In the games after Robert Covington and Dario Saric arrived in Minnesota, there was a flurry of excitement around the fan base. Most of it was directed towards Covington, the powerhouse defense that makes him special, and his ability to hit long-range jumpers. While the local and national media were justifiably caught in the RoCo hoopla, Saric was left free of criticism and allowed to quietly adjust to his new life in the Twin Cities.
Despite coming off the bench to replace Taj Gibson, Saric has become one of the most important spokes in the Timberwolves wheel. His effort and energy is palpable off the bench, even if he publicly admitted on his first day at the Mayo Clinic Square that his preference is to start.
“If you ask me, I like to start in the first lineup, I feel more comfortable ... I like to be a starter, but at the end of the day everything is about how the team is doing, what is good for the team to get more wins,” he said in his introductory press conference.
Saric has received a solid 24.1 minutes per game on average in his 19-game Timberwolves stint, which isn’t quite starter-level minutes. However, it is a very high number for a Tom Thibodeau reserve, and it seems to be a number that is trending higher each and every night.
The Homie was a fan favorite during his time in Philadelphia, and he has quickly captured the same type of love around the Wolves fan base. At just 24-years-old, he provides the perfect balance of immediate substance and future potential. He started off his Minnesota career a bit slowly, stuck in adjustment mode over his first seven games. He averaged 10.7 points, 6 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game while shooting just 42.2 percent from the field and 28.6 percent on his triples.
Super Dario wasn’t looking so super. He looked a bit lost in Thibs’ isolation-heavy offense at first, especially after being accustomed to 76ers coach Brett Brown’s more complicated offensive schemes. He used his beaming basketball IQ to get points slashing to the rim, but he was struggling to hit 3-pointers when asked to stand behind the arc and wait for a catch-and-shoot opportunity. He wasn’t being asked to move, control the ball, and use his above-average passing ability from the power forward position. A role that seemed to throw his game for a loop at times.
When Saric did get the chance to play the role of something more than a standstill shooter, he seemed to force the action. In the clip below, a confident Dario Saric either steps into a 3-pointer or drives and kicks to a wide-open Robert Covington in the corner. At the time though, he wasn’t the self-assured Saric we have come to love, he dodges the smarter options, lumbering into a forced and contested layup instead:
Saric’s game goes far beyond stand-in-the-corner spot-up triples, and it took a while for Thibs to realize and take advantage of that. Now that he has, Super Dario has rediscovered his powers and is consequently playing some of the best basketball of his young career.
In the 11 games after his slow start, the Croatian is putting up 11.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2 assists per outing, shooting a scorching 55.3 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from deep. When you whittle the parameters down to the last five games, those numbers go up to 13.5 points, 7 rebounds and 2.8 assists, connecting on 57.1 percent of his field goals and 38.9 percent of his long-bombs.
With his confidence and role and continuing to expand, Saric is beginning to stamp his authority on the Timberwolves bench. No longer is he being forced to stand on the perimeter and wait for shots. He is now plodding his 6-foot-10 frame around the arc. He isn’t going to blow anyone away with his quickness, but he is an extremely smart player that always knows where to be and what to do. He uses those brains to slither into open pockets of space, constantly relocating to give passers an open highway to his hands.
Saric’s ego is now healthy and happy, resulting in a completely revamped effectiveness. The big man has nailed 13 of 33 (39.4%) catch-and-shoot triples in the last ten outings.
In this collection of clips, you can see how Saric is constantly looking to get open. He never settles for standing still and waiting for the ball. The Homie opts to work hard for his shots, and more often than not, it pays off:
When he isn’t spacing the floor, he is attacking off the dribble with smarts, either getting easy buckets at the rim or dishing out dimes to players in better positions. Saric has a penchant for facilitating with flair. But he it’s not just flashy, he rarely chooses the wrong pass.
In Thibodeau’s prehistoric offensive schemes, Saric is forced to post-up more than he would probably like. He has converted on only 42.9 percent of the shots he has garnered from post-ups, but has also demonstrated an expertise in firing passes to teammates in more advantageous scoring positions.
It could be a wraparound dish to a cutting Gorgui Dieng or Taj Gibson, or a kick-out bullet pass to a spot-up shooter like Derrick Rose or Robert Covington. The process is usually inch-perfect, and the result is often a bucket:
Defensively, his impact is a bit more difficult to spot. That doesn’t mean it’s not there though. Like everything Saric does on the hardwood, his work on defense stems from a basketball mind that oozes brilliance. He isn’t a fast and bouncy athlete like a Karl-Anthony Towns, or long and able to swat shots like Dieng. What he does do is use his girth and 6-foot-10 frame well, managing to stifle would-be scorers by simply getting in position and staying vertical.
When the former Euroleague sensation is on the floor, the Timberwolves are posting a 101.9 defensive rating. If that number was extended to the entire team, that would be good for the second best mark in the league. When Saric sits, Minnesota registers a 108 defensive rating, which is closer to their overall mark for the season (109.8) and would rank as the 14th best in the NBA.
While primarily lining up with a bench unit that excels on defense plays a part in these numbers, it’s obvious when watching units with Saric that he does his job diligently and effectively. If you kept an eye on Saric in Philadelphia, none of this will come as a surprise. He has been an elite level complementary player since the minute he entered the league.
The only problem with Super Dario’s breakout stretch is his team’s performance. In the aforementioned 11 games of quality play, the Timberwolves have only won four times. Games like the road loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns, and the home loss to the Detroit Pistons after entering the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead, have really hurt the team’s slim playoff hopes.
Minnesota now holds a 15-18 record and sit 13th in the Western Conference. In one of the tightest playoff races in memory, being three games under .500 is a big mountain to climb but certainly out of the realm of possibilities if they can string together a solid winning streak and start performing on the road.
For Saric (and Covington), losing isn’t a strange feeling. The Sixers won just 28 games in his first season in the States. However, he has constantly talked about the playoffs and clearly wants to be on a winning squad. According to Sportrac, the big man won’t be a restricted free agent until the 2021 offseason and is eligible for an extension in the 2020-21 season. So he is here for the long run and will be desperate for the front office to build a winning squad.
Team owner Glen Taylor has already gone public with his love for Saric’s game. In an interview with Darren Wolfson on The Scoop Podcast, Glen was candid about his plans for the Croatian’s future.
“That, I think for me, was part of the key of this trade. We will get two guys that I can count on in the starting lineup over the next number of years ... two guys we brought in with the idea that we can keep them,” Taylor said.
A couple years from now, things might look a lot different in Minnesota. But if everything goes according to plan, the Super Dario Show will still be going strong.
*All statistics are accurate as of the 22nd of December