Dario Saric living up to all the hype
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- You could forgive Dario Saric if he compared himself, just a little, to LeBron James. Ever since he was 15, when he first debuted for the senior team at the KK Zagreb club, all of Croatia has been watching his every move, assessing his potential for greatness, anointing him with the tag of The Next Great Thing.
However, ask the 6-10 forward, now aged 19, to whom he most compares his game among current NBA players, and -- perhaps oblivious to his recent troubles -- Saric responds: "Lamar Odom, maybe. He's a big guy who can create. He can do everything on the court."
Most observers feel that Saric, currently logging heavy minutes and a key role off the bench for his national team at EuroBasket in Slovenia, has a greater upside than even Odom in his prime. Expectations for him have been through the roof for as long as he can remember, the teenager luring NBA scouts deep into the Balkans for a look-see when he was nothing more than an untried prospect.
Everyone in Croatia wanted a piece of the new kid on the block. It was a heavy burden for a youth who was still sitting classes at school. "It's been a big pressure for me," he told ESPN.com. "It's good but there is pressure because everybody talks about your game, everybody talks about your practices, everybody talks about everything that goes with you. But I like pressure."
For as long as he can remember, Saric seemed predestined to excel, to inherit the mantle of his late compatriot Drazen Petrovic. His father, Predrag, had played with the former New Jersey Nets star before Petrovic left for the NBA, and he was an early tutor for both his son and his daughter, Dana, also a promising player. He would offer advice on the game, on how to make an impact, on how the pair should look after themselves even when their reputations made them a target.
"He played very far back in history," Dario said. "But he played with Drazen Petrovic and he explained a lot about Drazen. I've seen videos of him. He was a great shooter. He had a great rhythm. As soon as the ball got into his hands, he shot it."
Saric is a different breed, more a point-forward, tabbed when he eventually comes to the NBA to be featured more as a small forward than the post presence he is often asked to be with his current team, Cibona Zagreb.
Talking to scouts and personnel people who have watched him mature over the past few seasons, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, as close to a can't-miss draftee as any European in recent times.
I asked someone in attendance at EuroBasket for his assessment. He said: "There is a lot to like about his game: his work ethic, the way he can get out in transition, the way he sees the floor. He's a complete player. When you have a 6-10 guy and you can put the ball in his hands, that's huge. The only thing is his shooting has to improve. But that will happen when he gets to the NBA because it's that kind of league."
Of course, Saric could have been coming to America this season. Tabbed to be a lottery pick this summer, he withdrew his name late in the process and opted to postpone his departure for at least one more year. It's a decision, he confirms, that was based on his own assessment of his readiness.
Last fall, he was sitting idle, practicing but not playing, left without a team in a tug of love between KK Zagreb and a number of other European clubs who were actively recruiting him away. Spain's Euroleague entrants Bilbao thought they had agreed on a four-year contract. The deal fell through, with reports in Croatia claiming that a fee of $730,000 was demanded for the trade. Others circled. Eventually, Saric stayed close to home, joining Cibona Zagreb and signing a contract which is understood to have an NBA escape clause which would see his current employer receive a percentage of his future earnings.
Putting the NBA on hold was very much his own choice. Sources who know Saric well claim he has taken greater control over his own career during the past 12 months, lessening the influence of his father. Postponing his exit from Zagreb was, he explained, "because I didn't play for three months at the beginning of last season. And I played very badly for me. I pulled out because I can make a better position in the next draft."
One NBA front-office staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes that even among the loaded class of 2014, he will stay a hot prospect. "In all probability, he'll go at the same position if he comes over next year as he would have done this year. The only thing is he'll be a lot stronger because he'll play more next season at Cibona."
In Slovenia, at EuroBasket, Saric has already shown he can fight experience with talent. In six games so far for the Croatians, he is averaging 6.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per night, and shooting an efficient 60.7 percent.
There is no reluctance to give responsibility to someone who was earning MVP honors at FIBA Europe's under-18 all-star game, which took place at the previous European championships in Lithuania two years ago. "He already has enough talent and enough courage to help this team," teammate Ante Tomic said.
"For Dario Saric, it's very simple," Croatia head coach Jasmin Repesa added. "He is part of the team, game by game getting confidence and playing better and better. I am very satisfied that he is improving because he has a lot of talent, he can make a difference definitely. At this level, it doesn't matter that he is 19 years old, but definitely he is the future of our basketball and he is ready to get an important role and position of our team."
In recent times, the collective star of Croatia has waned. The country, second to the United States' Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics, failed to qualify for the 2012 Games in London and it has not won a major international medal since claiming bronze at the 1995 EuroBasket.
With two games left in the second round in Ljubljana, starting Saturday against Italy, there are renewed hints of a better future. With a 2-1 record at this phase, the Croats sit third -- above Spain, and behind the Italians and Slovenia -- with the top four advancing into the quarterfinals.
Saric will have a vital role off the bench.
"I am learning to play off the ball more," he says. "But now as it's my position, I must play like that."
Few of his compatriots, decked out in their familiar red and white checks, doubt that he can master that role, or any other.
It is all part of his ambitious grand plan, to travel along the route that has been mapped out well in advance. Even in his first EuroBasket, he sees no reason to set limits.
"Maybe we can win it if we play like we've done in our last five games," Saric said. "I expect everything for this team. It's a dream of mine to be in an Olympic Games, World Cup, the NBA, not just for me but also for every player in the world. You dream about big tournaments."
This might be just the first of many.