For 50 minutes after the 76ers had finished practice Friday afternoon, Dario Saric remained on the floor at the team's Camden practice facility, the last player there. He worked his way around the three-point arc at a basket at the far end of the gym, from the left corner to the left wing to the top of the key and so on, taking shot after shot. Chris Babcock, the Sixers' director of player development, rebounded every make and miss and kept snapping the ball back to Saric with crisp chest passes. Each time Saric, who is 6-foot-10, took a three-pointer, D.J. MacLeay, the team's video coordinator, who is 6-foot-7 and played Division I basketball at Bucknell, ran toward him, arms up and flailing, fingers wiggling.
"Stay focused," Babcock told Saric. "He's not going to block it. He's not going to touch you."
The Sixers had not practiced on Thursday, but Saric had come to the gym then, too, just to shoot.
"Obviously, right now I'm not happy with my percentage," he said. "We are pros. You need to work on your shots."
Those percentages, through the Sixers' first five games this season, were indeed ugly — 26.5 percent from three-point range, 37.3 overall — and that ugliness had contributed to the team's 2-3 start. But this sort of rocky beginning to an NBA season is nothing new for Saric. Last year, he shot 32.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range through his first eight games, and as a rookie in 2016, he made just 35.6 percent of his field-goal attempts through his first six games — and the Sixers lost all six.
The thread tethering each of those mini-trends is clear to Sixers coach Brett Brown and should be to anyone paying close attention to Saric's career. Once again, Saric spent a significant portion of his offseason in international competition with the Croatian national team. In 2016, for instance, it was the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he helped Croatia reach the tournament's quarterfinals. This time, it was four games in the qualifying rounds for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. And once again, Saric has entered an NBA season a half-step or half-heartbeat behind his peers because they were fresh from three months of relative relaxation and recuperation.
"I don't think it's anything to do with the league scouting him differently," Brown said. "I think it maybe does have to do with a little bit of burnt energy. It's the toil of a summer. … This notion, that you play 12 months and you're really in a good flow, is a myth. It is a myth. People need rest."
Understand, though: Brown doesn't resent Saric for sacrificing that rest for the sake of Croatia's standing in the sport. Brown coached the Australian national team in two Olympic Games and three World Championships, and from Manu Ginobili and Argentina to Tony Parker and France to Pau and Marc Gasol and Spain, he has seen firsthand the pressure and pride that compel international stars to compete on behalf of their countries and the attendant costs.
"I've lived this life we're talking about," Brown said. "You understand completely the passion and responsibility that these players feel toward their nation. There is internal domestic pressure. They expect you to play, or it's unpatriotic."
Unlike the National Hockey League, which forbade its players from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics for fear that the league had too much to lose in money and potential injury to its most popular and talented players, the NBA has embraced the reality of the global nature of its game. The acceptance is simply part of its culture now. Those international tournaments and contests sometimes matter as much or more to the athletes than a February night in Sacramento, because there's something emotional and intangible and intrinsic, something more than a paycheck and a half-game in the standings, at stake. It is a burden that Saric welcomes, and it became only heavier because Croatia didn't qualify for the World Cup.
"It means so much to me," he said. "Sometimes, according to your mind, if you skip some summer (ball), maybe you'll be a better player. Maybe you'll have more time to spend in the States to work on your game. Absolutely, I think I would be a better player if I didn't play five, six years on the national team. I think I would be a better player. But at the end of the day, everything is winning. You want to win with the national team. Of course, we didn't get some situational luck. Some of it was our fault. It's just so hard to talk about it. It really matters for me. The way I choose, maybe it's wrong. Maybe it's right. But I really enjoy being there and playing with those guys.
"I hope I'll catch the rhythm. It's not something big right now. It's not going to be all season, so-so every game. I think I'll improve. It shouldn't be some big question about it. I don't think I'm playing bad where you can't recognize me. Just, how I finished last year, everybody maybe expected it at the beginning of the season. But it's hard. Takes a little bit of time."
So he'll let himself into an empty gym on an off-day or stay late after practice, putting up shot after shot to work the rubbery feeling out of his legs, to get himself back to making nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers and complementing Simmons and Joel Embiid, as he did last season. And for a short while, the Sixers will have to live with the small price that comes with Dario Saric, with a player who carries a special duty to the place and the people he calls home.