How much of an issue is Dario Saric’s defense?

Dario Saric has had an impressive second season, but could his defense hurt the Philadelphia 76ers in important games?

Perhaps the most underrated part of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ success this season has been Dario Saric‘s development. Even as the fourth option offensively, his high I.Q., improved shooting and crafty post scoring has made him one of the Sixers’ most productive players.

Since Christmas, the second-year forward is averaging 16.6 points and 6.7 boards per game, all while shooting 43.7 percent from deep. That’s a significant chunk of the season during which he has been one of the best shooters in the league.

All of this seems to point towards Saric being a building block moving forward. He has adjusted marvelously in his new role next to Ben Simmons, all while spacing the floor for Joel Embiid‘s post work.

The one issue that might hold Saric back long term, though, is his defense. His athleticism has always been a limitation, but it doesn’t really hurt him offensively. It becomes a problem when he’s asked to defend quicker players on the perimeter.

We’ve seen Saric get switched onto opposing point guards and promptly put in the blender on countless occasions. It’s one of the few mismatches teams strive for when playing against a Sixers defense that is otherwise elite.

That issue could become magnified in a playoff setting, as the game typically slows down and individual matchups are stressed. Teams are going to search out Saric and make a concerted effort to put him in uncomfortable spots on the defensive end, which could hurt the Sixers if their offense can’t keep pace on the other end.

Potential solutions

As for a solution, the Sixers don’t have many options at this point. Richaun Holmes has shown some nice energy at the power forward spot, but he hasn’t proven himself in extended minutes yet. Ersan Ilyasova is a smart team defender, but he’s limited in many of the same areas Saric is when it comes to isolation defense.

Many viewed Saric as a sixth man coming into the season, with his defense being the main reason why. But, when he drastically outperforms offensive expectations and looks like a legitimate building block, it’s hard to justify that switch.

Markelle Fultz‘s inevitable return will only bring new energy to this discussion. If he returns to the form we saw at Washington, Fultz will be a starter. It’s just a matter of who he replaces, with Saric and J.J. Redick being the likely candidates.

Redick has been a key cog in the Sixers’ offense, with a lot of Brett Brown’s system focused on getting him open looks around the perimeter. He’s having a career year in the scoring department and is probably a better individual defender than Saric, although that isn’t to say he’s not limited.

Putting Saric in the second unit and allowing him the freedom to lead the offense against opposing benches makes sense in theory. He’s a nifty passer — something that isn’t fully embraced in the starting unit — and a proven double-digit scorer, which could make him a frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year.

We saw him struggle off the bench earlier in the season, though. It wasn’t an extended sample size, but he failed to find a consistent rhythm when he wasn’t starting games. There was a notable difference, both with Saric and the team, when he replaced Jerryd Bayless.

Fultz, on the other hand, should be a solid defender. He’s 6-4 with a 6-9 wingspan and excellent instincts, allowing him to work his way into passing lanes and force turnovers. His effort wasn’t always there in college, but that’s often the case with top prospects in a season that doesn’t really impact their future.

Ben Simmons is a prime example of that.

Fultz would give the Sixers a defensive boost and some much-needed playmaking in the starting unit. If Saric is capable of producing at a high level as a reserve — which, again, is uncertain — that change would make sense, especially in the playoffs.

This is, quite simply, one of the biggest questions facing the Sixers long term. They’ll have to find the most effective way to utilize Saric on a competitive roster, which could mean changing his role (again).

Dario is really, really good on the offensive end, but we’ll see how much of an issue his defense becomes as the games get more important.