Dario Saric’s Suns friendly returns with Croatia in FIBA
One thing you will learn about basketball is that the most basic game can go a long way if the details are executed at a high level.
The right decision can come down to being in the right place on the floor. Then the hard part is over, and it’s just up to a defensive player to impact possession from there.
Despite the simplicity of this, it’s incredibly difficult to get into the top level of the sport. It takes a special young player, like Herb Jones of New Orleans last season, for example, to bring him down quickly. It’s one of the reasons Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones emphasizes IQ and basketball experience in building his roster.
I’m sure there are Suns fans who join me in identifying him much better after the transition from watching 20-win teams from half a decade ago to championship contenders now.
I’ve used this space many times to emphasize this part of the game, like why Jae Crowder is so fun to watch.
At this point in his career, Crowder is not fast nor can he jump high. But he’s a winning player because he’s in the right place, and he’ll stick with that tag 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 the FIBA EuroBasket 2022, which starts 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 so far. The Suns missed his change of pace in the roster last season when it was a big stretch of play. Now Saric projects himself as a crucial part of the team for next year.
As it’s been over a year since we’ve seen Saric play, let’s recap what makes him a winning player and what to watch out for from him in the FIBA game.
Saric’s Croatian squad will feature the likes of Utah Jazz winger Bojan Bogdanovic and Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac. It’s a limited roster after that, and Zubac’s presence on the inside forces Saric to play as a power forward, where he started as an NBA player.
This will actually allow Saric to be more of a ball handler, which the Suns need him at center or forward anyway.
Expect Saric to be used 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.
During the FIBA EuroBasket 2025 pre-qualifiers, Saric showed that he trained in incredible physical shape and even had a bit more agility.
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 dribbling handoffs are, Saric will often be planted at the top of the key or free throw line to initiate this action.
When Saric wins the ball, he reads the way the defense moves. If his man dozes like he hears a lullaby and waits for someone to come and collect the ball from Saric, Saric will take it through him for a bucket.
It’s the best way Saric creates an offense. His limited athleticism means he has to be creative around the rim, where he shot a measly 59% as a big man in 2020-21. by Cleaning the window.
The thing is, Saric has the sauce. He’ll use euro steps, pivots, fake pumps, spins and the like to finish on the rim, even though he looks like your dad at the YMCA when he puts him down. Saric will also occasionally go to a trick floater, the one he shot a solid 45% on in short mid-range attempts two seasons ago.
Saric can still get caught under the rim and stuffed. That’s where the bad percentages come from, but he plays hard on the records with the aforementioned skill.
Saric doesn’t always play so aggressively and confidently, which is why his role on the team faded in his first two seasons in Phoenix. Being consistent with that has always been key to his game with the Suns, and that can be a tough ask for a guy who just suffered a bad knee injury.
Saric uses the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 as a way to establish that it matters.
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 pitch very well. When you think about it, that’s an essential pair of attributes for a center. Because he’s the guy who is, well, center floor most of the time!
Setting screens, rolling, bursting or establishing a position in the key puts the centers in a sort of helping position for the ball handlers when they are knocked out of the game, and this is where Saric can ‘connect’ l attack together.
Let’s explore this concept.
A lot of Saric’s assists come down to making the right play after the hard work has already been done by the ball handler. It’s simple plays and reads he does consistently, a rarer quality than you’d think for any NBA great.
Devin Booker is trapped here, so all Saric has to do is make the right call. Langston Galloway is one step ahead and helps him with a nice cut.
This is one of the ways I interpret what Williams means by “connecting,” as Saric connects Booker and Galloway together for help that is essentially Booker’s more than anyone else’s.
Once the defense is pressured into a recovery state, that’s when Saric can act as a release valve to make the extra pass and ‘connect’ again.
Saric in this role can also initiate the offense for a few possessions per 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 and run Williams’ system since the head coach arrived in Phoenix in 2019.
The solo clip below is a typical offensive possession from Saric. It serves as a connector to start a dribble transfer, as we saw earlier.
But pay attention at the beginning of the clip when Saric directs traffic.
He sends Bridges into the corner for Booker to set a quick screen to trigger a switch. It also allows Booker to curl up to get to the action. However, that’s not what worries then-rookie Devin Vassell as Booker heads for the basket before some excellent footwork to get to the aforementioned loop.
Vassell is dead on the right, Saric lays down the pick and Saric comes to the floater after Booker puts defensive coverage in an impossible situation.
Pause the video at the very beginning and you’ll actually see Chris Paul pointing to that part of the field (of course). It’s Phoenix’s second possession of the game, so it was probably something he was looking to target early on, and it’s part of why Saric is portrayed as someone so easy to play with. .
Williams called Saric one of his favorite players he ever coached, and Paul said Saric was one of his favorite teammates. It’s clear how much his teammates trust him and it still goes a long way on his own.
For Croatia, this kind of additional role is not exactly how Saric will be used. It’s really a three-way show with him, Bogdanovic and Zubac. But he’s also the team’s leading perimeter and interior scorer alongside Saric, and in a team without a true point guard, expect Saric to make sure those two get it right for them. when he can.
Help the caregiver
Although Saric does not operate on a playing field where the term ‘explosiveness’ comes to mind, he is still a good general defender.
He’s one of the Suns’ best off-ball defenders, a part of his game that will absolutely help make Croatia a better defensive team as the tournament goes on.
Saric is active, alert and composed. He’s so good at positioning himself while using his hands when he should and not getting off his feet unless he has to.
Again, Saric completes his teammates, and when you look at a player like him, you understand how simple it is.
Booker is the star of this next defensive possession, sticking to Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton and sliding to Middleton’s left hip so he can’t go in that direction. Booker, however, can’t make the effort unless Saric contains the initial little space while staying close enough to roll man Bobby Portis.
Booker puts a paw there to spoil Middleton’s dribble transition from his right hand to left and Saric does the rest to get away with the ball and be credited with a steal.
Saric hangs with the ballhandler long enough down here to allow Payne to cut space. He reads it and turns to Payne’s man, knowing that Kemba Walker is about to get stuck in the air with the ball, and voila.
In an off-ball role as a 4 alongside Zubac in the frontcourt, Saric will plug holes in the Croatian defense and rack up a few interceptions and blocks along the way.