76ers Musings: Saric’s development, the 2014 draft, and progress

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Updated: Sunday, March 19, 2017 12:52 PM

The debate over *which* 76ers rookie will take home Rookie of the Year honors has been one of the few storylines remaining in a season that has otherwise devolved into a familiar feeling of end-of-season indifference.

Sure, there has been some debate over whether Milwaukee wing Malcolm Brogdon — who is averaging 10.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists per game while shooting 40.8% from three-point range — should be given consideration. That argument primarily stems from Embiid’s injury and Brogdon’s role on a playoff team.

The stronger debate, both locally and nationally, is whether Saric deserves it over Embiid, who only played 31 games but who you can take Brogdon’s averages and essentially double them, ballooning to 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.5 blocked shots per game.

While I still lean towards rewarding the unique and dominant rookie season Joel Embiid put together, the debate has been all but settled in the minds of most by Saric’s play over the past few weeks. Saric is averaging 19.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game over his last 17 games, while shooting 47.9% from the floor. Vegas responded by making Dario Saric the favorite to win the ward.

In the end, which Sixers player ends up taking home the trophy is of little consequence to anyone outside of Dario Saric or Joel Embiid. What matters to Sixers fans is that this is even a debate, and that both Saric and Embiid have drastically outperformed any and all rational expectations fans may have had entering this season.

Last summer Bovada gave Joel Embiid 14/1 odds to take home the Rookie of the year award, odds they bumped up to 5/1 after seeing him play in the preseason. The initial 14/1 line made Embiid the 7th most likely to win the award, behind names you would expect (but still look ridiculous in retrospect) like Kris Dunn (11/2), but also guys like Denzel Valentine (12/1). Even after seeing Embiid dominate in the preseason his 5/1 odds were worse than Buddy Hield (7/2) and Kris Dunn (4/1).

Saric, on the other hand, wasn’t even on the board after June’s draft, likely because there was still uncertainty over whether Dario would come over. His odds were updated to 16/1 after preseason play, which were the 6th best.



Saric’s play over the second half of the season has forced Sixers fans to re-evaluate how they value him in the future. What’s his upside? How much more effective can he become if his three-point shot develops like it did overseas (from 29.9% in 2012-13 to 32% in 2013-14, then 32.9% and finally 40.7%)? Should Saric be a starter next year alongside Embiid and Simmons? Did the Sixers draft two future All-Stars in the 2014 draft?

That last point is perhaps the most interesting, if for no other reason than because of how debated the Sixers’ 2014 draft strategy was at the time. The idea of “punting” a draft, of selecting two players with lottery picks who you knew beforehand weren’t going to play in the NBA that season, was not well-received by a media contingent obsessed with immediate rewards and easily definable progress.

Forget that Saric was going to get playing time and experience to develop his game with Efes, forget that Joel Embiid had franchise changing talent, neither would suit up for the team in South Philadelphia for the 2014-15 season. For reasons that still aren’t entirely known to me, that was deemed by many to be unfair to the fans, as if taking lesser talents that would generate less excitement from 2016+ was the the more exciting path to take.

The moves that Sam Hinkie made which drew the most criticism are the exact moves which now make the Sixers future exciting.

Trading MCW? Kicking the can down the road. Doesn’t care about winning. Fast forward to 2017 and MCW has been a DNP in 6 of the past 12 games and is shooting under 39% on the season, while the Sixers could be looking at Malik Monk or Jayson Tatum or Jonathan Isaac with that pick. Yet some within the organization were hung up on the very shortest of short-term concerns, like marketing, of all things. Insanity.

The 2014 draft? It shouldn’t take much to convince you why you should be excited about Joel Embiid and Dario Saric’s future. Aaron Gordon? Elfrid Payton? Doug McDermott? They would have played right away, but there isn’t a coherent argument that having selected them over Embiid and Saric would have the Sixers better positioned going forward.

Extending the tank for a 3rd season? Perhaps the final nail in Hinkie’s coffin, the one that made him an “embarrassment to the sport”, also led to the ping pong ball combinations that netted the best lottery odds in NBA history under the current format, lottery ball combinations which directly led to the drafting of Ben Simmons.

The overlap in the Venn diagram between people who argue that “Joel Embiid is too risky to build around” and “the Sixers didn’t need to tank a third season” is far too big for my tastes, and misses the contradictory nature of those two statements. Sure, there was some wiggle room where the Sixers could have still gotten the best lottery odds in recent NBA history while not being historically bad, but betting on when Brooklyn might fall from a 21 win team to a 13 win team seems an uncertain science.

(The funny thing is, the one move the Sixers made which was an undeniable mistake, drafting Jahlil Okafor 3rd overall in 2015, received little criticism at the time, and would have been broadly panned if the correct decision was ultimately made). 

The point is, for all the debating and hand-wringing over the moves which “extended the tank”, they are the very reason there’s any excitement over the Sixers’ future, perhaps more excitement than there has been since AI’s rookie season. Take “immediate contributors” like Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, mix in enough veterans to win 25 games last year and end up with Kris Dunn rather than Ben Simmons, and this team is going nowhere fast.

Patience isn’t just an excuse. Progress is not linear. The Sixers are beginning to show that.

Rebuilding teams stuck in mud

Take a look around the league and there’s one consistent theme: rebuilding is freaking hard.

Much has been made about the slow progress the Sixers made in turning their franchise around, about how awful it was to “throw three seasons away”. Yet if you go back and look at the teams that were bad when the Sixers started their rebuild, most of them are still in line with the Sixers.

Just without potential superstars.

The Sixers kicked off the current era in June 2013 when they traded Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a future first round draft pick. The intent was clear: the team was going to bottom out while accumulating as many chances at superstars as they could.

The Magic are the perfect counterexample, in part because they ended up with Aaron Gordon and all of their rookies “contributed”, yet they are nowhere near having a franchise player. The Magic went from 20 wins in 2012-13 to 23, 25, 35, and now back down to 25-45 so far this season, while being left with a plethora of team building questions far worse than which big man to trade away at below market value.

Is Aaron Gordon a future All-Star, let alone a superstar? Is it time to bail on the Elfrid Payton learning how to shoot experiment? What in the world do they do with the Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo combination, a low rent, but high priced, version of the Sixers big man logjam without near the upside of Joel Embiid? And this is after kickstarting their rebuild with the Dwight Howard trade, a valuable commodity Hinkie didn’t have access to.

What about the Lakers, whose 85-230 (.270) record since the start of the 2013-14 season is barely better than the Sixers’ 72-242 (.229), a gap which is likely to continue to be closed, even if just a little bit, by the end of the season. Would anybody deny that the Sixers are farther along in their rebuild than the Lakers? That they have a clearer path to a superstar, and more avenues available via future trades and draft selections?

Even the Suns, the darlings of the 2013-14 season who unsuccessfully tanked their way to a stunning 48-34 record. The Suns haven’t gotten a break since, as they’ve gone 84-149 (.361) over the last three years, bottoming out at 22-47 so far this season. Would anybody trade the Sixers’ trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric for Dragan Bender, Devin Booker, and Marquese Chriss? I sure as hell wouldn’t.

The point is rebuilding in the NBA is difficult, and when the Sixers willfully threw away a season or two or three we forgot that those seasons were likely to be thrown away anyway. It was inevitable after the Andrew Bynum trade.

But by embracing that reality the Sixers ended up with extremely high upside players like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric. With high potential draft picks like the Lakers and the Kings, and with cap flexibility that the Lakers and Magic squandered by trying to be players in free agency before their time.

The only thing worse than “throwing away three seasons”, as the Sixers allegedly did, would be throwing away three seasons and still having no likely, or even visible, path to a superstar. The Sixers made progress during that three year period towards being relevant, which is more than some can say.

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Derek Bodner

Derek Bodner covers the NBA draft for USA Today and DraftExpress.com. He was previously the 76ers Insider for Philadelphia magazine. Contact Information: derek.bodner@draftexpress.com / @DerekBodnerNBA

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  • Luzwei

    Super disappointing that Hezonja as a future star for Orlando is not mentioned in this great article.

  • mheil

    It is mind boggling to me that Hinkie drafted Okafor knowing he didn’t rebound, play D or move well enough. None of O’s weaknesses are a surprise. What was he thinking? Hinkie also spent more time watching Porzingis play than any other GM, at least according to the information that I read at the time. it shouldn’t have mattered that his agent wouldn’t let the player work out for the team. Did this pick come from ownership?

    • Alan Petty Jr

      I think it had little to do if at all with Porzingis’ agent’s desires, and more with pressures from ownership, led in part by the man referenced in the article who was more concerned with marketing for the team than shrewd moves that could help set the team up in a position where the team would sell whether or not any real marketing was done!

      • mheil

        I raised the question about ownership pressure, and while it is possible, two things lead me to believe O was Hinkie’s choice. First, if ownership pressured him to make a selection he thought was wrong, I believe he would have resigned, rather then accede to the pressure. Secondly, he seemed rather happy at the PC after the draft, and I don’t believe he is the kind of guy who would fake his response. Still, this choice was out of character with his other great draft choices and trades. Then, BC compounded his one big error by trading Noel and keeping O.

        • Avatar Roku

          One of life’s great mysteries.

    • Thomas Dauphan

      You must remember what EVERY scout was saying at the Time of the Draft – u can Not revise history. Right before the Draft the Organization was dealt a Devastating blow that Embiid would miss a 2nd season b/c he Re-broke is foot. The city went Crazy w/ anger! Don’t you remember the “This Happens Now!” Ad campaign running around this time 2 years ago – Very similar to the Incredibly stupid “This is the Moment” Ad campaign running now??? The Sixers were doing commercials advertising Embiid as the focal point on the 2015/16′ season & fans believed D’Angelo Russell would be the pick at #3 because EVERY NBA scout, media outlet, blog & web site had said All year that KAT & Okafor were MILES ahead of the rest of the 2015 Draft class. Before the Sixers landed at #3 in the Lottery the Big debate locally was if the Sixers get the #1 or #2 pick should they STILL draft Okafor or KAT b/c their talent level was SO Far Above all the other prospects & the Majority of Experts – both National & Local – said YES….. So when the Lakers took D’Turnoverlo Russell #2 & Okafor fell to #3 it looked like the SAFE pick. Only the most deeply rooted Draft experts knew much about Porzingus & quite honestly if Porzingus had come to Philadelphia on THAT 10 win team w/ No Melo to draw attention away Porzingus would have looked like a major Bust. Of course he would look Great next year at the PF between Embiid at Center & Simmons at the Point Guard spot but honestly I believe Saric has proven to be a Better player than Porzingus. I Like the Unicorn a Lot but he is primarily a 7’1” 3-point specialist who really does Not give you much else. He can;t defend anyone. He blocks 1 shot per game & it is Always in Help defense. Porzingus is NOT a Rim protector. He’s a decent but not great rebounder b/c he’s not a guy who lives in the lane. Porzingus is a Very soft, perimeter player who is a nice Piece but at Best Porzingus would be a #3 option on the Sixers next year – same as Saric – & Saric does So many more things for the team – passing, defense, rebounding, leadership, on court game management. I really believe Ownership Forced a Reeling Hinkie to Draft the safe pick in Okafor. Remember on Draft night Okafor’s Ceiling was though to be potential Super Star & his FLOOR was multiple All Star – that was his FLOOR!!! It sounds crazy now but it’s easy to see why Hinkie took Okafor at the time.

  • David Talone

    Listening to the Dunc’d on podcast (15 in 60 East part 2), they were ripping on Dario pretty hard (overly harshly in my opinion). However, one thing that they pointed out was how bad Dario was in pick and roll scenarios. As the ball handler he is in the 2% percentile at .31 points per percentage, and as the roll man he is in the 9% percentile with .71 ppp. He also has a 31% turnover rate as the ball handler. Granted the sample size as the ball handler is ridiculously low at about 28 for the whole season, the stats as a roll man are more like 90 for the season. How worrisome is this if we envisage him as a creator for the 2nd unit next year?

  • Thomas Dauphan

    As great as Saric has been the 2nd half of the season – And he has been Remarkable! (remember this is probably a LESS talented roster than last year’s 10 win squad w/o Saric) I STILL believe Embiid Must be the ROY. Brogdon is a Non-factor. He plays w/ All Star talent as is basically along for the ride in even MORE important is that Sixers haters want to punish Both Embiid & Saric b/c they were drafted in 2014 – Implying they are too Old to win ROY (both Saric & Embiid are 22 & will be 23 by year’s end) – The thinking is that Brogdon is a “Genuine” Rookie…. Well Brogdon is 24!!!
    The reason I say it Still must be Embiid is b/c the 2015/16 ROY Karl Anthony Towns – who was universally labeled a future Hall of Fame candidate after his Rookie Campaign – averaged 18 pts, 10 rebounds & 1.7 blocked shots in 32+ minutes per game! Embiid averaged 20 pts, 8 reb & 2.5 blocks in only 25 minutes per game! By any metric those stats are Mind Numbing! And as Dominant as Embiid was at the Offensive end, he was even MORE Dominant at the Defensive end & his Defensive prowess was Truly underscored BECAUSE of the minutes restrictions. All Star caliber players would Immediately Stop attacking the Rim when EMbiid entered the game. But when Embiid was replaced by Okafor AND Noel the opposing team would Immediately attack the Rim Relentlessly! Obviously they were Much more successful against Okafor but they Still attacked Noel as well. Embiid was so utterly dominant Defensively that very few players Ever even tried him. It was Astonishing to witness