After a year of waiting, rehabbing and working to get back, the last thing Dario Saric wanted to do was have to wait even more. But on a Phoenix Suns team that suddenly went three-deep at center, shaking off the rust and proving he was ready for big minutes would take time.

For the first two and a half months of the 2022-23 season, Saric was mostly a non-factor. He appeared in just 19 games, and when he wasn’t registering DNP-CDs, he was used sparingly, averaging 10.6 minutes a night.

That type of inconsistent role after waging an uphill battle to get back would test anyone’s patience.

“When you don’t get the minutes, you’re always going kind of got a rough time,” Saric said. “I think not just me, I think everybody. But I was trying to stay focused, work on my game every day, stay positive, wait for my chance. A couple guys get injured, I got the chance to play and started to play.”

His teammates attest to Saric’s commitment to improving as he waited for his chance. Mikal Bridges praised the work he’s put in to try and get back in rhythm, and Chris Paul recalled one telltale moment before Sunday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, which was on the second night of a back-to-back.

Paul said he went to the practice facility around 9:30 in the morning to make sure he’d be cleared to play. He saw Saric there, already getting a sweat going. Accounts like that make what the Homie’s doing now even sweeter.

“Rio’s got a little pep to his step now, you know what I mean?” Paul said. “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. 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.”

“Playing well” might be an understatement; Dario Saric is finally looking like pre-injury Dario Saric again.

Dario Saric showing signs of life

In Tuesday’s 129-97 win over the Charlotte Hornets, Saric was once again a notable contributor, finishing his night with a season-high-tying 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block. He shot 6-for-9 overall, 3-for-4 from long range and 4-for-4 from the foul line.

That performance followed up the 14 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals he posted in Phoenix’s win over Memphis, all while going 4-for-5 overall and 6-for-7 from the charity stripe.

“Dario can hoop, man,” Cam Johnson said after Tuesday’s game. “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. He can shoot, rebound, so that’s vintage Dario right there.”

It’s not just a limited two-game sample size either; Saric had been quietly turning the corner since the start of January:

  • December Saric (11 GP): 11.4 MPG, 4.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 37.2 FG%, 40.0 3P%
  • January Saric (11 GP): 19.3 MPG, 9.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 54.7 FG%, 46.4 3P%

As is the case with most players in the league, production is born from opportunity. Coach Monty Williams admitted Saric’s slow start to the season wasn’t helped by the lack of minutes he got. But in 11 games this season where the Homie has played at least 20 minutes, he’s been fairly productive, averaging 11.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists a night on .500/.462/.901 shooting splits.

Individual stats don’t always equate with team success in this league, though. Saric had to prove himself capable before working his way back into the rotation. Lately, the eye test is confirming that the real Dario Saric might be back for good.

“It looks that way, but I hope he feels that way,” Williams said. “Any time you’re coming off of that type of injury, we’ve heard anywhere from a year and a half to two years before you start to feel like yourself again. And we’re at that point where he should be moving into that area where he’s not even thinking about it anymore and just playing natural, instinctive basketball.”

 

All season, Saric has insisted that his knee feels 100 percent. The biggest challenge was re-acclimating to the speed and athleticism of the game, being in the right spots in defensive coverages, and some of the other nuances that slip through the cracks after sitting out an entire NBA season.

“I think I was moving well before, but maybe didn’t show very well,” he explained. “But I feel more comfortable. I think guys trust me, I think coach trusts me more, so I kind of feel good out there on the court, feeling free more, let’s say.”

That feeling of freedom has translated into showing no hesitation on launching 3s — an area Williams pinpointed as a sign Saric is regaining his confidence.

“I like that he’s just catching it and shooting the ball, not thinking about who’s on this side or that side,” Williams said. “He’s been taking the shots.”

So far in January, Saric is taking 2.5 long-range attempts per game, a notable increase from the 1.8 he averaged in December. A couple of sharpshooting nights from beyond the arc to start the new year may have reignited that conviction to fire at will — even over close contests:

“It feels great, I try to work on my shot every day,” Saric said. “Sometimes you hesitate, I think it’s in a player’s mind if you miss a couple of them. Maybe I was struggling with that. But just when you see, one time, ball go through the net, it’s kind of easier for all of us to plays. I have a couple of good games, so I kind of feel more free to shoot the ball.”

Runaway Saric

The biggest concern with a guy like Saric coming off a serious knee injury was whether he’d be able to regain the speed and athleticism necessary to keep pace with some of the world’s most elite athletes. Those were never strengths for the Homie to begin with, but a couple of plays over the past few games confirm his body and mind are back to proper form.

In the first half against the Grizzlies, Saric corralled an errant pass, immediately put the ball on the floor, and sped his way up the court into the teeth of the transition defense. Rather than slow up or pass it off to a teammate, the Homie barreled forward with a full head of steam, laying the ball off the glass for an and-one.

Was it the most graceful finish? No. But watching Saric go coast-to-coast was an eye-opening sequence representing how far his aggression has progressed from even a few months ago.

His teammates got a kick out of it, of course. Saric’s locker room mate, Jock Landale, teased that he should’ve dunked the ball instead:

Two points may be two points, but Saric took Landale’s trolling to heart. In Tuesday’s game against Charlotte, he caught a bounce pass from Damion Lee after a smart backdoor cut on the baseline. Gathering the ball without dribbling, Saric took his two steps and launched off his left leg, elevating as he went for the ambitious poster dunk.

Nick Richards blocked it quite easily, but it was almost the highlight of the year for the Homie.

“The last few games, he’s getting the ball and taking off in transition,” Williams said before laughing, thinking about the dunk attempt. “Tonight he tried to dunk one, but I think the rim moved or…yeah, I won’t mess with that.”

Saric was embarrassed when asked about the play, but the fact that he even tried it spoke volumes about where he’s at physically and mentally…even if the experience may convince him to dial it back down moving forward.

“I think it was the last time probably I will try to go dunk,” Saric said with a smile. “In that situation, I will stick with my pump-fakes and maybe go try [to get] the contact, get the foul or something, you know?”

The lesson, as always, is don’t listen to Jock Landale.

Finding new and familiar ways to be effective

Speaking of Landale, there’s a new frontcourt pairing in Phoenix that warrants attention. Saric’s newfound playing time may not last forever; he’s been the main beneficiary of Cam Johnson’s minutes restriction, as well as injuries freeing up opportunities in the frontcourt.

But the Suns have experimented with a Saric-Landale pairing inside, and it’s paid dividends so far. In 125 minutes together this season, lineups including those two have posted a +10.7 Net Rating, per NBA.com. Those results are far better than Saric with Bismack Biyombo (-17.2 Net Rating in 106 minutes) or Deandre Ayton (-10.0 Net Rating in 143 minutes).

“We like it, it’s two guys that can pick-and-pop and knock down shots,” Williams said of the Saric-Landale duo. “They both can play DHO. Dario’s probably a better facilitator, but that doesn’t mean Jock can’t. And they both can rebound, and they’re not slow. So we feel like we have two physical guys that, if DA and Biz are having a tough time, we can throw those guys out there and feel like we can still spread the floor out.”

Williams admitted assistant coach Kevin Young has been on his case about trying to find minutes for Saric at the 5, where he’s been most effective since arriving in Phoenix. But with Ayton, Biyombo and Landale deservingly gobbling up those minutes, for now, Saric’s path to playing time either depends on matchups or continuing to thrive alongside Landale as a 4.

The good news is, in any dual-big lineup he’s been in lately, Saric has gotten back to his Middle-Aged Man Schooling Kids At The Rec Center repertoire around the basket. Utilizing that craftiness under the rim is huge for a slower, flat-footed big, especially since he’s seeking out contact again too.

“For me, I never was, like, the fastest player on the court,” Saric said. “I never was that guy who’s jumping highest than everybody, so I was like, I know what is my power, what is my tools to operate down there. I think [at] first, really I was scared to going through the contact in the beginning, especially this summer. But right now I feel good.”

Aside from nearly doubling his free-throw attempts from 0.9 per game in December to 2.0 per game in December, Saric ranks in the 96th percentile in contact finish rate, according to The BBall Index.

Part of embracing that contact has been trusting his handle again. Over the last several weeks, Saric has shown an increased willingness to put the ball on the floor and make plays like some of these nifty drives and finishes:

“I feel more comfortable,” Saric said of his ball-handling. “Practicing every day, just try to be ready. Obviously it was like a one-year injury, but I need to push myself to be as best as I can, best version of myself. Try to push the ball if the court is open, why not?”

He’s not just putting the ball on the floor for himself, of course. One of Saric’s greatest assets to the Suns has long been his secondary playmaking, and during his most poised post-injury stretch, Dario Dimes have made a roaring comeback.

Williams said it was easier for Saric to make those plays as a small-ball 5, but he seems to be settling in as a 4 now too.

“From a playmaker’s perspective, I still think he’s getting comfortable in that,” Williams said. “But I do like the fact that it seems like every game he’s playing, he’s playing in a more natural pace, if you will, as opposed to hesitating when we tried to play him in spot minutes earlier this season.”

Saric’s 2.6 assists per game in January may not seem like much, but it’s worth noting that The BBall Index ranks him in the 96th percentile in drive assist rate. Gorgeous feeds like this — especially on the interior — are an instant source of serotonin for the Suns bench:

None of this assures Dario Saric a spot on the roster past this year’s trade deadline. If an upgrade is out there that will help Phoenix compete for a title, they could and should pursue those options. But if the Homie is truly back, he could be the unexpected interior boost that makes the Suns even more dangerous as they get healthy again.

“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. We feel like his shooting, his defense, his creativity is gonna be a weapon for us.”

Author

Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.

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