Dario Saric has basketball in his blood.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ talented youngster was born to two professional basketball players, Predrag and Veselinka, and spent much of his early life dominating international play for Croatia — a path that made him one of Europe biggest can’t-miss prospects in recent memory. But beyond the inherited genes and award-winning talent, there’s something else that makes up a large part of Saric’s rich basketball history. Believe it or not, it’s actually a fond callback to a golden era in the NBA’s past.
“My father was the basketball player and he was the old-school generation in the 80s and early 90s,” Saric told Basketball Insiders. “He showed me a lot of clips, mostly the rivalries between Lakers-Celtics, Celtics-76ers, and 76ers-Lakers.”
During his father’s lengthy professional career, Predrag became a club legend for KK Sibenik and played alongside the great Drazen Petrovic — still, he made a habit of teaching his son about basketball in America. Propped up by hours of grainy video, Saric’s earliest basketball memories are dominated by likes of Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and Larry Bird in the 1980s. From Dr. J’s famous behind-the-backboard reverse layup to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s quintessential sky-hook, it’s fair to say that Saric was influenced by the some of best ever from the very beginning.
Saric was born roughly 4,449 miles from the arena he now calls home in Philadelphia — and almost 11 years after the 76ers’ last championship — but his love for the NBA has stretched across the Atlantic Ocean for as long as he can remember.
“I watched so many games and so many videos about those rivalries and now I’m part of it,” Saric said. “For me, that means a lot.”
Up to this point, Saric has gladly played his role in the 76ers’ rebirth — he himself stands as a prize of the polarizing processed-trusted mantra of former general manager Sam Hinkie — and at just 23 years-old, there’s still plenty left to come. With basketball deeply entrenched in his genes and the Hall of Fame highlights serving as his inspiration, Saric eclipsed the competition in Croatia and Turkey from 2009-16, quickly building his case as an NBA-worthy prospect.
Saric is a two-time winner of the FIBA Europe Young Men’s Player of the Year Award, an Adriatic League MVP and a champion at Croatia’s highest level. Internationally, the 6-foot-10 forward has been just as impressive, carrying his country to U-16 and U-18 gold medals in 2010 and 2012, tournaments that both finished with Saric as their MVP honoree. During his final season overseas, Saric averaged 11.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in Euroleague play for Anadolu Efes, a Turkish team that he credits for driving his insatiable hunger.
“In Europe, you always have rivalry games, almost like many times in a month — especially in Turkey, where I played,” Saric said. “But for me, there’s some other thing about a rivalry game, it’s about having the opportunity to beat another team, to be more happy [than them] after that — I think that’s what fuels me as a basketball player.”
Those internal motivators helped Saric to a second-place finish for Rookie of the Year in 2016-17 and it’s how he continues to make a palpable impact in Philadelphia despite the slew of new names and faces. A healthy Joel Embiid — whom Saric called “probably the best big man in the league” — and Ben Simmons, along with key free agent acquisition J.J. Redick, have caused the Croatian’s usage to drop from 24.6 to just 18. Regardless, Saric has averaged numbers similar to his successful rookie season and he’s all about contributing to the 76ers’ growing confidence in any way he can.
“I really feel like this season, it isn’t about me,” Saric told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s more about the team, we’re really young and talented. To be part of this, I’m very happy. Maybe my role doesn’t seem [as big as it was] at the end of last year but the team has a good chance to make the playoffs.
“If I can sacrifice for the team, why not?”
The 76ers currently sit at 13-10, good for fifth place in the Eastern Conference — a record built largely without Markelle Fultz, the recent No. 1 overall selection from June’s draft. And while Simmons and Embiid are likely All-Star Game-bound, Saric has looked better and better with each passing week. In fact, Saric has posted double-digit scoring totals in seven of his last nine games and the sophomore has gotten to the free throw line at a much higher rate as well. To Saric’s credit, head coach Brett Brown placed the impressive stretch on a new-found comfort.
“Like anything, you get comfortable the more you do something,” Brown said. “I think that Dario, because he’s getting more into a rhythm of how I’m playing him and some of the things that we’re looking for, it just allows him a high level of comfort [and] expectations in knowing how he can most influence the game.”
For what it’s worth, Saric and Brown have nearly opposite paths to the NBA, but that hasn’t stopped the pair from appreciating each other’s unique journey. Brown was a high school star from South Portland, Maine who excelled at Boston University under Rick Pitino during the early 1980s. After latching onto the Melbourne Tigers as an assistant coach in 1988 while on a backpacking trip, Brown spent the majority of the following 12 years in Australia. When he eventually joined the NBA for good, it was with the San Antonio Spurs, where Brown mastered his craft under head coach Gregg Popovich.
Still, Brown reminisces about those fabled seasons and rivalries just like Saric does.
“Like I’ve said every time I come [to Boston], I drove down [I-95] as a seven-year-old, a six-year-old, a ten-year-old, a thirteen-year-old, I did it almost every single year,” Brown said. “I went to school here, so the history, personally, that I have in this city, especially following the Celtics — I listen to Dario share some of those stories, it’s a very historic program and I think that his memories go back earlier than you would expect them to.”
Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that Saric has cemented himself as one of the NBA’s brightest young talents — his flesh and blood nearly willed it into existence. And although Saric will never be able to claim that he saw Larry Legend live like his head coach did, it’s an invaluable piece of his vast adventure all the same. From Predrag to Parish and all the iconic rivalries in between — in Turkey, Philadelphia or otherwise — Saric and his rich history with basketball have propelled him forward time and time again.
“Dario, because he comes such a basketball family. . . he was raised and groomed to play basketball,” Brown said. “He grew up in this environment, so his days of remembering the 76ers and Celtics — albeit he’s sort of a history revisionist and a little bit [of it was] when he was really young — he appreciates it.
“I’m proud that he does, I think it shows how much he loves the game.”
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