This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Dario Saric may already be 25, but he is still playing on his rookie contract. He's the new Phoenix Suns frontcourt mate for DeAndre Ayton, who recently celebrated his 21st birthday. If the organization plays its cards right, this is a marriage that could last a long time.
The Suns acquired Saric on draft night as the entree of their moves smorgasbord, trading down from the sixth spot to number eleven with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and adding Saric for their troubles. Whether with the Philadelphia 76ers or the Wolves, he has flanked elite scoring 5-men as the perfect theoretical complement due to his perimeter game and size. The Suns are hoping he continues that trend.
Saric was at peak production when with the 76ers and center Joel Embiid. In 2017-18, the duo was a plus-12.9 per 100 possessions, good for 98th percentile across the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. Ayton certainly is no Embiid at this stage in his career, and likely will not add the isolation scoring polish the Sixers big possesses.
But there's a lot that Ayton is really good at already, much less what he could become elite with. And there is a bit of a misleading narrative in talking about Saric through the lense of how he fits next to other bigs: just how good he is himself.
Saric remains one of the game's most underrated players. The 4-position is an incredibly important one, where a trusted and versatile piece is crucial.
Saric has bounced around over the last year, leaving Philadelphia for Minnesota in what was deemed a necessary cost for the Sixers to swing Jimmy Butler. Six months later he was sent to Phoenix in a draft-day deal, lost in he jumble of moves the Suns executed in a short span. But this is a guy who literally does everything at least at an average level, with plenty above that line.
He's 6'10" and shoots 35.8 percent on three-pointers for his career. He can handle and put it on the floor a bit with a positive assist to turnover ratio. He's at the very least a respectable defender, posting a positive Defensive Win Shares (DWS) each career season. He's smart, he doesn't need high volume and he plays a simple game that allows him to be his team's Swiss Army Knife. Few are better at making extra passes and making quick decisions.
Oh, and he's been held back offensively in every stop he's been to.
Yes, he can be really, really good.
Better than his talent is his alongside Ayton, one of Phoenix's two quintessential stars of the future. As a rookie, Ayton derived most of his offense from post-ups, where he had 309 possessions, the NBA's seventh-highest number. Of the six ahead of him, none had a higher field goal percentage.
Nonetheless, he was overshadowed greatly by Luka Doncic and Trae Young, the narrative of their intertwined paths and the absurdity of the Suns for passing on both for the seven-footer. None of that should take away from his strong rookie year, however.
Ayton's strength is a unique fadeaway spinning baseline from the left offensive block:
Most right-hand-dominant players love the left block because they get to use their strong hand for a hook shot or middle finish of any variety. Ayton is different: While he uses his right, he prefers spinning quickly into a turn-around jumper. This move is clearly rehearsed and planned—he knows what he's doing before he even catches the ball, as his feet are in sync and he's ready to shoot.
Ayton's shooting form is a bit low for a seven-footer, and he needs to work on raising that jump shot against like-sized defenders.
Instead of tweaking his form so far, the Suns have just rehearsed when he shoots and then put him in situations where he'll rarely face a challenge from his man. A quick spin on the catch in the post is when most defenders are grounded, bracing for contact and keeping their center of gravity low. Ayton knows this and is able to quell fears about getting his shot altered.
These cheat codes are a way to get young players like Ayton acclimated early in their careers. In Phoenix, they are only possible when there is space around Ayton to keep the game simple. All he has to worry about in a 4-around-1 scheme is catching, pivoting and firing. He hasn't quite earned the reputation warranting a double-team (Synergy Sports estimates he was double-teamed only 3.1 percent of the time, of which he had a rough 25.7 percent turnover rate) but defenders cannot over-commit because there are so many shooters surrounding him.
The sharp-shooting Croatian figures to aid with spacing. Saric will also let Ayton operate down low while he handles ball screen duty, setting picks and making high-level plays from the top-side actions.
Last season, Saric shot 50 percent on pick-and-pop jumpers with the Timberwolves, garnering an impressive 1.305 points per possession. Saric as a perimeter-oriented screener allows Ayton to hover near the rim while he continues to workshop his jumper and range. That's because of this deadly smooth stroke and quick feet:
Defenders respect Saric as a stretch big, so they close out to him when he stealthily finds his way to the three-point line. Few are better at reading that and blowing past an overzealous defender to the tin:
Saric lacks elite athleticism, particularly of the vertical variety. He more than makes up for that with an overt craftiness and old-man-esque flair. Saric is able to slither past more eye-popping athletes with unorthodox timing and deceptiveness.
When he goes to set a screen, it is assumed that he will pop at this point. Yet, when Saric dives to the rim, he's actually one of the most unsung playmakers off the short roll.
He's a flashy passer in general, but the shackles come off when he gets the ability to play creatively:
Nothing is new about Saric's high-caliber passing. In fact, his skills are almost forgotten after a nomadic season in 2018-19. Despite averaging only 1.5 assists per game with the Timberwolves, Saric is one of four power forwards of the past fifteen years to compile at least 500 assists through their first three years. The other three: Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol and Boris Diaw.
Playmaking 4s require the ball in their hands and a fairly large chunk of the playbook designed around that attribute. In Philadelphia, Saric's creation would be hampered by the presence of Embiid and Ben Simmons, two players that lack the ability to space around them. Both were ball-dominant and required touches on most possessions, similar to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota.
Yet, Saric is a guy that the offense can flow through productively. He's going to be able to create with shooters and wings around him from the block or the high post. He can pass on the move, delivers dimes on hi-lo passes and is an incredibly creative high-IQ player.
Some of his passing highlights are unreal:
New Suns coach Monty Williams is still formatting his playbook and will introduce his own wrinkles to utilize the strengths of his core. Ayton, for as large a portion of the attention as he'll receive, is still second-fiddle to Devin Booker.
A great scorer in nearly every manner, Booker is one of the guys whose value will pop by playing next to a facilitating 4-man like Saric. The Suns can now run different swirling screening and cutting actions, utilize Ayton as a screener for Booker in wide pindowns and let Booker spot up while the pick-and-pop between Saric and Ricky Rubio knives through the teeth of a defense.
Williams was an assistant coach in Philadelphia and interacted with Saric during his time there. Nobody else is better positioned to get the most out of him, and that could be the key to unlocking the potential of the Suns' 2018 top pick, Ayton.
Of course, all the rosy commentary about Saric and Ayton as individuals does not guarantee they will succeed together. Ayton's athleticism must mask the lack of such from Saric. Dario's perimeter skill is necessary alongside a 5-man that can't make a shot or hold value outside fifteen feet. Defensively they aren't switchable, are confined by position and lend little credence to long-term value on that end.
Ayton shows all the tools to be elite defensively, but time will tell if he puts that all together. Saric will likely never be more than an average scheme defender who pops on certain sequences and is overmatched on others.
Ultimately this tandem is a fairly large test in the viability of still building around two bigs. Saric will be a restricted free agent next July, and the Suns could preempt that date by offering him an extension. Phoenix could capitalize on his value being fairly low after a carousel season, or throw the dice and risk losing him as a premier free agent next summer.
If Saric works out and gets somewhere in the ballpark of $15 million a season, the Suns will eventually throw $45 to $50 million per year into their starting frontcourt once Ayton is extended in three years. That makes this three-season window important, not necessarily for winning games, but deciding if this is a pairing that can win enough games.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).