DARIO SARIC got to know the basketball fans of this city before he was even introduced to most of his teammates, as his arrival to Philadelphia in July to sign a contract attracted many onlookers at the airport.

None knew him personally, but they appreciated what they had seen of him on the internet and in international games. The Croatian star was Philly through and through, with a toughness that showed in his rebounding, his effort for loose balls, his pounding presence in the lane at the offensive end.

It was those qualities that endeared him to his teammates once they got to be around the 6-10, 245-pounder on a daily basis. Those traits broke the language barrier. But like the NBA game, Saric quickly picked up English, got comfortable enough to become polished at self-deprecation and, well, busting some stones.

Battling plantar fasciitis in his left foot now as the season winds down, Saric is pushing through in his attempt to play all 82 games. Whether that happens or not, it would be shocking if he's not awarded the NBA Rookie of the Year award at season's end, his main competition coming from teammate Joel Embiid, who has endorsed Saric at various times since a season-ending knee injury in January.

Saric is the kind of person you don't have to get to know to like. His is a magnetic personality, filled with an honesty and childlike friendliness that grows quickly on everyone.

"From the beginning of the year, he's night and day different," guard T.J. McConnell said. "I just told him and everyone told him to just keep playing hard and shooting, and that's what he's done. He's worked on his game a lot, and everything he's done this year he deserves. He's worked extremely hard.

"He was kind of laid-back in the beginning, and he's still a little laid-back but mostly he's balls-to-the-wall crazy and we love him for it. We sit around and just laugh with him and tell him how crazy he is. He's a ton of fun."

There is nothing Saric doesn't do 100 percent. A friendly competition in practice ends in a mild tantrum if he isn't the winner. As these meaningless games bring this season to an end, he still plays as hard as he did in the Olympics in Rio last August.

"It's the single ingredient that links the whole thing - he plays hard," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "He is just beyond competitive and he wears his heart on his sleeve. He cares. And it gets down to the word that most comes freely . . . competitive. There's a close cousin of tough. You look at that quality, especially in this city, if you don't have that, you have no shot. You really have no shot in the city of Philadelphia. He has it in spades. That's who he is. It's the thing that makes him endearing to his teammates. It's the thing that makes him endearing to fans and it's borne out of respect.

"How can you not respect how he plays?"

To help cement his relationship with his teammates early in the season, Saric taught many of them to curse in Croatian, in case they might want to show a little frustration toward a referee without getting penalized.

"It kind of backfired, though," McConnell said. "We just use the words at him, now. Not sure he really appreciates it, though."

Saric was named the Eastern Conference rookie of the month for both February and March. Since Embiid's injury, he has carried the team offensively with his scoring, passing and ability to rebound and start a fastbreak. As good as he has gotten, you can just tell he has only skimmed the surface of his talent, an exciting prospect for the organization.

"In the beginning it was a little bit hard for me, new country, new teammates, different kind of basketball, different style of life than I had before," Saric said.

"I came here and made an adjustment, and it took me two months to get into some type of rhythm to get used to this kind of life. But with good teammates and good people, we are joking all the time. That is one of the basic things to continue something in the future to stay together."

Tuesday, in a blowout loss against Brooklyn, Saric became the 10th Sixers rookie to reach 1,000 points. His goal is to play in every game, to prove to himself he can do it and have the knowledge of what it takes going into next season.

"He has yet to find out what this city is like when we're winning, and I don't think he even realizes how much this city has embraced him," McConnell said. "He just plays his butt off and that's what this city is all about, and he's damn good. If you're a good player and you play hard in this city, people will fall in love with you really quick. He deserves it. He's a good guy for this city to love."

And vice versa.



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