Dario Saric concluded this season as a Rookie of the Year candidate and starting NBA power forward. He put the Sixers on his shoulders after the All-Star break, establishing himself as a core piece for their future.
His stats and Rookie of the Month awards stood out on their own. Realizing how far he had come from his first days in Philadelphia made them even more impressive.
Saric remembers boarding the plane to the United States last summer. The wait was over after two years. His life was about to begin with the Sixers.
"I was nervous," Saric said last month. "I feel like I am coming in NBA, this is it now. I cannot go back anymore."
Saric left his home in Croatia with four bags and a mix of excitement and uncertainty. The Sixers had acquired him in the 2014 draft and he was keeping his promise to play in the NBA for the 2016-17 season.
What would happen, he wondered, when he got there?
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"It was hard because I was alone," Saric said. "Most time [on the plane] I think, ‘I am going to a new area and now I need to meet new people and I don't know what kind of situation is there.'"
New city. New league. New team. New language. Saric tried to get acclimated with his surroundings.
For the first few weeks Saric lived in a hotel located a short distance from the Sixers' now-former practice facility. He walked there each day. Sometimes he made his way to the nearby Starbucks with his new teammates and coaches.
Saric spent a lot of his time trying to stay connected to his life back in Europe. He called friends and family back home and watched soccer games on his computer in his hotel room when he could.
Even though he barely had a break from international competition and the Olympics, Saric threw himself into basketball. If he was in Philadelphia, he wanted to get on the court. Saric quickly felt the effects of his continuous play.
"I didn't have time maybe to practice, to work on myself, to come here, to improve maybe my game to be ready," Saric said. "I was scared. I was scared (a) little bit that because I didn't work. I got enough games, but sometimes you just need to work and practice. I was scared. The first moment I started practice, everything was so fast. Everything was faster than me. I was tired from Olympics. I didn't catch the timing. I feel like it would be hard."
The arrival of Saric's girlfriend and friend a few weeks later alleviated his nerves. The pieces of home made him feel more comfortable, and it transferred to the time he was spending with the Sixers.
"After that everything was easy," he said. "I start to not be afraid to make mistakes to talk English with the people who work here, with my teammates."
Saric became more at ease on his new team. Veteran Sergio Rodriguez took him under his wing to share his experiences coming from overseas. Ersan Ilyasova did the same when he was traded to the Sixers. The rest of the team embraced Saric, appreciating his competitive passion and sense of humor (see story).
While coaches and teammates were supportive, Saric was his own toughest critic. He didn't hide his emotions when he became frustrated or disappointed in himself.
Saric had to make yet another adjustment: accepting the ups and downs that come with an 82-game season. He adapted his mindset to grind through the learning curves and obstacles of a rookie year.
"Mentally you need to be like ready," he said. "If you don't play a couple games, if you play less minutes, I tried to talk to myself: ‘You cannot go back. You cannot say I'm going back. This is it. You cannot. I come here, I've got contract and I need to go out and play.'"
"Because everybody say, Allen Iverson talked, everybody say it's not how many times I fall down, it's like how many times I go up after I fall down. I know in my career I will go down. If you have bad games, everything will go up. I try to talk those things to myself."
Saric finished his rookie season averaging 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. After the All-Star break, his numbers jumped to 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists when he became the offensive focus in place of an injured Joel Embiid. He will compete once again on the Croatian national team this summer.
"It was long season, it was like marathon," Saric said. "I'm happy not just because of basketball, because I play good. I'm happy because I meet people, maybe I meet here 60, 70 people. I know everybody is a nice person. I never had a problem with somebody … I have really, really good group of people and I enjoy to work with them."