For American fans, one of the most intriguing aspects of international tournaments like the World Cup is the chance to see some of the best young players in the world before they come to the NBA. Dario Saric, who was taken at No. 12 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, is the perfect example. While he has played extensively in Europe, his only real exposure on the North American continent came at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2011 and 2012.
Saric is only 20, but he has been competing in some of the best leagues in Europe for several years. Despite his youth, he is one of the most important players on the Croatian national team, averaging 27 minutes a game in pool play. Croatia has played down to the competition, with a 2-1 record including an OT win over the Philippines and an upset loss to Senegal, but Saric has more than held his own, averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 51% shooting.
At 6’10 210, his ability to slide between multiple positions upfront gives Croatia some versatility with their line-ups, but he has mostly played as a small-ball PF in Spain. Unlike for his club team, where he gets to dominate the ball as one of the primary options, Saric has primarily played off the ball, setting picks, cutting to the rim and spotting up from the perimeter. A hard-nosed player with a high basketball IQ, he can impact the game in multiple ways.
It’s easy to see where the excitement comes with Saric. He is a mismatch nightmare - he can put the ball on the floor and take bigger players off the dribble as well as play with his back to the basket and punish smaller players on the block. He can clear the defensive glass and start the fast break himself and he knows how to accept the double team and find the open man in the half-court. Not many guys have his combination of size, skill and athleticism.
On the offensive side of the ball, the big question is his three-point shot, something he has struggled with in his first few years as a pro. He is coming off his best season as a shooter, going 34.5% on 3.1 attempts a game in the Adriatic League, but he shot only 30.8% in Eurocup play and was at 30.3% and 33.3% the previous two seasons. That’s been the biggest hole in his game in Spain, where he has shot 2-11 from deep, mostly on open looks off ball movement.
That shot is almost always going to be there for Saric, since very few big men have the speed and quickness to match up with him so far from the basket. Being able to consistently stretch the defense will take his game to the next level - not only will it open driving lanes for everyone else on the team, it will give him the ability to create a good shot against even elite defenders. As is, international teams are happy to concede the jumper and play him for the drive.
For a point forward like Saric, the three-point shot is a crucial weapon in his repertoire, especially at the highest levels of the game. When looking for possible NBA comparisons, the most optimistic ones - Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Toni Kukoc - are all guys who made a living at the three-point line. Even at the World Cup, he isn’t going up against many of the long 6’9+ athletes in the frontcourt that he will see on a nightly basis in the NBA.
For the first time in his life, he will be matching up with defenders who are just as big and just as athletic as him. That’s what makes combo forward one of the most difficult positions to project in the draft - all of a sudden, a guy who was too big for small forwards and too quick for power forwards becomes too slow for small forwards and too small for power forwards. Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley are two prominent examples of that in recent years.
Saric is bigger than Beasley and more skilled than Williams, but he could have many of the same issues on the defensive side of the ball. He only has a 6’10 wingspan, so he has a hard time contesting shots on the perimeter or protecting the rim. Like most guys his size, Saric is not totally comfortable getting into a stance and sliding his feet on the three-point line, which opens him up to reaching and committing silly fouls. He is averaging 4 a game in the World Cup.
To be sure, a lot of that is inexperience and few players come into the league with the ability to be impact defenders. Saric gets an impressive amount of steals (1.3 a game in Spain) and should become a stronger player and a better positional defender as he gets older, but his inability to block shots (0.3 a game) will always give him a ceiling on that side of the ball. He may never be able to match up with the best players in the NBA at either SF or PF.
A good rule of thumb for combo forwards, whether in Europe or the NCAA, is that they are probably best suited as small-ball PF’s in the NBA. Saric is no exception - if he can play with a rim protector, he should be able to survive in the post and guard most PF’s on the perimeter. That’s Croatia’s biggest problem in the World Cup, as they don’t have a lot of team speed or interior defense, so opposing teams can put their head down and get easy looks at the rim.
Going forward, the best case scenario for Saric is that he continues to develop his three-point shot and becomes capable of being a primary or secondary option in the NBA. While he will never be a great two-way player, if he can come into the league as a high-level ball-handler, shooter, passer and rebounder at 6’10, he could be a starter on an elite team. He has the floor of a solid NBA contributor and he still has lot of room to grow as a player.
One interesting rookie to track next season will be Nikola Mirotic, a high-level European combo forward who is about the same age Saric will be when he comes over in 2016. While their games aren’t identical - Mirotic is a better shooter and a worse passer - they are both 6’10 small-ball PF’s with above average skill and average athleticism for their NBA position. If Mirotic can survive defensively in Tom Thibodeau’s system, that will be a good sign for Saric.
Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup. If Croatia makes the Olympics in 2016, he will probably be their best player and he will still be only 22. No matter what happens in the NBA, Saric will be a player to watch at every international tournament for the next decade.