Dario Saric spent the last couple of weeks doing everything he could to ensure that the Croatian men’s national basketball team would earn the right to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next month. Before he packs for Brazil, though, the 22-year-old European star has another flight plan in mind: one that will, finally, land him in the City of Brotherly Love after the closing ceremonies conclude.
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The 6-foot-10-inch Saric scored 18 points on 5-for-10 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds, dished two assists and snagged two steals, including a key final-minute theft to help lead Croatia to an 84-78 overtime victory over host nation Italy in the finals of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Turin this weekend. He was named tournament MVP after averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game during the competition, leading all players in rebounding and finishing seventh in scoring to propel Croatia to its first Summer Games since 2008.
With qualifying behind him, Saric said after Croatia’s Olympic-sealing victory that he planned to turn his attention to making the leap from Europe, where he has played for the last two seasons for Turkish club Anadolu Efes, to the United States to join the Philadelphia 76ers:
Saric said he's going back to Zagreb to talk w/ his manager & his parents, then head over to the USA to see his teammates in summer league.
— CroSports (@CroSports_) July 9, 2016
The reporter said, "so yes or no?" (about NBA)
Saric just yelled "Yes!" and walked off…
— CroSports (@CroSports_) July 9, 2016
The Sam Hinkie-led Sixers traded the rights to point guard Elfrid Payton, whom they had selected with the No. 10 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Saric — the No. 12 pick, then 20 years old and coming off winning Adriatic League MVP honors for Cibona Zagreb — and a 2017 first-round selection. Hinkie did this despite knowing that Saric had signed a three-year deal with Anadolu Efes and was considered unlikely to head stateside for at least two seasons, believing that the playmaking upside of one of Europe’s top talents was worth waiting for as he set about an unprecedented multi-year rebuilding effort that ultimately cost him his job.
Despite some chatter during the 2014-15 season that Saric had his sights set on coming to Philly earlier than expected, he stayed in Turkey last season, continuing his development by averaging 11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 23.1 minutes per game for Anadolu Efes, shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 40.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 85.9 percent from the free-throw line.
While Saric maintained during the Sixers’ horrific 2015-16 campaign that he still intended to join the club this summer, there has long been skepticism that Saric would travel to the States before 2017, thanks to the potential windfall Saric would realize by waiting until next summer to come over, as laid out last June by Shamus Clancy of Liberty Ballers:
The reasoning that 2017 is more likely of a target date for Saric to be in Philly than 2016 is that it would then be three years since Saric was drafted, freeing him from the rookie-scale contract he’d otherwise be bound to. This is what led [Chicago] Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic to wait until the 2014-15 season to come stateside after being selected with the 23rd pick in the 2011 draft. Mirotic went from making a maximum of $1,204,560 if he were to have come over in 2013 to $5,305,000 this season in the first year of a three-year deal worth up to $16,600,000.
Saric’s contract in 2017 would likely be more than that when taking into consideration the expected changes in the cap between 2014 and 2017, as well as the Sixers’ likelihood of having cap space when the 2017 offseason comes around.
A report last week from Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier-Times cast some doubt on the likelihood of the long-awaited arrival helped fuel increased doubt, thanks in part to the financial incentive to remain in Turkey and in part to the potential of getting lost in the Sixers’ shuffle, thanks to the arrival of another 6-foot-10 facilitating forward on the Philly scene this summer:
[…] the combination of all the money Saric would be leaving on the table by not playing a third season in Turkey and the Sixers picking Ben Simmons, who also is a power forward, No. 1 in the June 23 draft, has a league source believing it’s not going to happen.
“He makes 1.5 million Euros [$1.66 million U.S.] playing in Turkey,” said the source Thursday night. “It’s a comfortable living. Why come over and risk that and go back to the rookie-scale contract when you’ve completed two-thirds of not having to be on the rookie scale? This is before the draft.” […]
The addition of the 19-year-old Simmons, who, like Saric, can initiate the offense and handle the ball, would likely mean a reserve role for Saric.
“He’s not coming over to be a backup,” said the source, who could envision Saric asking for a trade if he does leave Turkey this summer. “Why would he come over now? How is he going to play?”
There’s no question that Saric would be joining a Philly frontcourt that looks awfully crowded at the moment.
Former top-six picks Nerlens Noel (2013) and Jahlil Okafor (2015) received plenty of minutes at the four and five spots last season. The No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft, former Kansas star Joel Embiid, is finally reportedly ready to make his Sixers debut this season after losing two years to injury. No. 1 pick Simmons is undoubtedly in line for a major role from Jump Street. Several other returning players — Jerami Grant, Richaun Holmes, Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson — could factor into the forward rotation, too. That frontcourt-heavy mix, plus Philly’s dearth of reliable playmaking and shooting, has led to plenty of reports that new Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo aimed to balance his roster by trading away some of his bigs.
Saric reportedly has until July 17 to tell Anadolu Efes where he intends to play ball next year, after which he’ll have to finalize the buyout of the final year of his Turkish deal and gain clearance from international governing body FIBA to be able to start plying his trade in Pennsylvania. Whether Colangelo does act to shake up his roster remains to be seen, but next week, after two years of waiting, we might finally have to start considering Saric as an active part of Philly’s present rather than a theoretical element of its future.
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