Dario Saric's long road to the Sixers and NBA

Dario Saric's long road to the Sixers and NBA
July 1, 2014, 10:00 am
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Just days prior to the draft, Dario Saric signed a deal with Turkish team Anadolu Efes. The deal will likely keep him in Turkey and out of the NBA for the next two seasons. (AP)

Imagine a boy, young and lanky –- all awkward arms and legs -- who could dribble and pass not long after he could walk, a boy who went from womb to whisper to international fascination, a boy who was followed by scouts and agents and media from an impossibly early age. Imagine the boy had a father who was a professional basketball player, a man who had a long career, but who often served more as commandant than confidant to his son. Imagine that boy tethered to his basketball because he chose the sport, but also because it chose him.

Dario Saric remembers the first time he dunked. He was 14 years old -- 14 and 10 months, to be exact, because that is the type of precise plot point you recall when your destiny is made plain as a child. He grew up in Sibenik, a scenic town on the Dalmatian Coast hugged up against the Krka River and the Adriatic Sea. His father, Predrag, played 15 years for Sibenka, once among the most famous teams in Croatia. He was thick and tough to move out of the paint, a cinder block built more sideways than vertical. He played with another Croatian phenom for a time – Drazen Petrovic. After Predrag retired, after his son was born and grew old enough, he enrolled his boy in the Drazen Petrovic school of basketball. It was a great honor for the family, but also for the school.

Dario Saric was always tall for his age, but he had a different game than his father. He idolized Magic Johnson. He wanted to throw artful passes and run the break, and he did it so well that everyone noticed – Croatia, the rest of Europe, the basketball-loving world. He was heavily scouted. Super agent Bill Duffy reached across all those time zones to make contact. Before long, a Spanish team, TAU Cerámica, offered Saric $3 million euros to play for them. The franchise wanted to sign him for 11 years.

Saric eventually landed with KK Zagreb, then transitioned to Cibona Zagreb. He recently led Cibona to the Adriatic League Championship and was named MVP. It worked out nicely, even though his father was initially disappointed with the decision. That would become something of a pattern.

Everyone was always comparing Saric to someone growing up – to countrymen Toni Kukoc and Petrovic especially. Predrag Saric once gushed to a reporter about Petrovic’s work ethic, how he would practice each day from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 11 at night.

“Even the janitors often played ball with him,” Predrag said. "Drazen was a worker like you've never seen.”

And what about young Dario?

“Dario practices 3 to 4 hours a day,” his father continued. “I'm always telling him to get up earlier and practice, but he doesn't always feel like it.”

His son was 15 at the time. Their relationship followed a familiar path, one traveled by so many promising sons who fight to free themselves from the shadows of demanding fathers. There was a time, not long ago, when Dario stopped speaking to his dad. They reconciled, but that wasn’t quite the same thing as Predrag offering unconditional support. In the run-up to this year’s draft, as anticipation grew that Dario would finally come to the states to begin his long-awaited NBA career, Predrag questioned whether his son was making a hasty decision. Actually, he didn’t so much question it as flat out say Dario wasn’t ready.

Just a few days before the draft, the 20-year-old signed a three-year deal with Anadolu Efes, a top-tier Turkish team. It promises to be better competition than he’s faced so far, and it will give him time to work on his still-developing perimeter shot. But it is not the NBA. The decision scared some teams, and there were concerns that Predrag was manipulating his son’s career.

Saric figures to spend the next two seasons in Turkey. At least. Sam Hinkie said that if all things were equal, he would prefer Saric come to the NBA sooner than later. But, as the Sixers’ president and general manager noted, all things are “rarely equal.” This weekend, after the Sixers traded Elfrid Payton to secure the rights to Saric, the Croatian forward spoke to the media. He was asked why he signed that contract to play in Turkey and whether his father pushed for it.

"No, my father, before I came here to the United States, he said to me, ‘You make the decision, but I think [Turkey] is the best option for you,’” Saric said. “He changed his mind and said that I [should] go into the NBA and I said, 'I think it's better for me to spend two years in Turkey.'"

His father wanted him to stay. His father wanted him to go. Somewhere in that winding answer is a less tangled truth. But he is 20 years old. Decisions of that magnitude, at that age, can be confusing things. Despite the delayed arrival, the Sixers were confident enough in his potential to draft Saric and wait. With Hinkie in control, the organization is nothing if not patient. And besides, Hinkie has waited for Saric for years. When Saric played his first game in Zagreb, he was still a gangly teenager. Hinkie was at the game. He “flew around the world” to see Saric.

“It was a site to behold, him being there in that game and the way he played that night,” Hinkie said.

Hinkie watched him from afar for years. He followed Saric as he graduated from the junior levels to international competition and grew from a skinny kid to a talented, if still unfinished, prospect.

“Sometimes we hear about it from here and think ‘Oh, it’s something small.’” Hinkie said about Saric’s competition to date. “It’s quite enormous. The domestic leagues and international competitions in other countries, that often takes more precedence over your professional career or your college or university career.”

The inordinate ability. The family history. The flirtation with the NBA and his decision to temporarily rebuff the league’s advances. All of it has grown Saric’s profile. He is something of a cult figure in Europe, as much for his game as his personality. He is still so young. Two years. Two years until he comes to the states and puts on a Sixers uniform and walks onto an NBA court. Two years until we find out what he can really do. Two years at least. It has already been a long wait.

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