Dario Saric earned the MVP trophy of the U18 European Championship in Vilnius on Sunday after winning the Gold Medal as well. These were two more awards for the already richly decorated young man (U16 Gold in 2010, NIJT 2011) from Croatia who once again showed that he is among the most dominant youth players ever in Europe over the last years.
Three years ago, Saric had his first international competition when he played the U16 European Championship, in Kaunas. It was for me the first time I could scout him and the young man has changed quite a bit since then. Back then, he was only 15 and 2m02 tall while he grew to 2m08 already. This seems to be his final height which is perfect for international basketball and his future position. He showed in Vilnius that he is able to play any position on this level as he has really improved his game back to the basket. When he gets defended by a wing, he will immediately go to the low post and play him from there. Saric can go for the simple backing down play followed by either a jump hook or a drop step layup. He did this quite effectively in the Final and created himself a multitude of easy baskets in this way. The other advantage of him playing in this inside role was his ability to grab offensive rebounds. Saric knows by instinct where the ball is going and he is there or fights to get there.
What can not be said anymore is that Saric is soft. He battles hard and is not afraid to go for the contact. He seems to enjoy being hit and finish with the foul and is not shying away anymore. Combined with his growing body and physical presence, Saric could be a full-time power forward in the future but this might not be his final destination. Despite having shot at poor percentages from behind the three-point line in this tournament, Saric is more effective when he can create with the ball from outside. This brings him a huge advantage and makes him a mismatch problem for most of the teams. Lithuania tried to defend him with a more physical player later in the Final which Saric recognized immediately and took him out to the wing to play him in 1-1. Here, he is unstoppable on this level as he sees exactly what the defender gives him and attacks him on the weak spots or when is a little out of balance.
His ball handling skills and footwork are a major plus as he is not the most athletic or fast player. But his overall technique and feeling for the right contacts give him once again a multitude of baskets from close as he can go by the defender at will. He is not going for difficult plays and tries to find the easiest place on the court for the finish. This underlines his growing basketball understanding which is already at the level of an experienced player, especially in decisive situations. In the semi-final, he felt that it was now or never that he needed to step up when his team was trailing badly and nobody else on the court seemed to have the capacities. He scored several baskets in individual plays and gave his team mates the necessary confidence to change the game.
When Saric is playing as a ball handler, he has still an excellent feel for the pass and he had some nice kick-outs to the open shooters. He struggles a bit when he gets doubled or even tripled to find the right players but overall, he is getting used to these situations and manages them well. With his growing body and age, Saric has become also a bit more athletic and he can finish plays with the dunk against defense. He will never be a high-flyer but with his more developed body, he is not falling down anymore on the slightest contact. Additionally, he has become an interesting presence as shot blocker and he is not afraid to go hard for the rejections on the help side. In general, his defensive presence is limited though to shot blocking and rebounding as he is never really fully focused on shutting somebody down from outside. This is a point where Saric needs to work to become a serious factor on the professional level soon as he can compensate with his enormous offensive talent right now. He needs to become better in lateral speed but also mentally to be a defensive factor.
The emotions are still a major part of Saric’s game. He talks, flops, shouts and is really present on the court. When in his young days, you sometimes had the feeling that he was close to cry on the court when the decision were going against him, he has matured in this area but still is highly engaged in talks with referees or players. This can have negative effects on his mental presence but it looks like he is going into the right direction. After having won everything possible in the youth categories, Saric should now step up and start to win on the professional level. He has underlined in Vilnius that he is above anyone else in youth basketball and any more time in these kind of tournaments for him seems a bit wasted. However, with the U19 World Championship coming in 2013, it would be great to see this Croatian team together with the 1995 born prospect Mario Hezonja trying to go for the Gold as well.
Right now, Saric seems to me to develop into a taller version of Dejan Bodiroga. Both players have a similar capacity to beat their man on the dribble with technique but Bodiroga had the better shot. However, Saric will mostly likely improve his shooting in the future as he needs to become more regular from outside to be able to beat defenders on the professional level. If he can develop his small weaknesses and be able to become a even finisher with contact, Saric will most likely dominate European basketball for the next 10 to 15 years. Those people who do not know him now, they will certainly soon hear about him on the highest level.