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Despite the storm clouds swirling overhead in the desert, Phoenix Suns training camp is finally here. It’s a moment Dario Saric has been awaiting for over a year.
After tearing his ACL in Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals, Saric had to watch from the sidelines as his team went up 2-0 in the series…and then went 0-for-4 the rest of the way. As the team’s backup, small-ball center, it was hard not to think about how he might have been able to help against the Milwaukee Bucks’ super-sized frontcourt.
“I’m not gonna lie, it was very tough to be injured in the first game of the Finals,” he said. “At least if you’re injured, I don’t know, fifth game, it’d be easy — at least you played some minutes. But first play, first offense, first game in the Finals, it was tough.”
Undergoing offseason surgery and staying in Phoenix to get a jump on the rehab process, Saric then spent the entire 2021-22 campaign watching the Suns steamroll their way to a league-best 64 wins. But as supportive as he was for his teammates, Saric had his own battles to fight just to get back on the court.
Consulting players who had suffered a similar injury, the coaching staff and the training staff, he kept hearing the same thing: This recovery process won’t be a sprint. It’s going to take a while.
“Up and downs are a part of the rehab or that mindset,” Saric said. “I never had a doubt I will not come back, but in some period after like, I don’t know, four or five months, you’re still doing the same exercises. You’re not going to [the] court. That kind of put me to be frustrated a little bit. But I know that I need to go over that — you know, how coach always says everything what you want is on the other side of the hard. So if I go and push myself to do those hard days, something will come.”
Saric ultimately never found his way back onto the floor last season, undergoing meniscus surgery in the same knee in May. After months of doing the same stretching, jumping, running and weightlifting routines, he still had a ways to go.
The season didn’t end the way anyone wanted in Phoenix, but fortunately for Saric and the Suns, a long offseason provided him the time to continue rehabbing with coach Brian Randle at the team’s practice facility. Then in September, it was finally time to put all the drills, exercises and light scrimmages against coaches aside and play some actual, competitive basketball at EuroBasket.
Playing for Team Croatia, Saric clearly had some cobwebs to clean off his game. In five group stage contests and one elimination game, the Homie put up 9.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, but he committed nearly as many turnovers (15) as he did assists (19), shot just 34.6 percent from the field and made only 30.8 percent of his 3s.
Despite his struggles, Saric’s first real competitive play in more than 400 days was a great way to break the ice.
“I think that’s what I kind of like braced for that, to be able to play for national team after one year being unable to play basketball because of injury,” Saric said. “So I need that kind of 5-on-5 competition and the practice, and after that, to play some professional high-level games. So I think in one way, it helped me a lot. I put that kind of fear on the side, let’s say, so now I feel all ready and fit in my mind: Don’t [be] scared going to contact, don’t [be] scared to play basketball on a high level. So I’m kind of feeling that like really helped me.”
Saric admitted that playing six games in a 10-day span pushed him physically, perhaps a bit further than he intended after not playing for so long. But casting those doubts aside to play for his country, Saric was pleased to find there was no swelling in his knee. He was dead tired, but his body held up.
That confidence has apparently translated to training camp, where coach Monty Williams sounds pleased with what he’s seeing from one of Phoenix’s best “connectors” in the frontcourt.
“We’re just glad he’s back,” Williams said. “His spirit is so important to our team. Just seeing him play overseas, I told [assistant coach] Mark Bryant today, I’m so thankful that he did that, ’cause now a lot of the rust is off. He’s out there just making plays, he’s not thinking about anything. I think if he would’ve just come into camp, it wouldn’t have been as smooth as it has been so far.”
The question now is, what can Dario Saric provide in his first season back? And with Deandre Ayton, Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale at the 5, plus Jae Crowder being away from the team, where will he fit in the rotation?
At Media Day, Williams briefly mentioned putting Saric in a new role this year. Did that mean slotting him in at a different position due to Crowder’s ongoing absence and imminent trade? Or was it simply referring to using the Homie differently from an Xs and Os perspective?
“Probably both,” Williams clarified on Wednesday. “Dario has the ability to play 5 at times, but he also has the ability to play 4 because of his ability to shoot and pass. He’s not afraid to guard in switching situations, and the rebounding component is something that we’d missed all last year.”
Saric said on Monday they hadn’t discussed his potential new role yet, but at Media Day and during Wednesday’s availability, he emphasized that he knows what Williams expects of him. It’s a matter of wherever his coach decides to deploy him, even though Saric is acutely aware the Suns need help filling the Crowder void.
“Maybe he’ll use me maybe as a 4 a little bit,” Saric said. “Maybe, I don’t know, because I play like a 5, like a small-ball [center] that year we went in the Finals. So in this present, Jae, he’s not in training camp, maybe he’ll try me at the 4 a little bit. I don’t know. I’m ready for everything that coach puts in front of me, so in my mind, I’m ready. Physically, I’m ready, so I’m not scared.”
For now, training camp is something of a feeling-out process to gauge where Saric is at physically, how much of the rust he’s shaken off and where Phoenix needs him the most. But even taking Crowder’s absence out of the equation, there were already several signs pointing to this eventual outcome.
For starters, Williams and Devin Booker have both mentioned, unprompted, how impressed they’ve been with backup center Jock Landale, indicating he may be showing enough already to carve out a few rotation minutes. Saric also admitted he lost some weight over the last year (not ideal for playing the 5!), and Williams noted how willing he was to try and defend on the perimeter during EuroBasket.
“His ability and willingness to guard the ball, he was in some tough situations against some really good guards in the EuroBasket, but he didn’t back down,” Williams said. “You could see that warrior spirit on defense.”
Long-term, playing Saric at the 4 may not be the best course of action for the Suns, no matter his “warrior spirit.” As spry as he looked during EuroBasket, the Homie has never been the image of lateral quickness. Coming off two knee surgeries in the last two years, he may be targeted more frequently as a 4.
Williams has mentioned rebounding as one of the Suns’ biggest points of emphasis heading into the season, and Saric at the 4-spot would certainly help on that front. But playing him there may also prevent Cam Payne from fully maximizing one of his favorite pick-and-roll partners.
Saric and Payne both agreed the mismatches their screens generate help each other out.
“I was feeling I would be more able to have good ball movement, especially when we played like two years ago, kinda like five guys out, go side to side, everybody attacks, all five guys are dangerous at the same time,” Saric explained. “So think kind of like ball movement, what I could help from the position, let’s say 5 from center. So that’s the way that I see I could really make good things. Of course after they switch, I can go low down there on the low post, I can pass the ball outside.”
“I love that Dario’s back,” Payne gushed. “Just hoping he stays healthy for the whole year, we need him! He’s a big-time pick-and-pop guy, and I feel like for our team, that’s huge to have that different dynamic instead of just everyone-rolling bigs. So having Dario back is gonna be a huge plus. I mean, even from my game, getting the switches a little bit earlier in the shot clock with the 5s, being able to get downhill and just exploit mismatches how we did in the past.”
Whether he’s deployed at the 4 all year or on a short-term basis until a Crowder trade brings in reinforcements, Saric has been through the worst of it trying to get back on the court. It’s highly unlikely the difference between the 4 and the 5 is going to hold him back now.
“That’s the only way: If you see the wall, you need to go through the wall,” he said. “That was my situation, but I’m happy I’m right now here, I’m happy I’m ready for the training camp. So all this kind of work, all this kind of mental challenges for me, it’s kind of behind me and, like, ready to go.”
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