Everything You Need to Know About Dario Saric (Updated)

Published: June 6, 2013

I said in the last podcast that it was clear to me by this time in the process that Austin Rivers would be the 10th pick, but that this year was way different and I had no idea what the Pelicans would do with the sixth pick.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

Even though I had Dario Saric going sixth to us in my first mock draft on the night of the draft lottery, I wasn’t as confident as when I predicted Rivers would be the pick on the same night last year. I had heard Dell really liked Saric and when you combined that with Monty’s comments about drafting for need, Dario Saric seemed like the most likely pick with Otto Porter off the board. After really researching Saric intensively these past few weeks and looking back at some comments Dell has made and some whispers we have heard, combined with the fact that Dell got a lot of his education in the San Antonio organization, I really think Saric could be the pick even if guys like Porter, Oladipo, or Burke are available when we select.

Though our own Michael Pellisier did a tremendous job arguing for Dario Saric in the first round of our Sixth Pick Tournament, there are still a couple of questions I get on a fairly regular basis that I would like to answer in this piece. To be clear, this is not a piece where I will give my opinions on Saric or make an argument for the Pelicans to pick him. It will also not be a piece where I give you my ideas of the strengths and weaknesses of his game. It is meant to clarify some questions that come with the unfamiliarity that we are all naturally going to have with an international players. International players bring with them an obscurity, whether it is in regard to their contracts, their game, or the level of competition they have played against and how it compares to the college game. Hopefully, in this piece I can address some of those questions and provide a piece to look back on when if we take Dario Saric on draft night.

1. Can Saric play right away or would will leave him in Europe for a year or two?

This is kind of a trick because it really is two questions rolled into one, but this is the question I get asked the most so I will address it directly here. First, let’s pull apart the two questions:

            A. Can Saric play right away?

I will answer this question with a question: How many rookies can play and play well right away? Looking back on last year, for instance, I count only two rookies who had a PER over 15 (which represents a league average player) and played 24+ minutes per game. Even if I lowered that that to 17 minutes per game, that number only jumps to four, with Andre Drummond and Jonas Valanciunas joining Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard.

At small forward, Moe Harkless and Harrison Barnes were given starter’s minutes and most observers thought they did alright but their PER’s were only 12.54 and 11.08 respectively. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the second overall pick in a draft that is said to be much stronger than this one only played 25 minutes per game and put up a PER of 14.04 for a very bad Charlotte team. The point I am getting at is that if you expect any rookie to come in and provide help right away for the Pelicans, you are likely to be disappointed. As far as next year is concerned, the Pelicans would probably be better off grabbing a guy like Dorrell Wright (16.07) or Corey Brewer (14.76) to start for them than expect any rookie, including Saric, to come in and play big minutes.

         B. Will the Pelicans bring him over or leave him in Europe? 

Saric had a fairly tumultuous year, as his club team lost its place in the Adriatic League and he was forced to switch teams after a messy buyout and series of contract negotiations. He never really clicked with his new team, mostly because they took the ball out of his hands and forced him to play more as a power forward than a point forward. Recently, he has stated that he will “try to play in Croatia next year” even if he is drafted in the first round. This goes against what he said just a couple of weeks earlier, but that shouldn’t be surprising if you have followed Saric the past few months. He has put his name into the draft, pulled it out, only to put it back in again. And he has even said that he might pull it out again, depending on the advice of his agent and the promises (or lack there of) that teams will give him. Don’t read too much into this, it is a ploy used quite often by international prospects and their agents to gain as much leverage as possible. Par for the course, really.

If he is drafted by the Pelicans, Dell will have a say in this, and there is some reason to believe that the Pelicans might entertain the idea of leaving him overseas. The Spurs discovered Manu Ginobli at the same age, when he was playing in Argentina. A few years later they spent the 57th pick in the 1999 draft on him, but waited a few seasons to bring him over. In that time, Ginobli blossomed, winning multiple Championships and MVP awards. That, combined with some stellar international play, helped his game mature and by the time he got to the Spurs, he was able to log significant minutes. He posted a PER of 18.5 in his second season, and prior to this season, was over 20 in every subsequent season. Knowing that Dell and Monty both were with the Spurs at different times of Manu’s career, it would not be surprising to see them try to duplicate this model.

Of course, using the 6th pick on somebody is far different than using the 57th pick on a player, but need I remind you that Jonas Valanciunas was selected 5th just two years ago and spent that first season overseas where he racked up multiple player of the year awards before coming to Toronto last season and enjoying a fine rookie year. Ricky Rubio went 5th in 2009 and stayed over for two years and had an immediate impact in the NBA once he came over. Some would argue that if the kid is going to struggle regardless when he is 19 or 20, why not leave him over in Europe and delay the start of his rookie contract. Dell might be on board with that strategy, but will Saric agree?

In these situations, the agent runs the whole show. The International player doesn’t really have a complete understanding of how our draft process works and it is the agent’s job to do what he thinks is in the best interest for his client. They tend to play the NBA against International teams, increasing their leverage in both markets. You also have to remember that Saric is doing interviews in Europe where he is a hero and where it is in his best interest to say that he will return next season. Imagine Dwight Howard going on LA radio and saying that he plans to leave. What would be the benefit in doing that? Same with Saric.

Something else to consider is the fact that Dell Demps has some ties with Saric’s club team. Dell Demps played for KK Cibona back in 1998-99, and you could speculate that he probably still has a good relationship with the organization today. We have heard that GM’s don’t like to send players to the NBDL unless they own the team because they don’t know if they will be developed properly or taught the things the organization wants them to be taught. It is possible that because of this relationship Dell has with his team, they can form a partnership that allows Saric to grow into the kind of player the Pelicans want him to be.

One thing is clear,  Dell will have conversations with Saric and his agent and if he makes him the pick at #6, all three men will have a clear plan for where Saric will be next year and the years following.

2. What is Saric’s current contract situation and what are our options if we take him and bring him over?

Dario Saric is currently under a four year contract with Cibona that he signed last November, but he has a 1.2 million Euro buyout (about 1.57 million U.S.) and the Pelicans are allowed to pay $500,000 towards that buyout. Saric would owe the remaining one million dollars and change. If he gets 120% of the rookie scale, which is the norm, he would get a little over 3.2 million in his rookie year. If the Pelicans pay the full amount allowed per the CBA towards his buyout, Saric would net 2.2 million dollars this year and would stand to make more money over the course of his rookie contract than he would with his current Cibona contract, even when you factor in the cost of the buyout.

3. If Saric plays overseas next season, will he count against our cap?

If both the Pelicans and Saric agree that this would be the best course of action, they would each have to write letters to the league office stating that Saric will not play in the NBA this year. If this were to happen, the Pelicans would retain future rights but would have no cap hold on the books for the 2013-14 season. The cap hold for the sixth pick will be a little over 2.6 million this year, so that savings could theoretically help the Pelicans sign free agents this summer while Saric develops overseas. If the Pelicans and Saric were to take this course of action, his rookie contract will essentially be frozen at its current slot and just pick back up whenever he comes over.

4. If Dell really wants Saric, why not trade back and get him later?

A couple of things here. First of all, there is no guarantee he will be there later. I know that there are mock drafts out right now that project Saric anywhere from 13 to 23, but those things mean absolutely nothing. Paul George was projected to go in the 20’s in most mock drafts early in June of 2010. At this time last year, Dion Waiters was projected to go somewhere between 11 and 14. Take those with a grain of salt. Don’t think for a second that those things represent a player’s value. Dell won’t care about those mock drafts, that’s for sure. He will set up his board and take the guy he thinks has the most potential to help this team, independent of how other teams might feel about those players. For instance, Dell Demps absolutely loved Kenneth Faried in 2011 and would have taken him as high as 12th if we had a pick that year. Would it have been viewed as a reach at the time? Maybe. Would Dell have cared? No. Nor should he.

You don’t want to get cute if there is a guy that you really want especially if you aren’t going to get much in return to trade down. Maybe he can slip down to 9 or 10 and still feel like it is a safe bet that Saric will be there, but should he risk that for something like the 26th pick – a pick that has a 15% chance of landing you a rotation player? Put it this way, take the guy YOU love: Burke, Porter, Oladipo, whoever. They are there at 6. Would you trade down and risk losing them for the 26th pick? That is how Dell might feel about Saric. Not worth the risk, just because some guys with mock drafts tell you he will probably be available. In Chad Ford’s latest chat, he stated that “a handful of teams believe Saric is a top five talent in the draft” and that “scouts that really know Europe don’t see much of a difference between him and Otto Porter.” Who knows if one of those teams who has him top five is right behind your or if they would be willing to trade up in front of you to snatch him if you trade back.

The same way that YOU wouldn’t risk letting one of your top five guys go if he is sitting there at 6, I don’t think Dell will get to cute with it either. Especially not for a 15% chance at a rotation player when Dell has shown he can get rotation players (Belinelli, Ayon, Smith, Green, Roberts, etc.) for peanuts any time he wants.

5. How does the level of competition he played against in his league stack up to the NCAA?

This is a great question, and honestly the one I had to do the most research on because there are so many different leagues in Europe. For the past two seasons, he has been playing regularly in the Adriatic League, also known as the ABA, which is widely regarded as either the best or second best regional professional basketball league in Europe. This is the league that produced Nikola Pekovic and Goran Dragic amongst others and, this season, featured some familiar names like DJ Strawberry, Terrico White, Darko Planinic, and current San Antonio Spur Aron Baynes. The league is full of much older, bigger, and smarter players, along with former American college stars whose games have now matured as well, so most (if not all) would say that this league offers a higher level of competition than you would find in the NCAA’s.

After the Adriatic League’s season was over, he joined KK Cibona in the Croatian League and led them to the Championship Round last week where they swept rival KK Zadar to win their second straight Croatian League title. Saric and DJ Strawberry were the best players in the playoffs and Saric had a remarkably efficient performance in the championship clinching game, scoring 19 points on just 5 shots, while pulling down a game high 12 rebounds.

Saric also performed very well in in the 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championship. Even though he was one of the youngest players in the competition (just 17 at the time), he put up 18.1 points and 8.1 rebounds, including 22, 11, and 4 in a win against a Lithuania team that featured Jonas Valanciunas. Then, he put up 17 and 8 with 4 steals as Croatia pulled a huge upset in an 87-85 win over a United States team that featured Jeremy Lamb, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Tony Mitchell, Patric Young, and Meyers Leonard. The next year he led Croatia to the gold medal in the FIBA Europe Under-18 Championship, scoring 25.6 and grabbing 10.1 rebounds, winning the MVP unanimously.

One other statistic of note that I want to point out. When you just look at his raw numbers on some draft sites and don’t do any research, you will see that Saric shot 50% from the free throw line this year. That was in the Adriatic League, where he went 20 for 40. Not exactly a large sample size. There was a period in January last season where Anthony Davis shot around 50% from the free throw line with the same amount of attempts, for instance. Again, I will reiterate that he was really uncomfortable there early in the season with his new team, in his new role. Most recently he went 23 for 27 (including 9 for 9 in Championship series) in the Croatian League as he led that team to the Championship in his usual role as a point forward. Looking back at all his data, he is a 68-74% free throw shooter historically. Not great, but not bad when you consider his age. Otto Porter was 75% over his two seasons at Georgetown, for example, so it’s not a big red flag when you look at all  the data as opposed to one very small piece.

6. How do those stats translate to the US game and what should we expect going forward?

This is the hardest part of the entire evaluation. Pekovic dominated statistically in similar leagues, but he was three years older and got far more touches than Saric. His team was built around him, while Saric was a complimentary piece. Goran Dragic had worse numbers in the Adriatic League at a similar age, and quite frankly, it is hard to find anybody who dominated Under 16, 18, and 19 International Leagues and Tournaments the same way that Saric has these past four years.

People say that rebounding always translates, and if that is the case, Saric should be one of the best rebounding small forwards in the league when he matures. In that game earlier this week where he helped his team win the Croatian League Championship, he grabbed more than 25% of the TOTAL rebounds available in that game. He has rebounded at an elite level in every league and against every level of competition. Assists are harder to gauge, primarily because they are so rare in the Euro game. Averaging more than 5 assists in the Adriatic league is akin to averaging 12+ in the NBA. For his position, Saric put up elite numbers, again relative to league counterparts.

The biggest red flag offensively across all leagues is his three point shooting. Whether it is in tournaments, in national competition, or in regional leagues, Saric hovers between 30 and 34 percent from deep. He takes about two per game and his form looks fine, he is just very inconsistent. And of course, the biggest worry is how will he perform against NBA caliber athletes on the defensive end? There is no real data available to predict that, but I will say that I have seen a lot of readers give the benefit of the doubt to prospects or free agent targets that they like, saying that they believe in Monty’s ability to teach defense and improve their capabilities within a team concept. I noticed far fewer people giving this kid that benefit of the doubt, and I’ve got to say that it feels like there is a lot of Euro bias.

And on that note, I just want to dispel a myth that I read all the time. I constantly see people saying they don’t want to take an International player because their bust rate is so much higher, but that is just not true. Euro players bust about 59% of the time. American college players? 50% of the time. In actuality, if you wanted to take the safest pick possible, send a memo to David Stern or Adam Silver saying you want players to be able to come straight from high school because they only bust 32% of the time.

The truth is that we are afraid of what we do not know. We all saw Trey Burke in the NCAA Tournament. We all watched Otto Porter carry a terrible Georgetown team or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope light it up against our beloved LSU Tigers. We didn’t see much of Dario, and that combined with this myth of high Euro bust rate scares us. But each prospect is unique. Don’t just throw them into a pile with other guys because you are ill informed. Do the research with an open, unbiased mind. If you do, I am confident you won’t be as scared of Saric as you will be of some other highly touted American players.

7. The Biggest Question: Why does Dell love him and how does he fit long term?

Remember how Monty harped on not having enough passes per game? He harped on a lot of things this season, but that was one of them and it is because both he and Dell believe in an offense that emphasises everybody touching the ball and everyone on the court making the right pass to get the best shot possible. Is it any surprise, then, that they are enamoured by the best passing frontcourt player in this draft? If the Spurs were somehow sitting here at 6, don’t you think Saric would be the exact kind of guy they would target? The strengths in his draft profile scream San Antonio Spurs – International player who has played and excelled against pro level competition since he was a teenager. Tremendously high IQ, love for the game, gifted passer, team player, with excellent versatility.

Some might say that his perimeter game is a concern, but his mechanics seem fine and the Spurs have taken worse shooters (Kawhi Leonard) and helped them develop that part of their game. Heck, Monty did that with Nicolas Batum as an assistant in Portland, so both Dell and Monty have confidence that they can make him more consistent from the perimeter over time. The real concern is on the defensive end, where Saric lacks the lateral quickness right now to keep up with NBA caliber athletes. On the positive side, he has the length to be disruptive on this end, but he will likely never be more than average laterally. Again, if the Pelicans believe in Saric’s intelligence, they might convince themselves that Ginobli was never a great individual defender either, but his savvyness and willingness to sacrifice his body and take a charge helped win games on that end of the court.

This is the big red flag with Saric, but what prospect in this draft is without one? I have heard talent evaluators say that they often fall into the trap of concerning themselves with what a prospect can’t do, and as a result they forget about all the things he can do. That is, until it is two or three years later and that guy is killing someone in the playoffs and the talent evaluator smacks himself and says, “How did I forget about those things that made him special?” You look at Dario Saric and he is without a peer in this draft with regard to his uniqueness. Almost any prospect in this class, you can point to someone in the NBA and say that he plays like that guy. If I ask you to name a 6’10” forward with ballhandling and passing skills like a point guard, the ability to rebound like a power forward, and the skills to take it to the hole and finish like a two guard, who can you name? Maybe Lamar Odom in his prime? I have also heard Toni Kukoc, or as a twitter follower said to me – “a SF version of Pau Gasol.”

Point is, Saric is perhaps the one guy in this class that brings a really unique dimension to the offensive end of the court. His versatility could allow you to put two shooting guards on the court with him and let him run point, or maybe you can go big and put him at the point with Gordon, Ryno, Davis, and another small forward, or heck even a center. Versititlity, passing, fundamentals, high IQ – that’s Spurs basketball. Coming from that organization, I think Dell and Monty want to make that the foundation of Pelicans basketball. And if that is the case, Dario Saric could very well be the pick.

On June 27th, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

[BREAKING: According to Chad Ford, Dario Saric is “leaning towards withdrawing from the draft.” For anybody who has followed Saric, this is no surprise. He has entered, withdrew, and then reentered all in a matter of two weeks. Then he stated he would need to be a lottery pick to come over, then he said it wouldn’t depend on where he was taken, that he would “try to return to Croatia.”

The timing is a bit curious with Dell having just flown over there. Maybe Dell told him and his people he didn’t think he was ready and couldn’t take him? Maybe his camp wants a promise and Dell said he can’t until he works other people out? Trey Burke is coming in 3 days before the withdrawal deadline. Maybe it is just a coincidence and Saric really does want more time to work on his game regardless of where he will be drafted. One thing I know is that Saric just became the hottest name in the draft and has teams right where he wants them. Now he can say “Promise me or I will withdraw.” Very smart

We don’t know how this will play out for sure, but personally I am excited – this whole draft and our Sixth Pick Tournament just got a lot more interesting! ]

[[ UPDATE to the UPDATE: Per a conversation I hade with Dario Saric’s agent Robert Jablan, Dario Saric WILL be withdrawing from the NBA Draft. Story here. ]]


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