Dario Šarić’s closing moments on the floor in these NBA Finals personified him. It was late in the first quarter of the Phoenix Suns’ Game 1 victory Tuesday. He flared out to the top of the key, caught a pass, and tried to drive past the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brook Lopez, who, at 7 feet, is two inches taller than Šarić. Near the rim, Šarić stopped and pump-faked but had the ball knocked from his hands as he rose to shoot. The entire sequence for him was unrefined, a little clumsy, as if the court were a china shop. When he landed, he twisted his right knee, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
Still, the ball bounding toward the foul line, Šarić chased it down, grabbed it, and flipped a no-look pass to Jae Crowder for a wide-open three-pointer. As Crowder missed the shot and the Bucks set up their offense, Šarić limped back down the court, tugging at his knee until the next stoppage of play, when he signaled to the Suns’ bench that he needed to leave the game. Yes, it was all there for Šarić: the awkwardness, the smarts, the hustle, the toughness, the limitations, the benefits, the evolution into the kind of player perhaps he was always bound to be.
When Sam Hinkie and the 76ers traded for him during the 2014 draft, Šarić would forever be linked to “The Process.” His acquisition, in a steal of a deal with the Orlando Magic, was part of a double-barreled gamble that showed just how committed Hinkie was to casting aside conventional wisdom and taking his time to build a roster in the manner he thought best. It wasn’t just that the Sixers had drafted Joel Embiid at No. 3 less than two weeks after he’d undergone foot surgery and that they would end up waiting two years for him to suit up. It was that Hinkie had made that trade with the Magic knowing that he and the Sixers would also have to wait for Šarić, who had just signed a three-year contract with a team in Turkey.
“He has been a warrior and a champion at all the junior levels of competition,” Hinkie said at the time. “Sometimes I think we sort of hear about it from here and think, ‘Oh, it’s something small,’ and it’s really quite enormous — the domestic leagues and international competitions in other countries, where it often takes precedence over your professional career and definitely over your college career. Many of our people have been around him and coached him over the years. Many of our staff have. We’ve all flown around the world to see him.”
With that gamble came an air of mystery and a wealth of expectations — for Embiid, yes, but for Šarić, too. He was 6-10 but could pass like a point guard. He had no fixed position on the floor. Playing at a young age against professionals had seasoned and hardened him. Paul Hewitt, who coached against Šarić in international play, compared him to Dirk Nowitzki, and even Dirk compared him to Dirk, and Šarić had to be that good eventually, because what would be the point of all that tanking if he and those other high draft picks weren’t that good? What was The Process for if not for finding superstars?
As it turned out, Šarić was a lot of things for the Sixers. He was all the things that those moments Tuesday night, just before and just after he injured his knee, showed he was. What he wasn’t was a superstar. He improved his three-point shooting, but he struggled to create his own shot, to be more than a complementary player on offense, and to defend quicker, more mobile forwards. He had his strengths, and he had his weaknesses, and it would be on him, his coach, and his team to maximize the former and de-emphasize the latter.
“He’s not an NBA, A-plus athlete,” former Sixers coach Brett Brown once said, “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, where he’s not going to want to go punch somebody’s face in when he makes a mistake — with Dario, I feel like what you see is what you get, and I like what I see.”
The Sixers — and their general manager at the time, Elton Brand — didn’t like Šarić enough to turn down a trade for Jimmy Butler in November 2018. Šarić went to the Minnesota Timberwolves, then the Suns in 2019, and he was, until Game 1, a valuable part of a championship-caliber team, a versatile piece for a creative coach. No one can dispute that trading for Chris Paul and drafting/developing Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are the primary reasons that the Suns got so great so fast. But their rise really began last year when they went 8-0 in the bubble, when coach Monty Williams moved Šarić out of the starting lineup and into a new role as the team’s backup center.
Could Šarić protect the rim the way Ayton can? Of course not. But he was never going to give ground, even to a taller, stronger center, and putting him in the paint actually made him a more effective defensive player because he didn’t have to try to keep up with a guard or small forward on the perimeter. As for Šarić’s contributions on offense, one needed only to watch a few minutes of Dwight Howard this season to recognize the value of having a backup center who can catch the ball in the post, find teammates with smart deft passes, and stretch a defense by shooting some from the outside.
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It was a small move by Williams, who as one of Brown’s assistants had coached Šarić with the Sixers. But it was a savvy one, and the results were enough to persuade the Suns to re-sign Šarić in the offseason, and here they are: the second-best regular-season record in the league, a 14-4 record in this postseason, two victories away from glory. He’s unavailable now, but they wouldn’t have gotten here without him. They found a way to make an imperfect player indispensable to them. When it comes to winning a championship, those kinds of discoveries are part of the process. At least, they were supposed to be.