Lost in all the shuffle of offseason moves and gyrations by the Phoenix Suns seems to be the quietly exciting acquisition of a real bona-fide starting quality power forward.
Dario Saric, nicknamed “Super Dario” by local media and fans in Philadelphia, is that guy. Saric is young (25 years old this season) and just about to enter his fourth year in the league, but already has started 150 of 240 career games including 73 of 78 in a stellar second season where he averaged 14.6 points (39 percent three-point shooting) and 6.7 boards in just 29 minutes per game. He and the young Sixers blew through the Eastern Conference into the second round of the playoffs.
For fans of these off-season SI.com and ESPN player rankings, Saric came into last year ranked among the Top 55 players in the game which would have put him second only to Devin Booker in national pundits’ eyes this year.
But then last year happened. Saric and the Sixers got off to a slow start, and suddenly he was included in the big package deal to acquire Jimmy Butler just 13 games into the season. He struggled to find his spirit and footing on a lottery-bound Timberwolves team, and now he’s about to conclude his rookie deal on his third team in a year.
What went wrong? Here are some comments from our Wolves blogger, Eric in Madison, in this story on the trade.
According to Saric, it was all about playing time. In the offseason, he gave an interview to a Croatian reporter, expressing that he did not get a fair chance in Minnesota and was happy about the trade to Phoenix.
“They brought that in a different way than I said in the moment,” he told me on Monday, implying the outlet and/or the translation changed the meaning — or at least the veracity —of his words. “I got the chance there, I was happy there with those guys.”
Dario’s minutes dropped from about 30 per game in 2017-18 for a 52-win Sixers team to just 24 minutes for the 36-win, playoff-less Wolves. And, he went from starting 86 of his last 91 games in Philly to only 28 of 68 in Minnesota.
“Obviously, I wanted to do more,” Saric says. “I was talking with them all the time, I wanted five minutes more, six minutes more. Every player on this planet wants to play more minutes. And that situation was in my case too.”
Saric’s productivity in points and rebounds stayed the same from Philly to the Wolves on a per-minute basis (16 and 8 per 36 minutes, with 38-39 percent three-point shooting). He just wasn’t as big a part of the offense in Minnesota, as shown by a drop in his assist rate (from 13% to 9%) and usage rate (from 21% to 18%).
“That’s my opinion,” Saric said in conclusion. “Maybe they got their opinion, but now I am here and I want to focus on this moment right here and I want to forget the past.”
The relationship went so sour that the Wolves traded Dario to the Suns just to move up five slots in the lottery from 11th to sixth before they even knew who would still be on the board at six.
Apparently, the Wolves were not sold on Dario’s future enough to discuss a potential contract extension after this season. Saric will become a restricted free agent next July, just like Kelly Oubre Jr. did this past summer, and it will be up to the Suns to figure out his worth after a season of playing in Monty Williams’ new system.
Saric is ready for the new start.
“It’s a pleasure to be part of this team, this organization,” Saric said. “I cannot wait to start training camp. I think this team has great potential.”
He started by mentioning all of his starting mates, including Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker (who says has an All-Star profile), Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton (who he says will be one of the 2-3 best big men in the league some day).
“I think it will be easy to play,” he said. “With Ricky always looking first to pass, and Book who is a great scorer, and he is an excellent player who can place the ball too. And Ayton is a monster on the block. Some guys will go to double team him down there, and that makes a lot of space for me. I cannot wait.”
The Suns have needed a good power forward for almost as long as they’ve needed to get back into the playoffs. Take a look at what the Suns have trotted out at power forward recently.
Saric’s best season — a year ago in Philly — is the best of any power forward for the Suns since Amare, and Saric is still only approaching his prime. If he can find his role in Monty’s system, he could be the most impactful player acquired this summer after Ricky Rubio.
“I think he will make a couple plays and let the players make decisions here,” Saric said of his new coach. “Because I think this team is very talented. Hard working guy, paying attention to every detail.”
Dario worked with Monty for a couple of months last year in Philadelphia before the trade.
“He is a guy who will tell you everything to your face,” Saric said of Williams. “If you don’t show up on time, if you are not competing in a game, he would be the first person to tell you in your face that you need to do it that way. And that’s a positive thing for a coach in the league.”
I asked Dario what he thinks he can improve upon with the Suns, something he has not shown before that he wants to unveil in Phoenix. He struggled with that question because he thinks he already does a little bit of everything. And because he doesn’t like to talk about himself in singular terms.
“Maybe I can pass the ball more,” he said finally. “Maybe I can play with the ball. I was playing with two good big men like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, and now again I have an excellent big man. I will try to make more options with the ball, to make assists, to make a play with the ball.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about myself, you know,” he concluded with a smile.
Back to that slow start last year in Philadelphia. Saric has played for his country most every summer since joining the NBA, and mentioned a year ago that the demands of summer play have potentially impacted his slow starts each season. He made less than 40% of his shots in October and early November, but rebounded to his career averages the rest of the season in Minny.
“I hope it will be different,” he says of this coming season. “You need to look for the positive. I always got the slow start in the season. I don’t know why, maybe it was because of national team where I was busy for all summer, two practices a day. Maybe it was mentally. I don’t know it’s hard to answer.”
This year, Croatia failed to qualify for the FIBA World Cup because the qualifiers occurred during the NBA season, making it impossible for NBA players to help their country. Saric expressed frustration at the changes, but is trying to look at the bright side for the Suns. So while Rubio and Aron Baynes participated, Saric should be rested and ready.
“This season I feel more healthy, more time to prepare my mind for the season,” he says.
“To make love again with the basketball, you know how we say.”
Watch the whole interview here.