LOS ANGELES — In the back of a coffee shop a half mile from Staples Center, Sixers second-year forward Dario Saric relaxes in a Nike sweatsuit, all but anonymous to everyone else. As he sips his double espresso macchiato before his appearance in the Rising Stars Game later that day, a group of people take a seat at the table behind him and request to borrow an empty stool. Saric obliges, and one of the coffeeshop patrons drags the stool away, oblivious to the fact that they’re talking to a starter on one of the NBA’s fastest rising teams.
Outside of Philadelphia, Saric is not yet a household name, but that could change quickly following this year’s playoffs. The 24-year-old Croatian affectionately known as “The Homie” has found his niche as a secondary star with the Sixers, slotting in alongside the effervescent Joel Embiid to make for one of the league’s best young frontcourt combos.
Saric was, to some, the afterthought of The Process’ many lottery picks. He selected 12th overall in 2014 by the Orlando Magic and flipped to Philadelphia in exchange for the No. 10 pick, Elfrid Payton. No one knew when, or even if, he would come over to join the Sixers’ crowded young frontcourt.
Saric remained in the Turkish League, playing for Anadolu Efes for two seasons after being drafted. As is often the case with draft-and-stash players, Saric become forgotten to the masses. The corner of Sixers Twitter that consisted of the diehard supporters of Sam Hinkie passed his highlight tapes around, insisting that this 6’10 power forward would eventually come to fit in perfectly in the modern NBA with his ability to stretch the floor and his playmaking capabilities.
There were plenty of doubters that Saric would come over, pointing to the Sixers’ ever-growing logjam of young frontcourt players with Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Embiid, if he could ever get healthy. When would Saric even play? Would he be willing to come over to be a fourth big in a rotation? For Saric, it was simply a matter of when he felt comfortable diving into the NBA, ultimately deciding to do so in July 2016.
Sixers Twitter loves to remind people of those questions now, mocking the old Saric doubters as they take their victory lap following a 52-win season and a 3-seed in the Eastern Conference. Embiid became an All-Star center, Saric’s early success rendered Noel disposable, and Okafor failed to adapt as a big in the modern NBA, eventually being dealt to the Nets this season after completely falling out of the rotation. Once the afterthought of the quartet, Saric became a key factor in the Sixers’ accelerated path to team success.
But like all players that come into the NBA for the first time, whether they’re picked out of college or make their way from a club overseas, there was an adjustment period and some self-doubt Saric had to overcome.
“Everything is pretty similar, basketball-wise, but everything is faster,” Saric told Dime. “People are more athletic and they’re better players. Better one-on-one players, they can score in so many ways and defense was harder than I expected. Everything’s just a little more difficult. The players are just unbelievable scorers, and you have to stay close to them because if you give them a little space, they’ll find a way to score.”