EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Dario Saric’s team-friendly game for Suns returns with Croatia in FIBA
One thing you’ll learn about basketball is that the most basic play can go a long way if the details are executed at a high level.
The correct decision can come down to being in the right spot on the floor. Then, the hard part is over, and it’s just up to a defensive player impacting the possession from there.
Despite how simple that sounds, it is incredibly difficult to pick up at the highest level of the sport. It takes a special young player, like New Orleans’ Herb Jones this past season as one example, to have it down quickly. It’s one of the reasons Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones stresses basketball IQ and experience in his roster construction.
I’m sure there are Suns fans who join me in identifying it a whole lot better after the transition from watching the 20-win teams of a half-decade ago to championship contenders now.
I’ve used this space plenty of times to stress this part of the game, like why Jae Crowder is so fun to watch.
At this stage of his career, Crowder is not fast, nor can he jump high. But he’s a winning player because of being in the right spot, and he will hold onto that label until he calls it a career.
The same goes for Dario Saric, who returned to competitive basketball this summer for the first time in over 13 months. He will feature prominently for his native Croatia in FIBA EuroBasket 2022, which begins for him on Friday.
Saric tore his ACL in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals and the rehab process hasn’t allowed him to get back to it until now. The Suns missed his change of pace in the lineup last season as a playmaking stretch big. Now, Saric projects as a crucial part of the team for next year.
Since it has been over a year since we saw Saric play, let’s have a refresher on what makes him a winning player and what to watch for from him in FIBA play.
Doing the dribbling
Saric’s Croatian side will feature the likes of Utah Jazz wing Bojan Bogdanovic and Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac. It’s a limited roster after that, and Zubac’s presence inside requires Saric to play power forward, where he began as an NBA player.
This will actually allow Saric to be more of a ball-handler, which is what the Suns need from him at either center or power forward anyway.
Expect Saric to be used some as a 4 next season if this Suns roster holds. Head coach Monty Williams in the 2020-21 season played Saric alongside Deandre Ayton, Damian Jones, Frank Kaminsky or Jalen Smith in 23% of Saric’s total minutes.
In FIBA EuroBasket 2025 pre-qualifier play, Saric has shown that he’s worked himself into incredible shape physically and even has a bit more agility to him.
Dario hits him with the crossover?! pic.twitter.com/uudxJaMO0Y
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) August 25, 2022
With the way today’s NBA offenses work and how common dribble-handoffs are, Saric will often be planted at the top of the key or the free-throw line to initiate that action.
When Saric gets the ball, he will read the way the defense is moving. If his man is snoozing like he’s hearing a lullaby and waiting for someone to come get the ball off Saric, Saric will take it right through him for a bucket.
This is the best way Saric creates offense for himself. His limited athleticism means he’s got to be creative around the rim, where he shot a poor 59% as a big man in 2020-21, per Cleaning the Glass.
The thing is, Saric has got the sauce. He will use euro steps, pivots, pump fakes, spins and the like to finish at the rim, even though he looks like your dad does at the YMCA when laying it in. Saric will go to a crafty floater from time to time as well, one he shot a solid 45% on in short midrange attempts two seasons ago.
Saric can still get caught under the rim and stuffed. That’s where the bad percentages come from around there but he plays tough on drives with the aforementioned skill.
Saric isn’t always playing that aggressively and confidently, which is why his role on the team waned for his first two seasons in Phoenix. Being consistent with that has always been the key to his play with the Suns, and that can be a tough ask for a guy coming off a serious knee injury.
Saric using FIBA EuroBasket 2022 as a way to establish that is important.
Williams has often referred to Saric and former Sun Frank Kaminsky as “connectors” within the Suns’ offense.
Saric is an excellent passer and sees the floor very well. When you think about it, that’s a vital pair of attributes for a center. Because that’s the guy who is, well, in the center of the floor most of the time!
Setting screens, rolling, popping or establishing position in the key puts centers in a help position of sorts for ball-handlers when they are eliminated from the play, and that’s where Saric can “connect” the offense together.
Let’s explore that concept.
A lot of Saric’s assists come down to making the right play after the hard work was already done by the ball-handler. It’s simple plays and reads that he consistently makes, a rarer quality than you’d think for any NBA big to have.
Devin Booker gets trapped here, so all Saric has to do is make the correct decision. Langston Galloway is a step ahead and helps him out with a great cut.
That is one of the ways I interpret what Williams means by “connecting,” as Saric connects Booker and Galloway together for an assist that is essentially Booker’s more than anyone else’s.
Once the defense is pressured into a state of recovery, that’s when Saric can serve as a release valve to make the extra pass and “connect” again.
Saric in this role can also just initiate the offense for a few possessions a night. He’s smart enough to do it and joins Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Cam Payne as players who have been in Phoenix running Williams’ system since the head coach got to Phoenix in 2019.
The below solo clip is a typical Saric offensive possession. He’s serving as the connector to start up a dribble-handoff, as we covered earlier.
But pay attention to the start of the clip when Saric directs traffic.
He sends Bridges to the corner so Booker sets a quick screen to trigger a switch. This also allows Booker to curl around to get to the action. That, however, is not what then-rookie Devin Vassell is worried about, as Booker releases toward the basket before some great footwork to get to the aforementioned curl.
Vassell is dead to rights, Saric lays down the pick and Saric gets to the floater after Booker puts the defensive coverage in an impossible situation.
Pause the video at the very beginning and you’ll actually see Chris Paul pointing down toward that part of the court (of course). It’s Phoenix’s second possession of the game so it was probably something it was looking to target early, and this is part of what goes into Saric being described as someone so easy to play with.
Williams has called Saric one of his favorite players he’s ever coached, and Paul said Saric is one of his favorite teammates. It’s clear how much his teammates trust him and that always goes a long way on its own.
For Croatia, this type of supplementary role is not exactly how Saric will be used. It’s really a three-man show with him, Bogdanovic and Zubac. But that’s also the team’s best perimeter and interior scorer alongside Saric, and on a squad without a true point guard, expect Saric to be making sure those two get it in their spots when he can.
Helping the helper
While Saric does not operate on a playing field where the term “explosiveness” comes to mind, he’s still a good overall defender.
He’s one of the best off-ball defenders on the Suns, a part of his game that will absolutely help shape Croatia into a better defensive team as the tournament goes on.
Saric is active, alert and composed. He’s so good about positioning while using his hands when he should and not leaving his feet unless he has to.
Again, Saric complements his teammates, and when you watch a player like him, you get a grasp of how simple this stuff is.
Booker is the star of this next defensive possession, sticking on Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton and gliding back to Middleton’s left hip so he can’t go that way. Booker, however, can’t achieve the effort unless Saric contains the initial bit of space while staying close enough to the roll man Bobby Portis.
Booker sticks a paw in there to mess up Middleton’s dribble transition from his right to left hand and Saric does the rest to come away with the ball and get credited a steal.
Saric hangs with the ball-handler long enough here below to allow Payne to cut off the space. He reads it and rotates to Payne’s man, knowing Kemba Walker’s about to get stuck in midair with the ball, and voila.
In an off-ball role as the 4 alongside Zubac in the frontcourt, Saric will patch together holes in Croatia’s defense and rack up a few steals and blocks along the way.