Shootaround (Mar. 19): Dirk Nowitzki Praises Philadelphia 76ers Rookie Dario Saric
No. 1: Dirk is a big Saric fan — How many times in the last dozen or so years has a European big man been called the Next Dirk? Well, exactly zero Next Dirks turned out to be a copy of the original, because Dirk Nowitzki broke that mold with his 30,000th point. Dirk is a big fan of Sixers forward Dario Saric, who will be strongly considered for Rookie of the Year if his oft-injured teammate Joel Embiid doesn’t snatch the award. Here’s Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who spoke with the “teacher” and “pupil”:
It’s good to be Dirk, and it has been for a while. But it wasn’t all that great in 1998, when he became the NBA draft’s first European lottery pick. When the Mavericks flouted the conservative and conventional focus in scouting circles on American college players and traded for him. When Don Nelson, then the team’s general manager and coach, predicted that Nowitzki would win the league’s rookie of the year award.
Saric is the leading contender for that honor this season; he would be just the second European-born player, after Pau Gasol in 2002, to win it. He had been on a remarkable 16-game run ahead of Friday, averaging 20.3 points and 8.0 rebounds and shooting 48.4 percent from the field over that span, and his rapid development into a centerpiece player for the Sixers serves as a reminder of how different things were for Nowitzki two decades ago, how difficult he had it compared with Saric or any international player today.
WATCH: Dario Saric’s 25 points vs the Warriors
“I was struggling there for a long, long time,” Nowitzki said. “He’s playing a lot better in his first year than I did.”
Of that, there’s no doubt. In his rookie season – the lockout-truncated 1998-99 campaign – Nowitzki hardly seemed destined to mature into what he became: a 7-foot-tall post-perimeter hybrid, one in a wave of versatile big men who moved their games out of the lane and to the rest of the court, including beyond the three-point arc. As Saric did years later, Nowitzki had impressed pro and college scouts at the Nike Hoop Summit, marking himself as a prospect worth watching, but the NBA at the time didn’t offer a soft landing spot for him.
Before joining the Mavericks, Nowitzki had never lived outside of Germany or on his own for any significant length of time. He had never found an apartment, let alone in a foreign country. He was hesitant to speak English, afraid that he would marble-mouth the language. Because of the lockout, he didn’t go through a normal training camp with the Mavericks, and when the season began, he was ill-equipped for the nightly demand of defending stronger, more seasoned players.
When Nowitzki entered the league, for instance, teams were forbidden from playing zone defense. So possession after possession looked the same: a star player isolated on one side of the court, pounding the ball in the post, backing down a man-to-man defender. The NBA has since changed its rules to open up the flow of play, allowing Nowitzki to flourish over time, but his struggles made Nelson look like a blowhard for that boastful prediction. As a rookie, Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points and made barely 40 percent of his shots.
“There would be guys who were just backing me down for 10 seconds,” he said. “All those things are out now. Once we put the zone in, things were a lot easier for the European shooters to adjust, and it’s been fun to watch how many guys come into this league and have an impact and are big-time players.”
Saric appears the latest, and he hasn’t confronted the same culture shock that Nowitzki did. The Sixers traded for Ersan Ilyasova, who mentored Saric during their 31/2 months as teammates, and Saric’s mother, Veselinka, traveled with him and the team on a recent road trip. And generally speaking, the league’s modern, more fluid style of basketball allows a European player to make a faster transition, which in turn allows him to earn his new teammates’ respect more quickly, which in turn makes everything about his experience easier.
“It’s hard to play well on the court if you don’t feel well off the court,” Nowitzki said. “Maybe he’s feeling [good] here and the team welcomed him in, because he’s playing really well. . . . It feels like they run a lot of stuff to him now. His specialty is that he can go both ways. He’s a good driver. He can create contact. He can finish. He can get to the foul line. He’s able to step out and knock down that three-point shot, and that really opens up the drives for him. In big situations, they give him the ball to create.”
No. 2: Crowder accepts lesser role with Celtics— Do you recall when Jae Crowder was so incensed over Celtics fans cheering soon-to-be free agent Gordon Hayward that he complained afterward? Well, that’s understandable; the man has pride. Anyway, Crowder has confined his energy since then to the Celtics, and has been fine with being a role player on a team that goes eight or nine deep. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe spoke with Crowder about his place on the Celtics and his thoughts on the season:
Crowder’s numbers aren’t eye-popping. He is averaging 13.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and shooting 39.8 percent from the 3-point line this season. His scoring has dipped a little from last season because he has taken 1.3 fewer shots. Those numbers won’t get him elected to an All-Star team, but Crowder brings a toughness and grit the Celtics lost when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn.
“I don’t put a ceiling on my game,” he said. “Once the opportunity presents itself, I try to just step up to the opportunity. But we run a lot of stuff for Isaiah on the court and that just limits me on the offensive end a lot, so it is what it is.”Yet there are Celtics faithful craving to add Gordon Hayward, the Jazz swingman and former Brad Stevens pupil at Butler, or wanting the club to trade for the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, Crowder’s former Marquette teammate, or even try again for the Pacers’ Paul George.
Crowder hears this, stews, and is offended. But he understands that his style will never be truly appreciated by numbers folks.
“Of course it motivates me,” Crowder said when hears the names of his possible replacements. “A lot of talk has been said about me not being here. But, at the same time, it’s a part of this business and I’m aware of that.”
Crowder has accepted that Thomas — with his 29.2 points per game and 19.6 shot attempts — is the focal point of the Celtics’ offense. Moreover, Avery Bradley needs to get shots and so does Al Horford. So Crowder has to accept a complementary offensive role, although his improved offensive skills — he has become a dependable 3-point shooter and driver — could make him a more featured player.
When asked what would make him an elite small forward, on the level of a Butler, George, or Hayward, Crowder said, “A lot of other small forwards, they are shooting the ball 15, 20 times a game. I shoot the ball 10 times a game on a good night. So I’m playing against the odds a little bit trying to be at the elite level because I don’t have the same type of opportunity as those guys. It puts me behind the 8-ball a little bit, but I fight night in and night out and I do what I’ve got to do.”
It’s not that Crowder doesn’t want a more prominent offensive role; it’s that the Celtics are winning with things as they are now. They are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and the team has ascended since his arrival. He plays a certain role for this team, defending those elite small forwards such as LeBron James and George, fighting for the tough rebound, and being able to hit the open shot when defenses collapse on Thomas.
His work may not be appreciated by the common Celtics fan, but it is by Stevens.
“He’s a guy that obviously can shoot the basketball,” the coach said. “He’s figured out the best place is to drive it when he can post, so he can go a variety of ways depending on who’s guarding him and how they’re playing him. He’s effective at the [small forward], he’s effective at the [power forward], and he’s versatile defensively, so he’s a guy that’s hard to keep off the court because of all those things.”
Crowder said he is content to do those little things that are generally overlooked to win games. He said his mentality is selfless.
“I play to win games,” he said. “I don’t care about what the fans say or what the critics say about anything, to be honest with you. That’s what I bring to a team. I’ve become a real student of the game. I watch a lot of film. I critique myself on a different level. It’s all just growing up and being a smarter basketball player, and I think my dad has always encouraged me because it helps me.
No. 3: Suns look towards future — Now that they’ve shut down guard Eric Bledsoe, the Suns aren’t even bothering to make it a secret. Clearly, they’ve decided to turn the season over to youngsters such as Tyler Ulis and others to, if nothing else, see what they’ve got in order to get a jump on offseason evaluations. Of course, there’s another bonus involved when you turn so suddenly to youth: You run the very high risk of getting better position in the draft. This isn’t exactly a new strategy, and at this point, everyone is numb to it now. Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says it’s about time the Suns went tank-mode:
Entering the final month of the NBA season, the Suns have shut down three healthy players, including two members of their starting lineup. They say they need to test and grow their younger players. They are also protecting their haul of ping pong balls in the upcoming NBA draft lottery at the expense of team morale and fan experience.
Good for them.
In theory, the practice stinks. When the 76ers embarked on “The Process” in 2013, they were blasted for their long-term tanking strategies. They won 71 games in the next four years, two fewer than the Warriors won last season alone. They became a pariah in NBA circles, a team that was openly mocking the integrity of athletic competition.
Now, it’s everywhere. The Lakers are doing it, shutting down two players (Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov) who are on the books for well over $100 million in the next four seasons. The Magic are doing it, although not nearly as obviously as some. Certainly not like the Suns.
The decision to stop playing Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight came with an airtight alibi. The Suns needed to find out what they really have in backup center Alan Williams and rookie point guard Tyler Ulis. That experiment has yielded very useful, encouraging information.
WATCH: Eric Bledsoe’s 30 points vs the Wizards
There could be damaging consequences. The 2016-17 Suns have grown considerably over the course of the season. Bledsoe and Devin Booker have found a comfortable co-existence. Valley fans have been attracted to the team’s youth movement and fighting spirit, a group that has produced a number of memorable conquests.
Shutting down Bledsoe could conceivably change the way the locker room feels about management’s commitment to winning, and to them. Former Suns star Dan Majerle said you simply can’t ask a big-time competitor to shut it down and watch games from the bench, only to ask them for 100 percent at all times when the new season fires back up in October.
Alas, that’s a risk the Suns have to take. They won three of their final four games in 2015-16, a stupid act of defiance that cost them draft status near the end of a 23-win season. This year, a strong finish could set them back as many as four slots in the draft. Remember, as much as you like the makeup of the current team, McDonough admitted they are two elite players away from real contention.
They need to finish the job in 2016-17, losing as much as possible down the stretch.
Some Random Headlines: Kevin Durant is doing light — very light — shooting drills in practice and has the green light to travel with the team … Doc Rivers is emphatically stressing that he has no future with the Orlando Magic, contrary to speculation … Erik Spoelstra is somewhat surprised to learn that he remains very, very big in the Philippines … David Kahn, the former embattled GM of the Timberwolves, has been mentioned as a candidate for the UNLV athletic director’s job … Damian Lillard says the resurgent Blazers are putting up a fight and need to keep up their dukes … Ex-Bull Taj Gibson is feeling more and more comfortable in his new home, Oklahoma City