PHOENIX — When members of the Phoenix Suns come to their practice facility, they usually see center Dario Saric already there. If they leave, Saric probably hasn’t done it yet.
The 28-year-old is still rehabilitating a cruciate ligament tear he sustained in Game 1 of the NBA Finals over nine months ago. Saric, speaking on Thursday for the first time since media day, said he is basically out for the rest of the season unless there is an emergency situation where several Suns big men are injured and he feels healthy enough , to play.
Coming to the facility from a media member’s perspective, I barely saw Saric from my perspective for the more than six months of the season as he went about his work off the pitch until his return on it. Saric shot the ball under the basket while sitting in a chair, then was able to do so on the move a little while he did some ball-handling work and rejoined his shooting squad.
It’ll give you a newfound respect for where these guys really need to start and how far they need to go before they’re fully revved up and ready for a professional basketball game.
Saric described it well. He said he felt like a weightlifter during part of the process, but feels like a basketball player again now that he’s been able to do so many basketball activities compared to a few months ago.
“It was a challenge,” he said. “Of course it is my season [in] a little different direction than (the) real team, but I’m still here with the team and my heart.”
Saric had to fight the desire to be on the pitch but knew it wasn’t the right time for his body.
“I know that sometimes when you’re injured you kind of know you’re going to be out for a while, but sometimes you’re not ready,” he said. “Of course I’ve been playing basketball for 20 years and I want to be on the court.”
Saric rehab with the Suns might seem like the norm in the NBA, but it’s not uncommon for players to undertake their own extensive rehab off the team. Recently, New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson made headlines when he did just that over a foot injury.
Suns center JaVale McGee, a 13-year veteran, said he didn’t rehab with his team earlier in his career and didn’t realize what that meant for the group.
“I’ve been in situations where I didn’t realize at the time how important it is to stay on the team when you’re injured,” McGee said on March 11. “I was more separated from the team and looking back this is 20/20. I wish I had been more involved with the team when I was injured.
Saric said trust often matters and Saric has always believed in the people around him within the Suns organization. From the start, members of the medical staff made him aware of what he needed to do and what his journey would entail, and urged him to continually make progress.
It shouldn’t surprise you that Saric chose this path if you’ve heard enough of his coaches and teammates talking about him.
Much like a few years ago, when I had to convince Suns fans that Mikal Bridges was the funniest player on the team, although his personality wasn’t showing much at the time, you might be surprised to hear that Saric has just as much of a one Prankster as the majority of the list.
Additionally, he is endlessly praised for the kind of teammate he is.
Head coach Monty Williams has said in the past that Saric is one of his favorite players he has ever coached. Point guard Chris Paul has said the same thing when it comes to how easy Saric is to play with and how good he is as a teammate.
So, as you’d expect, Saric knows what it means for him to stay close to the lads and still be behind the bench at home games in recent months.
“If a guy’s really negative in a way or doesn’t want to be part of the team or something, the guys see that,” he said. “Cannot break the chemistry between the players. I really liked it there with the team. I’ve been on the team for about three years. This is my second home.”
McGee painted the picture as it would appear to a teammate.
“Dario’s locked up,” McGee said. “He’s here early to do his work, he sits on the bench with us and cheers us on, he sits with us in the scrum when we do our little pregame thing. He was part of the team the whole time.”
Williams expanded on the implications of this.
“Dario is in a supporting role now so I’m sure that helps,” Williams said on March 12. “Especially when guys come out of the game or guys [aren’t] play, they can turn to Dario and talk about anything but basketball, and then eventually they start talking about the system or what we’re doing, and Dario can help with that.
“He’s just a good guy. Every time you have Darios on your team, you know they are an asset, not a detriment.”
Guards Devin Booker and Paul both spoke about the boost they can get themselves seeing the improvement in Saric’s recovery.
“We love to see him, I love to see the progress,” Booker said on April 5. “From working on the table to going into the weight room to not seeing his first steps but seeing him running on the court again. I love seeing the progress and seeing the work. These guys come before we get here and they’re here after. It’s always tough having an injury but coming back to being around the lads, I know it helps him a lot.
“It’s nice for us to see the work he does every day,” Paul said on Wednesday. “Dario is a hard worker and I’m sure getting rehab is helping him too and we’re still playing. It just shows that we are a team and try to do everything together.”
Saric understands how he can still be an advantage for the team. He’s been here since Williams has been here, so he’s a systems player who understands exactly what Williams is trying to achieve on both ends of the court. The feedback Saric gives on the bench can be useful and help the Suns win games.
“It’s incredible to support them and be there for them, give them advice,” said Saric. “Maybe I’m cooler than them during the game, maybe I’ll offer some advice, especially DA. … It was really very good there. I was there for the team because I really feel it, I really want it.”
And if you look at it from Saric’s perspective, forward Jae Crowder explained how it can help Saric when he comes back.
“It keeps him busy,” Crowder said on March 18. “When it’s time for him to come back, he rolls a bit. He can see scouts, he can hear what we’re going through on game day, he’s still busy. I find that critical. Obviously he’s putting in the work and I think he would put in the work if he were somewhere else, but he’s still only involved in our group, which is crucial for him and for our group camaraderie.
“Whenever he comes back, he ends up right where he left off.”
Saric admitted he needed the first month of his injury which meant a lot of time at the facility as the only player there. He “needed that peace” to get over losing the finals and play his part the way it was.
After that, however, the “happier (and) more positive” vibes the boys brought with them once back at the facility gave him the right encouragement to tell Saric they’d make it there again this year.
“The boys are happy for me and I’m very happy for them too,” he said.