Beyond the Box Score: Dario Saric’s Defensive Rotations

Dario Saric is averaging 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6 assists for Croatia, but it's the little things that have impressed the most.

Jan 6, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown during the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Wells Fargo Center. The Timberwolves defeated the Sixers 126-95. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers head coach Brett Brown will be happy to have Dario Saric in his rotation next season. | Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports

Dario Saric has been a key cog for the Croatian National Team, averaging 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6 assists for Croatia so far in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Through two games Saric has shown many of the qualities (great court vision, consistent effort, rebounding) that potentially make him such a valuable, and exciting, role player, while also showing off some of the limitations (mediocre athleticism, lack of rim protection, slow first step, lack of defensive versatility) which limit his ceiling. Saric has struggled a bit during the tournament to create offense off the dribble, and starting the tournament off by missing his first nine shots from three-point range shows just how important it is for that improved jump shot to carry over to the NBA.

Still, while the flashy passing and the incredible hustle that led to the game-saving block on Pau Gasol in the waning seconds of Croatia’s 72-70 win over Spain are certainly something to be excited about, Saric’s defensive awareness has been on display as well, and that’s something which is going to be critical for Saric to get the most out of his limited defensive profile, and why I’m bullish on him being a contributor on that end of the court despite his obvious limitations.

Below are a couple of examples of relatively simple read-and-react defensive situations that are very important to a team’s defensive concepts. Also, because it wouldn’t be a Dario Saric article without some passing highlights, I’ve included a couple of those at the bottom of this article as well.

The first video is with Saric off the ball, with his man setting a screen on his teammate, who is defending Pau Gasol. Saric recognizes the screen, pops out, and slows Gasol down, giving his man a chance to recover, with Saric then jumping back and blanketing his original cover. In the end, in large part because of Saric’s role in the play, an entry pass isn’t even made and Spain instead opts to set up a pick and roll.

This second play is similar in that Saric is once again off the ball and provides help disrupting a play. This time Spain runs some pick and roll action with Pau Gasol (they like to do that), and Gasol’s defender (Miro Bilan) shows on the ball handler, leaving Gasol free to roll to the hoop. Saric rotates off of his man (Nikola Mirotic) just long enough to slow Gasol down and give Bilan a chance to recover. Granted, Saric briefly lost Mirotic’s after slowing Gasol down, but he did his job on this play.

Next up is another Pau Gasol pick and roll, and once again Bilan hard shows. Gasol pops this time rather than rolling to the basket, and Saric once again recognizes his rotation and gets out to contest the shot. Gasol connects, but Saric’s rotation was quick and he closed out well.

Here Saric gets caught on a mismatch, defending future teammate Sergio Rodriguez on the perimeter. Saric recognizes the mismatch and realizes that they have to switch back. After noticing that Bilan has disengaged Gasol, Saric rotates back to his original matchup and jumps the passing lane, taking away the play Rodriguez was focused on and forcing him into a turnover.

Here’s Saric matched up against Luis Scola, who has a big advantage over Saric in the post. Scola backs Saric down, as this is one of Saric’s weaknesses, as he just doesn’t have the size or strength to prevent this at this stage of his career. Still, his technique is sound, engaging Scola far away from the hoop and not letting him establish deep post position, with a wide, low stance to give him as much leverage as he can. While Saric gave up ground, his proper technique slowed Scola down just enough so that help could come over and force the ball out of Scola’s hands.

And, of course, there was the game saving block. While the other videos are examples of plays Saric regularly makes, the block is not. Saric blocked a grand total of 11 shots during Turkish League play last year, and has neither the great length or exceptional leaping ability where you would project him to be much of a rim protector in the NBA, and this limits his defensive versatility some, as 6’10” guys are increasingly getting time as small-ball 5’s in some lineups.

Still, Saric was aware of time and situation, and with Croatia electing not to defend the inbounder once he realized that his man (Mirotic) was sealed off he had his head on a swivel and made an immediate reaction, then finished it off with the hustle that is going to make Saric a fan favorite in Philadelphia. The key here is the recognition. There are some big men with far superior athletic ability than Saric who simply wouldn’t have seen the rotation to make, and wouldn’t have impacted the play.

None of these plays are the type of plays that are likely to wow an audience, but they’re examples of quality decision making on the defensive end of the court that helps Saric overcome some of his physical limitations. That’s not to say Saric’s decision making is perfect, he tends to over-help, with his effort at times counterproductive, and it’s not to say Saric is going to be an impact defender, as his lack of rim protection and relatively slow feet on the perimeter is a lot to overcome, but it shows good awareness for his age and experience level, and will be key in him making the most of his physical profile.

And, finally, a couple of Saric’s passes from Croatia’s win against Spain. The creativity on this team is going to be fun to watch, regardless of whether the wins are there at a high volume yet.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.