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What can the Thunder expect from Dario Saric?

Saric’s player profile seems to fit neatly with what Coach Daigneault wants at the center spot

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Detroit Pistons Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

At the trade deadline, the Thunder acquired Dario Saric from the Suns for Darius Bazley. It was a move done to shore up the front-court after Mike Muscala was shipped out earlier in the day.

I had expected for Saric to play in the Thunder’s game against the Pelicans but the Croatian did not play. Coach Daigneault chose to bring Jeremiah Robinson-Earl back into the rotation after a long spell on the sidelines due to injury. This meant that Saric did not make his debut and we are yet to see him in Thunder Blue.

Dario came into the league as this coveted, highly anticipated young talent who had spent two years playing for Anadolu Efes Istanbul in Turkey. He was taken in the 2014 NBA Draft by Sam Hinkie and Philly had to wait a long time to see his game in the flesh.

The distance and limited footage relating to Dario made him seem mysterious; Sixers’ fans were sure that he would be a good player but they did not know exactly what he would look like on an NBA floor.

In his rookie season in Philadelphia, Saric slotted seamlessly into Brett Brown’s rotation and impressed as part of the Process Sixers. In 2016-17, he finished as the runner-up to Malcolm Brogdon in the race for Rookie of the Year.

He was then traded to Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler deal before being flipped to Phoenix where Saric found a new lease of life. In the 2020-21 season, Dario was excellent off the bench for Monty Williams’ men. His passing and ability to knock down the long ball energised the Suns’ bench unit and contributed greatly to their Finals’ run in 2021.

Sadly, Saric tore his ACL in Game 1 of the Finals and has struggled to find minutes ever since. The ACL tear has sapped quickness out of his game and Saric has found it more difficult to contribute in Coach Williams’ system.

Phoenix run a lot of Spain pick and roll which requires their bigs to be effective rim-rollers. Dario’s distinct lack of pace means that he finds it tough to cover ground quickly and get to the hole like Bismack Biyombo or Jock Landale can.

His lack of foot speed also harms his ability to stay on the court. Saric is not the sort of player who can play in a hedge coverage; he simply does not have the ability to chase after smaller players.

Both of these issues meant that Saric dropped out of Monty’s rotation and has been looking for a trade ever since. In Oklahoma City, I think that Saric will fit nicely on the roster. Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun provided some insight into Dario’s game.

‘Monty calls him “chaotic” but a controlled kind of chaos. You constantly worry he’s going to fall down when he’s driving the lane against a defender but he’s fairly effective as long as they don’t expect his stop, pump fake, pump fake, shoot move.’

‘Dario is one of the best human beings and teammates ever’

Over the last three years, Presti has prioritised building a roster of players who have good characters and behave professionally. If you look at Mike Muscala and Kenrich Williams, you can see the sort of traits that Sam wants to instil in the roster. The Thunder like players who work hard and sacrifice themselves for the team. From Dave has said, it sounds like Saric falls into that category.

The ‘controlled kind of chaos’ part of Dave’s comment was very interesting and tallies up with the eye test. Dario is creative and almost plays the game in freeform with how he blends passing and driving to the basket.

Coach Daigneault wants the center to pass the ball and find teammates in good positions to score; Jaylin Williams and Kenrich Williams both see time at the 5 for this reason. Saric is an adept passer in the front-court and should allow Daigneault to play a passing big for all 48 minutes of the game.

Saric is also a career 36% shooter from deep, this should go some way to replacing the marksman-like abilities of Mike Muscala.

There are defensive concerns associated with Dario but I think the Thunder’s system is very good at masking deficiencies in the interior. OKC are 11th in Defensive Rating without playing a traditional center this season and a lot of this comes down to how Coach Daigneault organises the team.

Daigneault drops the center really deep and the Thunder sink down on the paint whenever the opposing team gets below the 3-point arc. Oklahoma City defend in numbers inside and then rely on athleticism to get out on open shooters. It is not a perfect strategy but it has helped make the Thunder’s interior more sturdy. In a system, Saric’s lack of speed will be hidden.

On the whole, Saric is a solid veteran and his play style fits how the Thunder want to play. It is an acquisition that I feel quite happy about given that Bazley was likely going to walk in restricted free agency this summer for nothing.