Sielski: In Rio, Saric showing he's the player Sixers saw all along
So, that block. You saw it, right? You saw Dario Saric - 22 years old, 6-foot-10, the kid the 76ers have been waiting on for more than two years - rise off the Carioca Arena floor in Rio on Sunday night and bat away that baby hook by Spain's Pau Gasol at
So, that block. You saw it, right? You saw Dario Saric - 22 years old, 6-foot-10, the kid the 76ers have been waiting on for more than two years - rise off the Carioca Arena floor in Rio on Sunday night and bat away that baby hook by Spain's Pau Gasol at the buzzer, right? (By the way, that's Pau Gasol: 7 feet tall, six-time NBA all-star, two-time NBA champion.) Amid the slew of stories over the first few days of these Olympic Games, you saw how Saric preserved the most improbable and surprising victory so far of the entire men's basketball tournament?
Cool. Brett Brown did, too. He spent Sunday in front of his television, taking in those preliminary-round games, and the most satisfying stretch of his day was Saric's performance in Croatia's 72-70 upset of Spain. Sure, Saric missed six of his seven shots from the field and scored just five points, an obvious blemish. But he had seven rebounds and five assists, and a sequence in the game's closing seconds reaffirmed for Brown what he has believed for a while: that Saric is smart and tough and has improved over time, that his intelligence and instinct will make him at a minimum an excellent rotation player in the NBA - and maybe something more.
Consider that closing sequence. Fouled with 12 seconds left in regulation and Croatia leading by a point, Saric missed the first of two free throws. Had he missed the second, Spain of course would have had a much easier opportunity to win the game, and watching from a distance, Brown worried that Saric's intensity might overwhelm him in that moment.
"You know the team is going to foul," Brown said in an interview, "and when Dario gets it, sometimes Dario gets excited, and you get a little bit nervous."
But Saric made that second foul shot, then planted himself in the post for Spain's final possession. Saric will never be mistaken for an intimidating rim-protector in the pros, but the impressive part of his block on Gasol was not how high he jumped or how forcefully he swatted away the shot. It was that he had anticipated who would get the ball for Spain and where, and he had positioned himself perfectly to react.
"He played it out," Brown said. "He didn't have any false steps. He saw what was happening. He went over there and blocked the shot. Nobody's going to say, 'What an A-plus athlete Dario is.' He needed every one of those steps and timing to go make that play."
Now, be mindful of the caveats here: Brown himself spent 12 years with the Australian national team, first as an assistant before becoming the head coach in 2009, and he understands that, from the caliber of the competition to the sophistication of the coaching, there isn't always an apples-to-apples comparison between the NBA and FIBA. They're playing a different brand of hoops in Rio, and one needed only to watch the second half of Lithuania's 82-76 win over Brazil on Sunday afternoon to recognize as much.
Having built a 30-point lead, Lithuania allowed Leandro Barbosa - a 13-year NBA veteran, one of the league's streakiest bench scorers - to yank Brazil back into the game. Barbosa finished with 21 points in 29 minutes. Brazil outscored Lithuania by 10 when he was on the floor. Yet Barbosa's limited playing time was just the second-most mystifying aspect of the contest: Even after closing the deficit to four in the final 90 seconds, the Brazilians didn't bother to take the most rudimentary of measures to try to pull off the comeback. They didn't foul to stop the clock - an inexplicable and inexcusable mistake.
Nevertheless, ever since the Sixers acquired Saric on draft day 2014, Brown has had ample opportunity to visit with him and witness his game's growth while Saric was playing professionally in Turkey. And he's comfortable that the Saric everyone will see throughout this tournament is an accurate representation of the Saric who will join the Sixers this season.
"I know what we're going to get in Dario," Brown said. "I also think the evolution of his game is as clear to me as what his present game is. He's not an NBA, A-plus athlete, but he's highly skilled in a bunch of areas. He's highly intellectual in a bunch of areas. The evolution of his shot, the evolution of his mind - those things, when you've seen him in Croatia or Istanbul, it's not really that different. I feel like what you see is what you get, and I like what you see."
On Tuesday night Saric and Croatia played against Argentina and Brown's favorite former pupil with the San Antonio Spurs, Manu Ginobili. And yes, Brown couldn't help but offer a direct comparison between the two.
"With Dario, you're seeing a bull in a china shop," he said. "He reminds me emotionally of Manu when Manu first came to the NBA, where he's all balled up. Oh, my goodness. You can just feel it, and I know him well enough to know that, when he wants to knock somebody's teeth in."
It's a safe bet what Brett Brown was planning to watch Tuesday night. Around here, he probably wasn't the only one.