Four weeks in, it feels like everything is happening at the same time. Jimmy Butler is about to make his Philadelphia 76ers debut, Carmelo Anthony is (reportedly) about to be a free agent and — I’m sorry, I don’t even want to mention this — Caris LeVert is about to . Beyond all that, there are a million less obvious storylines to discuss. We’ll start with how one of the recently traded might find his mojo in Minnesota, and then we’ll take a spin.
An extra life for Super Dario
Dario Saric has been a bummer this season. While he had a couple of 18-point games before the to the Minnesota Timberwolves, by and large he has been limited by his role. When Markelle Fultz entered the starting lineup, Saric went from Philadelphia’s third option on offense to something of a gap filler. When he grabbed rebounds, he immediately threw outlet passes to Ben Simmons or Fultz instead of pushing the ball. He rarely posted up, ran pick-and-rolls or isolated. He didn’t complain publicly about his role, but his efficiency plummeted: he missed 43 of his first 56 shots from 3-point range this season, and in 13 games he shot only 30 percent from the field.
Before this season, Saric had already sacrificed for the team. In order to make room for Simmons last season, he improved his 3-point shot and accepted less playmaking responsibility. He still had his opportunities, though, and he scored 20 or more points five times in Philadelphia’s 10 playoff games. When opposing teams switched against the Sixers, he could punish them in the post. His one-on-one forays toward the basket weren’t always smooth, but he has the touch necessary to make hooks and flip shots that drive defenders crazy. It wasn’t quite the same as his rookie year, though.
In the second half of the 2016-17 season, when Joel Embiid was sidelined and Simmons had yet to play in an NBA game, Saric was far and away Philadelphia’s most talented player. Over a 25-game stretch from early February to late March, he averaged 19.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists, making a compelling case for Rookie of the Year. (Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks wound up winning it.) Beyond the nice numbers, Saric seemed special back then because of his unusual, unpredictable passes. He used angles most 6-foot-10 players can’t see. He zipped quick passes to open shooters and found cutters when their defenders’ heads were turned. His creativity, the defining element of his game, was on full display. It hasn’t been since.
That version of Saric regularly saw double-teams. Once, he was quadruple-teamed. He hit face-up jumpers, he hit stepbacks, he made plays for himself and others off the dribble. Generally, good things happened when he touched the ball, and it was obvious why he was described as a point forward in pre-draft scouting reports. His play back then was so dramatically different than what we’ve seen recently, I would argue that nobody — or at least nobody who receives regular minutes — has been more marginalized. Perhaps the Minnesota Timberwolves can change that.