Did Dario Šarić finally find his true role?
Dario Šarić has bounced around the NBA and is now with his 3rd team in 5 seasons. After he almost won Rookie of The Year award back in 2016-17, I thought his numbers will explode, however his role kept changing and numbers kept diminishing, until this season (well, last year’s bubble, but okay) and his new role with Phoenix Suns.
Prior to the NBA, Dario Šarić played for Cibona Zagreb and Anadolu Efes. In those two teams, he played in two very different roles.
In Cibona, Dario was “the guy”, he was the true Point Forward, ran the offense and scored through variety of ways. Many people touted him to play that position in the NBA as well (including me), however after the NBA draft, Dario chose to stay in Europe for two more years and moved to Anadolu Efes.
Dario spent two seasons over there, where legendary coach Duda Ivković prepared him for the NBA, for the role he took over only this season with the Suns. The amount and type of 2/3 point shots he took then is incredibly similar to what they look like today with this Suns’ team. The role I’m talking about isn’t a stretch forward, nor a point forward, but rather a small ball center who plays like a true big man.
Different roles through his NBA career so far
Dario has always played as a Power Forward or a Center, only in the rookie season with the Sixers he played very little time as a Small Forward. The difference, however, is in the types of plays in which he participated then (but also with the Wolves and Suns last year) and this season.
In the previous chart/table you can see how the share of possessions moved through the seasons depending on the type of play. As it is written in small print, the rows do not add up to 100%, because the NBA does not show the exact possession umbers if the player is not “qualified” to display, however I’m not sure why the previous seasons don’t add up to 100% then. ( ¯\(ツ)/¯)
Let’s go back to the analysis of that table; so in the rookie season with the Sixers he had more responsibility and freedom, high numbers from isolation and Pick and Roll (as a ball handler - the first column) confirm that. I’d argue that he had even more freedom than when he played in the Euroleague with Efes. At times, it was reminiscent of the time from his stint with Cibona, and Šarić seriously competed for the Rookie of the Year award as mentioned in introduction.
For the next few years, the dominant action was “Spotup”, which means that Šarić turned into a Catch & Shoot PF/C (mostly PF at the time), and those other “creative” plays fell into the background. And it looked like he would have such a role until last year’s “Bubble” (and couple of games prior to the lockdown) when he was moved out of the starting lineup, and started to come in from the bench. And the player he was replacing was DeAndre Ayton, a center.
Notice how the share of spot up possessions dropped significantly this season. Surely he has some possessions (instead of 0%) in other plays as well, but as mentioned the NBA doesn’t show that because he isn’t qualified in total number of possessions there (again, at least I think it’s like that).
This year, the role of a Small Ball center coming in from the bench has become “permanent” and this can be seen from the play type distribution for current season. A lot of cuts, the most Post up possessions so far in his young NBA career, and by far the most pick and roll possessions.
And Dario is very good in those plays, he scores about 1 point per possession in each of them. He is one of the best in the league from the post ups, a bit better than his teammate Ayton, who in turn is one of the best players in the league at Pick and Roll.
That is kind of obvious since Dario still lacks athleticism, but manages to reach the hoop with his “signature” shots. If you’re wondering what his “signature” shot is, it starts from a post up, after which he puts up 2 or 3 pump fakes, and then hits a crazy baby hook that looks like it’s going to be blocked but it magically goes through the hoop.
We can see this general change in the position and style of the game in the following graph, which shows the share of all shots depending on the shot zone.
He shoots the most from the Restricted Area and paint (outside the RA), and the lowest from the mid-range. The threes took a slight drop and he puts up 3.5 attempts behind the arc this season, but this makes sense given his increase usage in post ups and pick and roll.
Efficiency and Impact on the team
Dario is currently playing the most efficient season of his NBA career while having the biggest USG%, by far.
He is second in the Suns team in USG%, only behind Devin Booker, and he is among the top bench players, who might be in some 6MOY competition, in both USG% and TS%. In addition, he is one of the Suns’ most efficient players with 61.8% TS%.
Such a large USG% confirms to us that Dario is not just another player from the bench, but he is the player around whom the Suns attack is based while he is on the floor. Virtually a quarter of all attacks go through him and that shows us that he can truly play his game through the post ups and pick and roll.
As the half of the season was recently marked, the discussions around season awards started going on. A large number of journalists and analysts mentioned Šarić as a candidate for the 6th man of the year award. These previous charts and numbers confirm that they were right about that choice and he can be a very viable candidate.
A jump in usage/efficiency in comparison to past season
Dario has jumped significantly in those two metrics (USG%/TS%) compared to last season.
Some of these players are in the debate for the MIP award (JaVale McGee and Batum are not one of them, of course), it will be difficult for Dario to get involved in that debate, but it is very encouraging that his TS% has risen despite spending more plays on the offensive side.
Argument for 6th Player of the Year, Part Two
In my opinion, these annual awards (MVP, DPOY, 6th man, ..) should be given to players who have some impact on the game of his team. Dario is also one of the leaders in this segment when we look at some important players from the bench.
Šarić has a Net Rating (ORTG-DRTG) of 23.5 points per 100 possessions this season. This chart shows the top 260 players in minutes per game. The number of shown players is that big because Dario played just under 19 minutes per game (and only 20 games so far). Because of that, his numbers might be a bit bloated a bit.
But still, despite all that, this figure is simply absurd. No Suns player is even close to numbers like Saric, the closest are Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne with 11.4 and 10.0 (which is still really impressive), and they are also coming on from the bench, so obviously that Suns bench is really good. Also, a 3-man lineups of Saric-Johnson-Payne AND Saric-Bridges-Booker are among the top 10 in the league.
The question remains whether Dario would have been the same player as today if he had gone to the NBA immediately after his stint with Cibona, since his game then, and after 2 years with Anadolu Efes, was very different. The question is whether he’d then become that Point Forward as everyone thought before the draft.
But one thing is for sure, and that is that he has become a very good NBA player, who has accepted his role and position in the team and at the moment, both him and his team are doing great. He became one of the main candidates for the 6th player of the year, and given how well that role suits him, he could be a serious candidate for it with years to come.