Last summer, Dario Saric caught World Cup fever. It wasn’t just because he was a soccer fan. Rather, his native country, Croatia, stunned the world in advancing to the final against France. It was the culmination of a month of improbable fervor that had gripped the country of a little more than 4 million people.
“People just lived for those days,” Saric said.
He had to get a ticket for the final in Moscow and envelop himself in an atmosphere filled with Croatian pride, a pride that filled his heart to do the same on the basketball court.
“When you see something or somebody reach the highest in life, one day you want to reach that,” Saric said. “You have in your mind I’ll work hard to get there, to have that kind of experience. I hope people were proud.”
Saric is hoping to do the same for Croatia in his NBA career — he’s just doing it in Minnesota, a place he didn’t expect to be. After the Jimmy Butler trade brought him and Robert Covington here from Philadelphia, Saric had to pick up and reorganize his life. But it’s something he has done before in his young career, a career that follows in the footsteps of professional players from Croatia and the former Yugoslavia before him, such as Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and his parents, Predrag and Veselinka.
“I didn’t know what to feel. I was a little bit shocked,” Saric said. “I feel like my stomach hurt. But after that your emotions get settled down. You figure out, OK, you’re going to a new team. You need to start over again.”
Saric, 24, has done plenty of that, playing in Turkey and Philadelphia before arriving with the Wolves. Upon his arrival, Saric did what he knew how to do best as he was getting acquainted with the Wolves’ sets and terminology — he hustled, rebounded and shot open threes.
It’s a hard-nosed mentality that Saric formed playing in Europe and growing under the watchful — and critical — eye of his father.
“He motivated me very well. He was the guy who was telling me exactly how the situation was …” Saric said. “He was realistic.”
Saric and his father have had a tumultuous relationship, fueled in part by Predrag’s public questioning of some of Saric’s career moves. He critiqued Saric’s move to another Croatian team in 2012 and questioned Saric’s NBA readiness before the Magic drafted his son in 2014 then traded him to the 76ers. But Saric said those fights are in the past and the two have a “good relationship.” The family even consented to having an upcoming documentary, called “Always the Same,” filmed about their lives. Saric said his father would rarely blame Saric’s coaches for his shortcomings on the court.
“He’d say, ‘If you shoot 0-for-3 from the three-point line, that’s your mistake,’ ” Saric said. “I grew up in that kind of environment and that helped me a lot to go through these things. It was a good thing for me.”
So was playing in the competitive and reputable Turkish basketball before coming to the NBA in 2016, Saric said. In Europe, the leashes coaches had on their players were a little tighter than in the NBA, where players have more room to make mistakes.
“If you miss two shots in a row, you have another guy who’s coming in for you,” Saric said. “It’s just different system, different atmosphere in Europe. Every game is like playoff game. Here is a little bit of the same, but with 82 games, it’s not always like a sprint of 100 meters.”
Saric’s way of communicating in English, like saying “sprint of 100 meters” instead of “100-meter dash” is one of his charms off the court, but on it there is a toughness that developed in Europe. It’s what drew coach Tom Thibodeau to Saric in trade talks.
“He’s got great passion for the game,” Thibodeau said. “He’s got great experience, and he’s not afraid of anything. I think that toughness was sorely needed by us.”
Saric is averaging 10.9 points per game this season coming off the bench for the Wolves after he started in Philadelphia. It’s something he is OK doing, and he has been an integral part of a bench unit that has helped the Wolves go 7-2 since the trade.
Saric admitted his first reaction to the trade wasn’t great. Philadelphia embraced him as part of “The Process.” The organization loved him, and he endeared himself to fans. Or as Saric said, “It was two beautiful years there.”
Perhaps he will find beauty in Minnesota.
“[You think] maybe the situation here will be better for you,” Saric said. “Maybe you’ll have more opportunities … The relationship I have [in Philadelphia] with the coaches and fans, I really started to feel the same here.”