Why Croatia – and the Sixers – have high hopes for Dario Saric

RIO DE JANEIRO — Two seconds is barely enough time to blink twice, but it is enough to deliver something eye-popping. The first 39 minutes, 58 seconds of Dario Saric’s Olympic debut were underwhelming to put it mildly. Instead of spectacular, he was barely solid. Anyone unaware of his draft position or the enthusiastic two-year wait of “trust-the-process” Philadelphia 76ers fans wouldn’t have invested any time in trying to find him on the floor.

But when he needed to be seen, when Croatia needed someone to rise up against Spain, Saric raised his right hand – and used it to send a future Hall of Famer’s shot in the opposite direction. Pau Gasol could be somewhat forgiven for not seeing Saric before the incredible, deafening blocked shot that secured Croatia’s unlikely 72-70 victory at Carioca Arena 1; Gasol had spent a good portion of the second half turning Saric into a ghost in the low post.

Plus, Saric was actually hiding on the other side of the basket when Gasol caught the ball for the potential game-tying hook shot and quickly spun around Krunoslav Simon. Saric kept his eyes on Gasol, timed his jump perfectly and cleanly smacked the air out of the ball. Teammate Roko Ukic began celebrating once the carom landed in his hands and Saric raised his fists as his teammates eventually mobbed him.

“I think that is the gift for the whole team. That block was like cherry on the cake,” Saric said, “because the team fight all the time.”

Dario Saric blocks Pau Gasol to preserve the upset win for Croatia over Spain. (Reuters)
Dario Saric blocks Pau Gasol to preserve the upset win for Croatia over Spain. (Reuters)

For a nation that continues to mourn and deify a lost legend in Drazen Petrovic and hasn’t had a player of consequence in the league since Toni Kukoc last laced them up over a decade ago, Croatia has waited exceedingly long to find a player on whom it can place its hopes for basketball relevance. That is the position Saric now occupies, having to not only establish himself as a player but to take an entire country along for the ride as well.

“This kid got the hopes for being the next big thing in Croatia. That’s not easy,” said Ukic, the elder statesman on the team who had a brief stint in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors. “It’s not easy to play first time, Olympic Games. Things didn’t go well for him … but he saved the day with that last block. That takes character.

“Whoever come from our country to the NBA, is like our next big thing. There is so much pressure. These kind of wins, these kind of games can give him the push in the back and help him, not only for this tournament, but for his career.”

[Related: Saric justifies hype with game-winning swat in Croatia’s upset of Spain]

Saric and Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja represent the next wave of promising players for a country that finished as a distant runner-up to the Dream Team in 1992 but hasn’t sniffed the medal stand in the following years. Hezonja just completed a relatively quiet rookie season in which he struggled to find a consistent spot in a guard-heavy rotation.

After holding off his NBA debut to sown the past two seasons in Turkey, Saric decided to finally come over amid considerable mystery and the controversial dismissal of the man who drafted and stashed him with the 12th pick in 2014. Former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie was willing to wait on Saric, thinking he’d have plenty of time to let the franchise sink to the earth’s core before finding the talent to lift it back up. The suffering yielded a gruesome 72 losses and the No. 1 overall pick this year in Ben Simmons. Now comes the hope of having a team that is, at the very least, entertaining with Simmons, Saric and Joel Embiid – taken nine spots before Saric – also planning to make his long-awaited debut.

“I’m optimistic about his future,” Ukic told The Vertical about Saric. “Of course, he will need to develop as a player and get some stuff for the next level, be ready and grow up, but he’s a 22-year-old kid. He got a great mentality. Even the time things don’t go great for him shooting-wise or offensively, he can bring so much different stuff to the table. So he can help the team in various ways. He’s not like one-way player.”

Roko Ukic (left) and Dario Saric celebrate as Pau Gasol walks off the court. (Reuters)
Roko Ukic (left) and Dario Saric celebrate as Pau Gasol walks off the court. (Reuters)

Ukic compared Saric’s game to that of Golden State Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green, in that he’s a “tweener” who can play multiple positions and create matchup problems for the opposition. Saric will thrive in a system that gives him “freedom,” Ukic said.

“I think Philadelphia is good for him and what they’re building right now,” Ukic said. “He’s a winner. If you scout him on shot, agility, he will not be an outstanding player, but the character he has, you can’t learn that. And that’s what makes him a special player. That’s why I believe in him so much.

“Even if things don’t go in the first two or three months as he think it will be, just be patient. Because he was a high pick, he got the big hype around him, his time will come. Maybe it will not be in November, maybe March but once he get going, he’ll be all right.”

[Related: Team USA Men’s Basketball downs China by 57 in its first 2016 Olympics game]

Saric was MVP of the qualifying tournament in Italy that sent Croatia to its first Olympics since 2008 but he was almost too deferential against Spain. Bojan Bogdanovic of the Brooklyn Nets scored a team-high 23 points while Saric missed six of his seven field-goal attempts and scored just five points. But Saric added a team-high seven rebounds, five assists and the block heard around Barra Olympic Park, all the way to Zagreb and Broad Street.

“He has no fear of anything,” said Croatia coach Aleksandar Petrovic of Saric. “Today he just wasn’t able to gain offensive rhythm, but he’s a guy who brings us a lot of different [things], so he maybe miss five shots but he [does] so many little things that makes my team better. And I’m not afraid at all, not here, not in the future with his NBA team in Philadelphia.”

Gasol had owned him all night – until those two seconds that he didn’t. Until those two seconds that mattered. “Everybody would make that block,” Saric said. “It was my situation and I did it.”