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Dario Saric has found a role that works for Suns long-term. Will he embrace it?

Phoenix Suns forward is a restricted free agent to be. Would he like to restrict his future to today’s role?

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Phoenix Suns v Miami Heat Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images


Hard as I might try, I figured I couldn’t lead with anything to make you smile as wide as a simple reminder that the Phoenix Suns are on their longest winning streak in 10 years. Their fate is not entirely in their own hands (thanks, Dame), but they are far closer to postseason basketball than any of us could have predicted a couple of weeks ago.

From the outside looking in, it’d be easy to believe that Devin Booker is carrying the Suns, desperately clawing his way to the playoffs. That narrative would be easy to latch onto because Booker is arguably the MVP of the bubble, averaging 31 PPG on 63% TS through seven games.

And yet, that narrative would do a disservice to the many flourishing role players on Phoenix’s bench right now. A bench that was once is complete disarray is now buoying the Suns’ offense whenever Booker sits, and in some cases, even saving the team from complete collapse.

Several guys deserve credit for that, but the one with the most impressive counting stats is no doubt Dario Saric. Over the current 7-0 run Saric is averaging 14.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game on 57/50/93 shooting. He’s playing his best basketball of the season, and it’s all as a member of the bench mob.

But how did we get here? Saric started 50 games this season pre-bubble, including the final seven before the season shut down in March.

And just by talent alone, there’s no denying that Saric belongs in the Suns’ starting lineup. Without Oubre, he is clearly one of their five best players. But Monty’s decision to replace him with rookie Cameron Johnson is genius because the Suns needed to maximize two things: shooting and self-creation.

With Cam in the starting lineup, the Suns have clearly maximized their shooting. Not only is Cam the superior long-range shooter to Dario (40% vs. 35%), but his release is much quicker. That means you can pull out plays like this for Cam, that would simply be unthinkable for Dario:

But just as Cam has bolstered the starting lineup’s shooting, so too has Dario given the bench a legitimate self-creator. Here’s a compilation of some of Saric’s best drives throughout the course of this bubble run. He won’t blow you away with his athleticism, but his first step is a bit quicker than most would give him credit for. He’s become quite good at generating just enough forward momentum to slip by a defender and finish off the play.

Per the NBA’s website, Saric is shooting 49.2% on all drives this season—better efficiency than Oubre, Rubio, or Bridges—but that skill of his is scarcely used in the starting lineup. The increased usage has also led to a higher free throw rate, as Saric is averaging 4.1 free-throw attempts per game in the bubble (up from 1.6 before).

Similarly, he has been given the opportunity to show off his post skills in the bubble, as you can see in the next video. While Saric will never be a go-to post scorer, he is deceptively strong for a player of his size and is eager to punish mismatches. He is scoring 1.03 points per possession out of the post this season, ranking 81st percentile in the NBA and making him more efficient on those touches than Deandre Ayton.

Finally, we look to Saric’s underrated passing. Saric has always been touted as an above-average passer for his position, but it’s been difficult to find ways to exploit that with him in the starting lineup. After all, if Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio are two of the greatest pick-and-roll playmakers in the NBA, what sense does it make to have an inferior ball handler like Saric initiating a play?

But in his new role, Saric is arguably the best playmaker in some lineups. He’s not terrific compared to most point guards, but he looks about as comfortable running a play from the top of the key as do Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter. Again, here are some highlights:

Overall, we’re finally seeing a role for Saric that capitalizes on his best asset: his versatility. While Saric is a decent three-point shooter, he was destined to fail by simply being pigeonholed into standing behind the three-point line alongside the other starters. Now we see him shooting, driving, kicking...the whole nine yards. It’s beautiful basketball, and it’s the best basketball we’ve seen from Dario since his Philly days.

There’s only one small problem. What does Dario think?

On on one hand, Dario appreciates getting to use all of his skills with this second unit.

“I’m good in adjusting to situations,” he said last week in a Zoom call with the media. “Because you need to play hard, you need to find a way to help the team, and help yourself to have the impact on the game. That’s how I’ve been all my life, kind of play everything.”

But then he also knows he’d rather start than come off the bench.

“At the end of the day it’s the coach decision,” Saric said early on in the Bubble when he started coming off the bench. “How I feel, I feel better when I’m starting. Maybe it’s just natural, maybe it’s just in my head.”

The Suns are 7-0 right now in the bubble. They’re one game away from a potential play-in for the playoffs. Saric is also an impending free agent with a reputation to maintain. No player would dare argue against their role or playing time right now.

Still, it wasn’t too long ago that Saric said this about his trade to Phoenix from the Minnesota Timberwolves:

“I’m not sad about this trade, I’m actually happy about it all and glad because I think I didn’t get a fair chance in Minnesota. In Phoenix, I very much expect it. All in all, I’m satisfied.”

Why wasn’t Saric satisfied in Minnesota? Well, it stands to reason that coming off the bench for 40 of his 68 games last season had a lot to do with it.

For Saric, the problem with this specific role has always been the buy-in. Perhaps he doesn’t believe he can make as much money as a sixth man compared to a starter. Perhaps he’d be right, too.

But the Suns won’t be able to retain Saric long-term unless they convince him of the allure of being a high-usage bench player as opposed to a low-usage starter. And that’s not the only thing that might take some convincing:

In case you haven’t noticed, Dario Saric is kinda a center now.

Some people have been arguing that Saric is actually a center for many months now (shout out to my co-host Mike, who’s been on that train as long as anyone else I can remember).

It doesn’t make much sense, intuitively. Saric is 6’10” with short arms, and he doesn’t scream “rim protector”. Still, it was Saric who started in place of a missing Deandre Ayton against the Heat, not Kaminsky or Diallo. And perhaps partially by accident, the Suns have stumbled upon a winning formula. The numbers back up the notion that lineups with Saric at C are more effective than those with him at PF:

On defense Saric isn’t much, especially when compared to Ayton. But his lateral quickness is so far ahead of Kaminsky’s that you take what you can get. He’s capable of defending the PnR adequately, and he won’t be shoved around in the post either.

And on the boards, Saric has actually been very impressive. He’s averaging 9.8 rebounds per 36 minutes in the bubble, and 2.5 of those are on the offensive glass. Remember, this is a guy with a 6’10” wingspan; two inches more than Book, and three inches less than Mikal Bridges. He doesn’t have much in the way of natural length, but he finds a way to make it work.

So once again, it’s all about the buy-in. The numbers say Saric can succeed as a modern center. What does Saric really say?

Well, being a center is hard. You are expected to anchor the defense every night, on every possession. And matching up against Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid when you weigh 225 pounds is not my idea of a fun time.

Your best bet is hoping that he’s persuaded by all the winning. Not many players can say no to that. Still, there’s no guarantee that Saric resists the temptation to run off to some middling team offering him a starting PF spot for ‘20-21.

If Dario can learn to accept his new role as a 6th man PF/C (after all, he can’t spend 100% of his time at C), what can we expect of him? Well, I honestly see his bubble play as the new norm. His efficiency would go down over a full season, but 10-15 points, ~5 rebounds, a couple of assists and some sweet shooting is a reasonable expectation. If the Suns are a good team, then he’d no doubt get some 6MotY consideration with those numbers.

Finally, credit Monty Williams for showing a willingness to experiment with different lineup combinations. Because of him, Saric has a great chance at revitalizing his career.

That leaves the ball in Dario’s court. Where he takes this next is his decision to make.


Would re-signing Saric be one of your offseason priorities?

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