Dario Šarić is two players in one body. When battling on behalf of his Croatian national team, all eyes are on his every move as the established prodigy who's exactly what everyone always thought he could be. But 4,300 miles away, in Philadelphia, he's still evolving, learning, and, behind Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz, more ancillary than essential.
But Šarić was arguably Philadelphia's best player the last time we saw him in a Sixers uniform, averaging an efficient 18 points, eight rebounds, and four assists in a disappointing five-game series against the Boston Celtics. Now, as he enters his third season, Saric remains a significant variable for a team with championship aspirations. Players his size, with his shooting, passing, and intelligence don't grow on trees, and if the Sixers are more successful this year than they were in 2018, there's a decent chance Šarić's individual improvement will be one of the biggest reasons why.
A couple weeks ago, we caught up with Saric to discuss several topics relating to his summer, trade rumors, free agency, how Philly can beat Boston, and so much more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE Sports: How was your summer? What did you do?
Dario Šarić: I’ve been working on my game, obviously. And I had time to visit my family, hang out with them, with friends. I’ve been working, you know. I got the two windows with the international team, two games in June and two games in September, and I’ve been playing basketball.
When did you go back to Croatia?
I go back to Croatia six or seven days [after the NBA season ended]. I took a couple days of vacation here in the States and then I took a flight to Croatia. I was there all the time, playing for the national team.
How important are those FIBA games, playing for your home country?
I’ve been playing for the Croatian national team since I was three years old. No, I’m lying! 14 or 13. I never missed a summer playing for the Croatian national team and it’s like I’m 24, still young, and I can say I’ve been playing for Croatia for ten years. It’s such an amazing thing and for me something special, to have an opportunity to represent my country and my people there. Sometimes you have a bad tournament, sometimes you have a good tournament, but at the end of the day it’s a big pleasure to wear that jersey and step on the court, hear the national song, and play the game. I think every human being would like to do that, and for me it’s really special. I don’t just represent myself, I represent all people, my family, my friends. It’s a good thing for me.
Do you feel more pressure playing for the Croatian national team than you do for the Sixers?
Absolutely. I feel more pressure when I play for a national team. It’s a hard thing to say because it’s not pressure because I will lose a summer or need a rest. It’s not about that. It’s about coming on the court. It’s some kind of pressure. You try to figure it out.
What parts of your game have you been working on?
I’ve been working on my shots. Of course, every player wants to improve in that part of [their] game. I’ve been working on my low-post game, too. I’ve been lifting all the time. I’ve been working on all these things and especially I’ve been working on my defense because the Sixers game plan is to make switches on the floor, and obviously I’ll have to guard some of the best guards in the league and I’ll need to be ready for that.
Both your three-point percentage and defense improved dramatically in year two. How much more comfortable were you at the end of last season compared to when you were a rookie?
I feel more comfortable because you grow up, you’re one year older, you have some experience. You know how to handle some situations. You find out how to play with Ben, with Joel, with JJ [Redick], with T.J. [McConnell], you really find out how to play with those guys. If there’s some hole in the team, you can jump in and try to fix it or find some points or assists. It's a good place for myself.
How is your role on the Croatian team different from the Sixers, and does it affect how you approach each possession?
It’s different. On the Sixers I need to play where coach is asking for me. Obviously we have Ben and Joel who are so dominant at their positions, one of the best in the league. When I’m in Croatia I play more with the ball, try to make other guys better players and put them in a good position.
Were you following Philadelphia’s pursuit of free agents this summer? There was a meeting with LeBron’s representation and rumors swirling about Paul George. Did you ever let yourself wonder how cool it would be to play with them?
Yeah, of course. When I heard there was an opportunity to play with James, who to me is the best player right now in the league, it would’ve been such a good thing. But at the end of the day he chose to go to L.A. Obviously we have such young guys and such a young core, and I think we can do the things we want without big name guys.
Your name was in numerous trade rumors before Kawhi Leonard was dealt to Toronto. How aware were you of them, and how did that make you feel?
Yeah of course I heard rumors. I was talking with the coaches all the time. "Is there any chance it can happen?" Of course some things will go through your mind. This is a business at the end of the day and the front office will do what it thinks is best for the team, and you can not change their decision. For you, it’s just to come on the court, show up, and play hard every game and every practice. That’s the only way how to handle it. I don’t think so much about that kind of rumors.
How much of a relief was it when you saw that JJ Redick would be back another year?
I’ve got a good relationship with JJ. He was one of my favorite guys with the team and to hear he was coming back…I heard a story about him already having one step, one leg in Indiana, and things change in a couple hours. It was nice to hear that. JJ is a good addition to the team and I think he’ll show that this year, too.
Lloyd Pierce is now in Atlanta. How important was he in helping you guys on the defensive end last season, and how much will he be missed?
I think he made a great impact on us defensively last year. Especially with me. He was talking to me about defense, how I should move my feet, and I think we lost one great coach, but at the end of the day I’m happy for him. He got the opportunity to become the first coach of an NBA team. He’s got a great career behind him, working for Golden State, Cleveland, and Memphis. To hear that he finally got the first head coach job is amazing for him and I give him the best luck.
You guys lost to Boston in five games last year in the playoffs, but you, individually, had a phenomenal series. What positive takeaways, if any, did you have after the series against the Celtics?
It was a very strange series. We were expected to beat them, but at the end of the day they were playing amazing all series against us. I think we learned some lessons. How to play, how to be focused on every detail, how to listen. And the coaches, what they present for each game. Each game is a special one. With all that we learn, and one year we are older and one year we are more together. I think obviously it will be easier next year for us to play against them, maybe in the playoffs.
Similar to how the Rockets look at the Warriors and are constantly focused on stopping them, how often were the Celtics on your mind over the summer. Is that something you, your teammates, and coaches talk about at all?
I think yes. They are such a great team. They are coached very well. They have a young, talented core. And now that Kyrie is back, Gordon Hayward is back, obviously they will be a very powerful team in the East and all over the league. Of course they are in our minds. Right now we talk all the time about Boston, how they guard us, how we need to be ready for that kind of defense when we play against them.
Can you elaborate just a little bit about where, specifically, you’re looking to improve in your matchup against Boston?
We’ve got the offense that we play. And in some specific situations coach will mention, like "Marcus Smart is guarding JJ like this," or "Al Horford is guarding Ben like this." The coaches were looking at videos and clips all summer and they know what they’re talking about. I think it’s on us as players to accept that and present that on the court when we play against them.
Coach Brown said he wants to make the Finals this year. Is that possible for you guys?
Obviously. In our heads we want to be champions. We want to play in the Finals. Coach has some experience. Obviously he was an assistant for one of the greatest teams ever, San Antonio Spurs, and he knows what the team needs to compete in May and June, and he’s trying to make us focus on those kind of things because we’re full of talent and have a young core. We’re together and older and it’s true what he’s saying.
What are your personal expectations for yourself this season? What do you want to accomplish?
It’s hard to say what’s in my mind. I want to have a better season than last year. I want to establish myself in the starting five, play more minutes than last year, and be better in every part of my game. And just be better. To go forward every year. To not come back one step. One small step, one small step. It’s good for me.
Do you care if you’re a starter or coming off the bench?
I think every player in the league, if he got an opportunity to start he would like to start. I think in my position I was coming off the bench for the first couple games last year and then Markelle got injured and they promoted me to the first group. I really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed playing in the first five. I found myself, and I would like to continue that way.
Have you spoken to Elton Brand yet and if so what has he told you?
We didn’t talk special about me, about my game, about the Sixers. I just said congratulations about becoming the GM. We were joking about how he was a player two years ago and now he’s already GM. And I’m very happy because he’s such a nice person and he deserves it. I hope that he will handle things in the right way.