Firstrust Rookie Report: Given Greater Role, Saric Flourished in March

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – The head coach has said on numerous occasions that the 2017 Rookie of the Year award runs through the city of Philadelphia. With just over a week to go in the regular season, there’s no reason to doubt Brett Brown’s conviction.

Monday afternoon, the NBA named Dario Saric – the Sixers’ bulldog, hard-nosed power forward – the KIA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month recipient for games played in March.

The announcement puts the Sixers in position to become just the second franchise in Eastern Conference history to sweep a season’s worth of Rookie of the Month honors. The nods for October / November, December, and January went to Joel Embiid, with Saric claiming the prize from the past two months.

Since the NBA adopted a two-conference Rookie of the Month award format beginning in 2001-2002, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been the lone franchise to ever produce the East’s top rookie in each month of a season. LeBron James took home all six recognitions from the 2003-2004 campaign.

Based on individual statistical performance, no other rookie – from either the Eastern or Western Conferences – enjoyed a more well-rounded month than Saric, who’s set to turn 23 this Saturday. Over 17 March appearances, he paced his first-year peers in points (18.4 ppg) and 20-point games (7), while shooting a solid 43.4 percent from the field.

Also for the month of March, Saric ranked first among rookies in free throws made (54) and attempted (69), second in rebounding (7.0 rpg), third in 3-pointers made (28), fourth in assists (3.4 apg), and third in double-doubles (2). The Croatian was integral in helping the Sixers to six victories in March, which matched the second-highest single-month win total of the Brett Brown era.

Representing what might have been his finest showing of both March and the season alike, Saric erupted for 32 points and 10 rebounds in the Sixers’ convincing 117-107 road triumph March 24th in Chicago. The showing remains the second-most prolific for any NBA rookie this year (Joel Embiid scored 33 points December 18th at Brooklyn), and capped Saric’s stellar 22-game double-digit scoring streak.

That night, Saric was matter of fact about his contributions.

“Sometimes, you get open breaks, and good shots,” he said.

More pleasing to Saric than his individual success against the Bulls was that his efforts had a positive impact on the Sixers’ fortunes. Such was the case earlier that same week, when he posted a team-best 23 points in a breakthrough win versus Boston.

“I’m so happy because I want to beat them so, so, so bad,” said Saric, who also notched six rebounds, four assists, and two steals in the 105-99 victory over the Celtics. “In three [previous games against Boston], we were so close, and we gave all the games a 100 percent, and we lost. Today, we finally won.”

Another noteworthy development from March was that it marked the first full month of the season in which Saric handled starting duties. Prior to the Sixers sending Ersan Ilyasova to the Atlanta Hawks on February 22nd, Saric had logged most of his minutes off the bench, despite serving as a first-stringer for the first 10 games of the year.

“I think once Ersan was traded, there was daylight,” Brown said this past weekend in Cleveland.

Several weeks ago, it was Brown who began working the “Rookie of the Year runs through Philadelphia” phrase into his lexicon during various media availabilities.

All along, Brown has been impressed by Embiid and Saric alike. More recently, with Embiid sidelined, Saric has assumed greater responsibilities.

“His nature is he wants to please,” Brown said of Saric. “He really is a prideful competitor – he wants to please me, he wants to please his teammates, he’s always hard on himself.

“That’s sort of just his human DNA. He has been groomed to play basketball for a very long time. His pedigree in Croatia, and the notoriety he’s had in his homeland has always been something quite sort of fabled. He’s a very storied player in his homeland.”

The mindset as suited Saric well, as he’s managed to make a relatively effective transition to competing at the sport’s premiere level.

“This environment – him jumping into the NBA successfully as he has – caught me off guard a little bit,” Brown said. “I think he’s found a way to take his athletic base, and his skill package and force feed his way into environments. I think the real sort of launching pad into him playing free was the trade of Ersan, and the reality that we needed him. He was going to be playing with far more minutes in a role that we want to not sort of pay attention to mistakes, and let him play free.”

Playing free, and productively, is exactly what Saric has done, with March serving as further evidence. With his debut season winding down, the number 12 pick of the 2014 draft continues to prove himself to be a pivotal building block for the Sixes’ future.

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