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An ode to the underrated Suns tenure of Dario Saric

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 25, 2023

Look across the myriad of Phoenix Suns all-time leaderboards, and the name “Dario Saric” won’t be found on any of them. Despite arriving back in 2019, he only suited up for the Suns in 153 regular-season games. He only scored 20-plus points seven times in Phoenix, five of which came in his first season in the Valley, and he only recorded 10 double-doubles, with nine of those coming in his first Suns season.

In the wake of the Kevin Durant blockbuster trade that saw beloved fan favorites like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson leave, Saric’s departure in a subsequent deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder received little attention by comparison. On paper, that tracks for a guy who averaged 8.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 19.8 minutes per game during his time here.

And yet, as much as the numbers won’t show it, “The Homie” played an instrumental role in helping Phoenix build its culture over the last four years under coach Monty Williams.

“Dario is a guy that I’ve been blessed to coach in two places, and he’s a guy that helped us reach the Finals,” Williams said. “He’s a guy that helped us build our program. He’s someone that we watched grow into a mature NBA basketball player, and on many nights, he was the heart and soul of our team with his competitive edge and his versatility and his coachability.”

NBA teams typically have to wait a bit longer than two weeks to see their former teammates again in the wake of a trade, but with OKC in town Friday night, the Suns will get a chance to reconnect with Super Dario, if only briefly.

In that spirit, it’s time to look back on Dario Saric’s underrated Suns tenure — the player he became in Phoenix, the highlights, the grueling journey back from injury, and how both parties made the other stronger.

Dario Saric the connector

He wasn’t a star by any means, but upon his arrival, the Suns knew they had a different type of frontcourt player. Starting off as a 4 alongside Deandre Ayton, Saric provided a versatile skill-set that Williams frequently described as being a “connector.”

For starters, his pick-and-pop ability was something the Suns frequently took advantage of. Defenders weren’t ready for him slip screens and relocate back out to the 3-point line as quickly as he did, and although he was hardly a sniper, he consistently made around 35-36 percent of his 3-pointers to keep defenses on their toes:

It wasn’t just his shooting ability that earned him that “connector” label as a perimeter big, however. The Suns valued Saric’s knack for moving the ball from one side of the court to the other at the top of the key, and he routinely spotted cutters with solid court vision and skillful passes that called back to the days of Boris Diaw:

“Dario can hoop, man,” Cam Johnson said. “He does a lot of everything, and you can rely on him to score, distribute, and he just plays with the flow that we like to play with. So when he’s out there, no matter the group, he can always make an impact on the game. Sometimes he’s a little bit more of a distributor, sometimes he’s more of a scorer.”

On the scoring front, Super Dario caught defenses off-guard with surprisingly cunning drives to the basket and crafty finishes around the rim. With a simple pump fake and awkward but efficient body control, Saric displayed the ball-handling chops to get past defenders on the perimeter, rumble his way to the basket and finish through or around contact:

As a post player or pick-and-roll finisher, Saric used that same basketball I.Q. and overall girth to his advantage. Sporting what can only be described as “old-school YMCA” game, the Homie utilized pump fakes and patience to carve out enough room for the best shot possible, even among the trees.

He routinely used the backboard or the rim as an extra defender, twisting underneath the basket for gorgeous reverse finishes that left longer, taller defenders stumped as to how they didn’t even come close to blocking the shot. Despite being at a disadvantage in terms of size, length and athleticism, Saric possessed the presence of mind in the paint to use his body mass and skilled touch to finish plays off strong.

Not all of this became crystal clear until he really took off in the NBA Bubble, when the Suns started experimenting with using him as a small-ball backup 5. The team became closer than ever in the midst of the troubling times of a global pandemic, and Deandre Ayton said the time he spent with Saric on the court taught him quite a bit.

“Rio taught me how to use my body, how to stay low,” Ayton said. “And one-on-ones, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but one-on-ones in the bubble, I think he won every time, every day, because of how low he was to the ground and him just getting around us shot-blockers and his pump fakes around the rim.”

Because of those skills he showed in the bubble, the backup center job became his full role in the 2020-21 campaign. With Chris Paul and Jae Crowder joining Phoenix’s young core, the Suns went from 8-0 bubble sensation all the way to the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately for him and for his team, that’s the moment his career trajectory in Phoenix was forever derailed.

The journey back from injury

Two minutes into Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Dario Saric tore his right ACL. Whether he would’ve been able to slow down a masterclass performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo in that series is up for debate, but it was a devastating moment for Saric individually and for the Suns, who went on to lose the series in six games after building a 2-0 lead.

“I’m not gonna lie, it was very tough to be injured in the first game of the Finals, you know?” Saric 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.”

Saric would miss the entire 2021-22 season, working through rehab while he watched Phoenix storm its way to a 64-18 record. He was happy to see his teammates thriving, but it was difficult to get excited about rehabbing when all he wanted was to get back on the court.

“Up and downs are a part of the rehab or that mindset,” he 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 court. That kind of put me to be frustrated a little bit.”

As frustrated as he felt, Saric got through it, with Williams “everything you want is on the other side of hard,” looming large in his mind. That support from the coaching staff, training staff and his teammates meant everything, especially since the team stuck by him by keeping him around during an entire season of rehabbing.

“Suns people, big thank you for them,” Saric said. “They really pushed me to get in the rehab in a right way.”

It wasn’t just the Suns helping Saric, of course. If anything, his teammates were uplifted by how hard he was working in the weight room to get back, and how nothing seemed to dampen his spirits. Even after his injury in the Finals, Saric could be seen in the background of Williams’ viral locker room speech, giving Suns Twitter the morale boost it badly needed at the time.

“That’s my man, a lifelong friend of mine,” Devin Booker said Thursday. “He always had great energy. Even when he was going through his injury and his rehab, he still brought a high spirit to the gym every single day. He spent more time in the weight room than anybody getting back right, and it was always a bright spot in my day seeing his energy and how he was handling dealing with an injury that long.”

Saric seemed to be pushing for a return near the end of the 2021-22 campaign or even the playoffs, but on May 5, 2022, he underwent meniscus surgery and was ruled out indefinitely. He once again had to watch his team struggle in the postseason, as the Suns were routed in an embarrassing Game 7 loss in the second round.

Heading into the 2022-23 campaign, it felt like roster changes were needed. Coming off two major knee surgeries that kept him away from NBA action for more than a year, Saric’s role was one of the biggest question marks.

The return of the Homie

With Bismack Biyombo and Jock Landale backing up DA at the center spot, it was clear the Suns envisioned a new (or rather, old) role for Saric. He’d be going back to the 4-spot, and in the early goings of the season, he struggled to carve out minutes for himself there.

But on Nov. 1, Saric made his first bucket in almost two years, and the fans’ reaction was something special.

“I can say thank you for Phoenix Suns fans,” Saric said of the moment. “They really welcomed me when I got that couple minutes on the court in the best way they can. Big thank you from me. I’m a happy man because of that….I felt really good when they kind of clap hands for me and kind of excited for me coming on the court.”

It wasn’t just the home crowd; his teammates were stoked for the Homie too. Booker said he perked up when Saric got the ball to check in, and even Williams — who is almost always more focused on the game than crowd reactions — noticed it.

“I did hear the bench kind of go off when he knocked down a shot,” he said. “Dario’s a guy that everybody wants to see succeed. I mean, I say that, it’s kind of weird, ’cause we always want to see your teammates or people that you coach succeed, but he’s just one of those guys that we’ve watched endure so much.”

Of course, one shot didn’t suddenly make Dario Saric a regular contributor again. Through December, he struggled to find his niche in the rotation and couldn’t quite shake off all the rust.

At the start of January, however, he started to find his groove again. In 2023, Saric averaged 8.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 18.4 minutes per game over 18 appearances for the Suns, shooting 47.7 percent overall and 43.6 percent from 3-point range.

“He’s starting to get back to that kind of reckless, somewhat chaotic style that he can play, but he can do it under control,” Williams said. “He just looks like a warrior out there when he’s knocking down 3s, attacking the paint, finding guys, setting screens. We try not to put a boundary around his creativity, and I’m hopeful that he can just keep progressing, because I think we can use him as a weapon, especially when teams go big against us.”

It felt like the Homie had finally turned the corner…even when he fell well short of finishing off a poster attempt like this one:

His teammates and even Williams gave Saric grief over his botched dunk attempt, but underneath all the jokes, the Suns were excited to have him back and proud of his progress.

“That’s for all of us, when we go through things, you’re always trying to find that confidence and something to get you going, and man, it’s gotta feel good him,” Chris Paul said. “For him to be playin’ as well as he was right before we went to the Finals, and to go through the injuries and all that stuff, I’m probably most happy for him seeing him out there playing well.”

Dario’s departure

Alas, Saric’s return to form wasn’t meant to fully play out in Phoenix, as the Suns traded him and a second-round draft pick for Darius Bazley. It’s fair to say that as exciting as it is to land Kevin Durant, the joyful vibes won’t quite be the same after the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline with Bridges, Johnson and Saric all gone.

It’s a trade you make in pursuit of a championship, but it’s still a bittersweet change when one remembers Saric’s rise back to prominence, his struggle through injuries and the fact that he experienced one major life change — the birth of his son Niko — during his time here.

“When we traded him, we didn’t just trade him, it was Karla and the baby too,” Williams said. “And they’ve been a huge part — especially Karla — of the program. So it’ll be good to see him [on Friday]. He’s obviously a guy that I’m emotionally attached to just because of my time with him, and I think the world of him.”

That moment of welcoming his son into the world was something special he shared in common with a few of his Suns teammates who had recently become fathers too.

“They were super happy,” Saric said. “From the one stage of man, becoming a father in this organization and watching a couple of guys who have been here through the whole process, they’re happy. That’s how it is, you know? It’s just like, we share everything.”

Now, Saric is back in the building as an opponent, which he admitted was a good but weird feeling.

“It’s been good, kind of like, it’s weird in one part,” Saric said. “But it’s kind of like our part of the life, of basketball life. If you’re not like a big-time player or superstar, you’re kind of, like, always maybe on the move, let’s say. So I kind of just have the experience from before, and happy to be here.”

Saric’s new challenge, aside from settling into a new city with Karla and Niko, is adapting to the abrupt switch from a title contender to one of the youngest teams in the NBA that’s fighting for a playoff spot. Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said it’s been a very positive first impressive for the 28-year-old veteran.

“I give him a lot of credit, he’s coming into the youngest team in the NBA, from a situation that is obviously a great situation,” Daigneault said. “He’s done a great job here, and he’s done a great job of just trying to assimilate with the group and be very open to the way that things are done organizationally, and also open to the way that the team’s playing.”

What the future holds remains to be seen. OKC sits just outside the final play-in spot in the West heading into Friday’s game, trailing the 10th-place Golden State Warriors by half a game. Beyond that, Saric will be an unrestricted free agent, which means these remaining 24 games will be crucial in proving he belongs long-term. Daigneault said they’re still getting a feel for what Saric can do and where he fits in.

“We’re still learning that,” he said. “I have opinions on his game. Obviously, he’s got a great feel, he’s a great offensive transfer player, he’s got tricks, and defensively, he’s in the right spot. He’s strong, he’s smart. But you never know how a person can blend into your team. And one thing we try to do whether it’s with Dario, a guy we get at the deadline or a draft player, is not make too many assumptions and just take a look at it and see what emerges and explore it, and that’s what we’ll do with him.”

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