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Dario Saric adds another great element to the Suns attack

The big man is finally over the ACL tear and ready to contribute to the Suns playoff push

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Deandre Ayton is set to return to action for the Phoenix Suns tonight against the Dallas Mavericks, which will revert the backup center position to its usual state of your-turn-my-turn for those last 16-18 minutes.

That might mean Dario Saric gets lost on the bench again, as he’s the 4th center in a two-man rotation. Yes, that same Dario who posted lines of 14/8/4 and 19/8/3 in the last two Suns wins as DA has been out with the flu.

“Dario can hoop, man,” Cam Johnson said after Dario’s 19 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in Tuesday’s win over the Hornets. “He does a lot of everything. You can rely on him to score, distribute, and he plays with a flow that we like to play with. When he is out there, no matter the group, he can always make an impact on the game. Sometimes he is a little bit more of a distributor, sometimes he is more of a scorer. He can shoot, rebound; that is vintage Dario right there.”

Johnson and Saric have been teammates since 2019, so he knows all about vintage Dario.

So why would Dario be faced with losing his spot in the rotation again now that everyone is getting healthy?

He was once a starter for the Suns, Timberwolves and 76ers, and has even started in 11 of his 30 appearances this year. And he’s still only 28 years old.

But when he suffered a devastating ACL tear in the 2021 NBA Finals, and the team was left with no one on the depth chart behind DA taller than 6’7”, the Suns brass promised never to make the same mistake again.

So GM James Jones set about overfilling the backup center position in the two years since with the likes of Jalen Smith, JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo behind DA in 2021-22 as Dario sat out the year in recovery, and now Bis, Dario and Jock Landale behind DA in 2022-23.

On the plus side, there’s always at least two centers available no matter how many injuries the team is dealing with.

On the down side, 1-2 guys are always out of the rotation, waiting for injuries, and that’s mentally difficult to process.

Dario is 13th in total minutes played (415) this year for the Suns, well behind fellow backup centers Bismack Biyombo (10th, 567 min) and Jock Landale (9th, 610 min). Among those who have been on the active roster for more than 11 of the team’s 49 games, only Duane Washington Jr. has played fewer minutes than Dario.

“When you don’t get the minutes,” Dario says. “You kind of have a rough time, I think not just me, but everybody. But I was trying to stay focused, work on my game every day, stay positive, wait for my chance.”

Rosters are 15-17 players deep, but a sane coach can only play 9-10 of them on a regular basis. That leaves 6-7 players just sitting on the sidelines waiting their turn. And their turn only comes due to injuries to the guys ahead of them.

“A couple guys get injured, I get a chance to play,” Dario said of dealing with waiting on the bench all season. “So, it’s hard to describe. I needed to be positive all the time, kind of forget what’s going on, work hard every day and wait for your chance. Next man up.”

While Jock and Bis have been able to take turns at backup center all year, even they’ve had to call each other up as Monty Williams tries to find the best possible combinations come playoff time. He needs to make sure he’s not leaving better players on the bench, so it comes down to taking turns.

Why Bis and Jock over Dario? Most likely, it’s that while Dario is a very effective NBA player, he just doesn’t fit the mold of the other centers on the Suns depth chart. You could say that he and Bismack Biyombo, for example, are complete opposite NBA players. The way Dario plays, in fact, is not like anyone else on the team.

“He is starting to get back to that kind of reckless, somewhat chaotic style he can play,” Williams said after Dario’s 19-point, 8 rebound performance against the Hornets. “He can do it under control, he just looks like a warrior out there when he is knocking down threes, attacking the paint, finding guys, setting screens. We try to not put a boundary around his creativity.”

That style is not the same as the other centers. The Suns use the center position as a paint protector and rebounder on defense who, on offense, can set picks, roll to the rim, occasionally post up a smaller guy on a switch, and generally just force the other team to play ‘honest’ defense by having to always defend the rim.

Dario isn’t that guy. His defensive negatives, when it comes to playing center in the Suns scheme, really take away from the positives he brings on the offensive end. He can do everything the Suns want offensively in a center and then some, including taking threes. But even then, his best role offensively is outside the paint. So he really doesn’t force the defense to pay attention to his deep post positioning.

The Suns have tried him at power forward next to one of the other centers a bit this season, but the on-court results have been poor. In 143 minutes next to DA, he’s got a net rating of -9.5 per 100 possessions (roughly a full game). In 105 minutes next to Biyombo, it’s even worse at -15.3 per 100. Simply not sustainable.

The only version that works so far are minutes with Jock (+10.2 in 125 minutes), because of how versatile they each are.

“We like it,” head coach Monty Williams says of the pairing of Jock and Dario. “Two guys that can pick and pop and knock down shots. They both can play DHO (defensive hand-off), Dario (Saric) is probably a better facilitator but that doesn’t mean Jock (Landale) can’t. They both can rebound, and they are not slow.”

That both Jock and Dario can move around on the perimeter on offense and catch-and-shoot threes in rhythm makes them a unique pairing.

“That is the toughest part about playing two bigs,” Williams says. “Sometimes it can get a bit crowded in the paint. With those guys we don’t necessarily have to play in a crowded paint.”

It also helps that Dario is getting back to that 2021 version we loved so much, and missed so much in the Finals. Dario can sometimes be unpredictable — some games are better than others — but he was a catalyst in the Suns offense that season as the primary backup center who could do a little of everything.

Almost two years later, Dario is finding that ‘chaotic’ rhythm again.

“I hope he feels that way. It looks that way, but I hope he feels that way,” Williams said of Dario. “Anytime you are coming off that kind of injury, we have heard anywhere from a year and a half to two years before you start to feel like yourself again. We are at that point where he should be moving into that area where he is not even thinking about it anymore. Where he is just playing natural instinctive basketball.”

Dario thinks he’s been healthy all year, but just hasn’t been able to put it all together until now.

“Maybe. I feel good,” Dario says of whether he’s feeling better now than earlier this year. “Of course sometimes it takes some time. I don’t know, it’s really hard, what happened, how I started moving a little bit better or that kind of stuff is hard to describe. I thought I was moving well before, but maybe it didn’t show very well. So, I feel more comfortable. I think guys trust me, I think Coach trusts me more, so I feel good out there on the court; feel free more. Maybe it was in my head, I don’t know, but I try to do the best that I can every time, so sometimes things change after a certain time.”

Some of it is playing time. Some is trust in yourself. Some is trust by your teammates and coaches. And some is simply getting that athleticism back a tiny bit at a time.

Whatever it is, the Suns now know that 2021 Dario is back and ready when the Suns need him.

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