RIO DE JANEIRO — Two seconds is barely enough time to blink twice, but it is enough to deliver something eye-popping. The first 39 minutes, 58 seconds of Dario Saric’s Olympic debut were underwhelming to put it mildly. Instead of spectacular, he was barely solid. Anyone unaware of his draft position or the enthusiastic two-year wait of “trust-the-process” Philadelphia 76ers fans wouldn’t have invested any time in trying to find him on the floor.
But when he needed to be seen, when Croatia needed someone to rise up against Spain, Saric raised his right hand – and used it to send a future Hall of Famer’s shot in the opposite direction. Pau Gasol could be somewhat forgiven for not seeing Saric before the incredible, deafening blocked shot that secured Croatia’s unlikely 72-70 victory at Carioca Arena 1; Gasol had spent a good portion of the second half turning Saric into a ghost in the low post.
Plus, Saric was actually hiding on the other side of the basket when Gasol caught the ball for the potential game-tying hook shot and quickly spun around Krunoslav Simon. Saric kept his eyes on Gasol, timed his jump perfectly and cleanly smacked the air out of the ball. Teammate Roko Ukic began celebrating once the carom landed in his hands and Saric raised his fists as his teammates eventually mobbed him.
“I think that is the gift for the whole team. That block was like cherry on the cake,” Saric said, “because the team fight all the time.”
For a nation that continues to mourn and deify a lost legend in Drazen Petrovic and hasn’t had a player of consequence in the league since Toni Kukoc last laced them up over a decade ago, Croatia has waited exceedingly long to find a player on whom it can place its hopes for basketball relevance. That is the position Saric now occupies, having to not only establish himself as a player but to take an entire country along for the ride as well.
“This kid got the hopes for being the next big thing in Croatia. That’s not easy,” said Ukic, the elder statesman on the team who had a brief stint in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors. “It’s not easy to play first time, Olympic Games. Things didn’t go well for him … but he saved the day with that last block. That takes character.
“Whoever come from our country to the NBA, is like our next big thing. There is so much pressure. These kind of wins, these kind of games can give him the push in the back and help him, not only for this tournament, but for his career.”
Saric and Orlando Magic guard Mario Hezonja represent the next wave of promising players for a country that finished as a distant runner-up to the Dream Team in 1992 but hasn’t sniffed the medal stand in the following years. Hezonja just completed a relatively quiet rookie season in which he struggled to find a consistent spot in a guard-heavy rotation.
After holding off his NBA debut to sown the past two seasons in Turkey, Saric decided to finally come over amid considerable mystery and the controversial dismissal of the man who drafted and stashed him with the 12th pick in 2014. Former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie was willing to wait on Saric, thinking he’d have plenty of time to let the franchise sink to the earth’s core before finding the talent to lift it back up. The suffering yielded a gruesome 72 losses and the No. 1 overall pick this year in Ben Simmons. Now comes the hope of having a team that is, at the very least, entertaining with Simmons, Saric and Joel Embiid – taken nine spots before Saric – also planning to make his long-awaited debut.[/restrict]