusty. He air-balled his first jumper and never got into a rhythm, finishing with one point on 0 for 5 shooting. 

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