As the 2023-24 NBA season draws near, Blue Man Hoop will focus on one aspect of potential improvement for every Warrior player.
In terms of free agent acquisitions for the Golden State Warriors, there’s no bigger than Dario Saric (both figuratively and literally). The franchise had little financial freedom heading into the offseason, yet pulled off a potential steal by signing the Croatian to a one-year, $2.7 million contract.
The Croatian is about to embark on a new role under Warrior coach Steve Kerr, one where he takes on more responsibility as a small-ball five rather than the power-forward he’s traditionally been across the course of his career.
Fortunately, Saric has grown in experience as a center over recent times. After a mid-season trade from the Phoenix Suns to the Oklahoma City Thunder, he saw 99% of his playing time as a five according to Basketball Reference.
The first thing that jumps out with Saric is his assist numbers. His career average of 1.9 per game doesn’t do justice to the kind of creative playmaking he possesses, showcased in a recent FIBA Pre-Olympic Qualifying game for Croatia where he dished out 12 dimes.
That’s not particularly an area for improvement though, rather it’ll be up to Kerr and the coaching staff to utilize those skills more productively than other teams have in the past. However, that can only happen if Saric holds up on the other end of the floor.
Defensive functionality as a five-man
This is the important aspect for Saric heading into this season — the offense should be a seamless fit given his passing and shooting abilities. In his brief stint with the Thunder to end last season (20 games), the 29-year-old recorded the equal-worst defensive rating of his career. More specifically, his 1.0 defensive win shares over the entire season were the least of any of his seven years in the league.
In his 57 games last season, opposition players scored 58.4% of the time when defended by Saric from within 10 feet of the basket. In 2020-21, the only other season where he played primarily as a center, it was at 57.5%
Those numbers are far from disastrous, at least in comparison to the start of last season where the backup five, James Wiseman, gave up a field goal percentage in excess of 65% from within 10 feet. Still, it’s certainly worse than Golden State’s other center options in Kevon Looney and Draymond Green.
Green’s versatility has been what’s allowed Kerr to play small-ball on a consistent basis over the last nine years. Opposition players scored just 49.3% of the time when guarded by Green from within 10 feet last season, a remarkable number for most let alone someone standing at 6’6″.
Saric is never going to be Green, but an improvement on his recent defensive numbers could prove important for a multitude of reasons. Not only will it prove him more viable as a backup center and therefore allow him more minutes to let him flourish offensively, but it could be critical in lessening the load on Looney and Green who’ve taken quite the physical toll over recent seasons.