Before the Timberwolves kicked off their 53rd game of the season last night, the rumor mill was working full steam ahead.
The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski was reporting that Minnesota has been heavily working the phone lines to try and move the albatross contracts of Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, which is a hard sell without giving future assets back. Krawczynski also mentioned that general manager Scott Layden has been taking calls on Andrew Wiggins, but negotiations have been equally as stagnant due to his contract, consistently disappointing play, and the fact Minnesota doesn’t want to get scraps for him.
Most fans would agree moving at least one of these players—as well as some combination of Anthony Tolliver, Taj Gibson, and Derrick Rose—is vital to a team that needs a jump start in the worst possible way. The Wolves have far too much money and expiring contracts on the books for a team that seems destined for another trip to the lottery. They need to start looking for a new direction to keep Karl-Anthony Towns from pursuing the Anthony Davis route down the line.
There was also one peculiar trade rumor that popped up—one that has mixed reactions around the fan base. Sporting News’ Sean Deveney has reported that teams are testing the waters for Dario Saric, with a league executive suggesting he could be had for a first-round pick and a player. The 24-year-old was a key component in the trade that shipped Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia and was brought in with the hope that he would be a key piece for the foreseeable future.
Speaking to Darren Wolfson on The Scoop Podcast shortly after the deal was brokered, owner Glen Taylor was insistent on Saric’s future with the Wolves.
“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.
It was easy to see why. Saric averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists over his Sixers tenure, cementing himself as a solid starting four who can splash 3-pointers and provide above average playmaking. Over the last couple of weeks though, his glistening potential has become a little bit murkier.
Since January 1 (16 games), Saric has put up 7.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists per night. He has struggled to throw a rock in the ocean, shooting a meager 40.4 percent from the field. He has looked comfortable only in fleeting moments since he arrived. With his Philly running mate sidelined with a knee injury (Robert Covington), Saric has seemed even more out of his comfort zone.
Put those puzzle pieces together and it’s not hard to gather why the front office would be open to moving him if the right deal popped up.
When Saric checked in last night with a tick over five minutes remaining in the first quarter, the depleted Memphis Grizzlies were already leading by 19 points. Nobody would have taken much notice if he folded up like the rest of his teammates and checked out mentally, especially with those trade rumors being bandied around.
Instead, Super Dario used the chance to show the team and fans exactly what he is capable of. Within four seconds of being on the hardwood, he was in the scoring column with a nifty pump-fake and driving layup. A minute later, he drained a catch-and-shoot trifecta. Starting to feel himself a little for the first time in weeks, Saric got his third field goal in as many minutes after faking Shelvin Mack off his feet, stepping through, faking Ivan Rabb off his feet, and flipping in the left-hand layup.
After an offensive rebound and successful trip to the line, the Croatian already had nine points. He was the sole reason the Wolves were in any sort of striking distance.
After his opening term flurry, Saric maintained his crazy scoring pace in the second quarter. He added points 10 and 11 from the free throw line, curled off a Gorgui Dieng pick and dropped in a pretty running hook shot, and splashed home another 3-pointer after a well-executed pick-and-pop with Jerryd Bayless. When the halftime siren sounded, the 6-foot-10 forward had already registered 16 points and had played incumbent starter Taj Gibson off the floor.
Saric showed the other tantalizing aspect to his game in the second half: his passing. Twice in two minutes he slung high-low passes to Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, with KAT converting both opportunities. Then he whipped an awesome touch-pass to Bayless, who got his man to fly by before draining a long-range jumper.
After seeing his third trey of the night tickle the twine, The Homie dropped off a gorgeous bounce pass to a cutting Luol Deng for an easy deuce. It was a bucket that brought the Grizzlies’ lead down to seven points and sparked a run that only ended when Josh Okogie fouled Justin Holiday with 0.1 seconds left in the game—a foul that would ultimately result in a loss for the Wolves.
Oh yeah, Saric also hit his fourth 3-point bomb in that run. A pump-fake, reload, cash deposit from the left slot that had fans truly believing Minnesota could actually win one of their ugliest showings of the season:
After starting the game on the sour end of a 23-4 run, Minnesota was doomed from the get-go, but it was by no fault of Dario Saric. He finished with 22 points, five rebounds, and five assists. When he was on the floor, Minnesota outscored Memphis by a stunning 29 points, despite losing the game by two.
The hope is that this will be the spark that lights an inferno under the former Sixer. And one that also puts any inkling of a trade to bed for good. Saric has proven throughout his career that he can be a good player, he just needs the confidence and perhaps that will come in a larger role.
Perhaps Taj Gibson gets moved by the deadline and Saric feels more at home in the starting five. Even if he doesn’t though, he will do himself no harm if he can play even half as good as last night on a regular basis.
Dry spells come and go in the NBA, but The Homie is eternal. Let’s just hope his career in Minnesota brings many more performances like last night.