So safe to say he can handle being ‘the guy’ for Ole Miss basketball as a senior.
Stefan Moody served as the face of the program the last two seasons. Now that responsibility falls to Saiz, the longest-tenured player on the Rebel roster. He welcomes the challenge. Actually, he’s been waiting for this moment for quite some time.
“Feels great. Finally, after three years of being here, it feels great to be the guy,” he said. “We’re actually doing some of the same things we did last year, but we have some different elements to it, like getting me the ball. I thought we played well last year. It’s just an improvement and playing more games together.”
It was fair to question his long-term prospects nine months ago when his basketball career, in some respects, was in jeopardy.
Saiz woke up the morning of Jan. 13 and noticed his vision was off. He played later that night anyway, a 90-81 loss at LSU, and followed three days later with 17 points and six rebounds in a loss to Florida.
He was shut down the following week, and he had surgery to repair a partially detached retina in his right eye. In all, he missed six games. Ole Miss was 3-3 in his absence.
“It was one of the scariest things to happen in my life,” said Saiz, who noted his still wears protective goggles when he plays as a safety precaution. “Going down for a couple of games at the beginning just because of the hit, and after that coming back to play. And after that go back to surgery because my retina was coming off and I was going blind. It was pretty scary.
“It’s one of the biggest reasons I stayed at Ole Miss because I wanted to prove to myself and to everybody that I can do way better than I was doing last year before I got injured. That gives me motivation every day to improve.”
Head coach Andy Kennedy will lean on Saiz as he brings along a revamped roster featuring seven new players. The starting lineup is sure to go through some growing pains due to an all-new backcourt of transfer guards Deandre Burnett and Cullen Neal.
Kennedy said he’s pushing Saiz to be a consistent double-double player in the post, as well as the leading rebounder in the Southeastern Conference. Saiz played in 26 games with 24 starts as a junior, averaging 11.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.1 blocked shots, 0.9 steals and 28.5 minutes per game.
“Sebas is one of my favorite guys I’ve ever had here,” Kennedy said. “His energy’s always right. He’s very, very positive, he’s going to put in his work and he’s really evolved offensively. He’s gotten stronger. He’s 6-foot-9, and the thing that makes him so incredible is his wingspan. We test that with all our guys, and thankfully his arms have not shrunk. He’s still 7-6 tip to tip, which is astronomically long. That makes up for his lack of explosive athleticism.
“And he’s a guy that’s going to make a lot of 3s this year. That’s an area of his game that you guys haven’t seen. He’s worked tirelessly on it in the offseason. He’s been a good 15, 16-foot jump shooter. Now with some of our actions — roll and replace — he’s going to have 3s, and I would be surprised if he didn’t make a lot of 3s over the course of the year. I don’t want him to fall in love with it. He’s also a guy that I think we’re going to run offense through in the block a little different. Last year when we needed a basket, we were going to go through Stefan Moody. Two years ago, three years ago, however long it’s been, we’d run something for Marshall (Henderson) or get Murph(y Holloway) to his left hand. Dwayne Curtis in the block many, many moons ago. This year our first option is going to be Sebastian on the block. It’s a challenge I think he’s ready for.”
Saiz said the added element of a 3-point shot should open up his game on the offensive end like never before.
“I can shoot way better now,” Saiz said. “The range is basically unlimited now. I’m shooting 55 percent from 3 in practice, and I don’t know my post stats, but I can go right on left, post up, face up, get shots and I’m a great rebounder. I have a much better understanding of the team. I can improve on everything.
“Obviously the whole summer taking shots — reps and reps and reps. It’s opened my game so much. Some plays that went to Tomasz (Gielo) and Anthony (Perez) — and they were getting wide-open 3s — they were missing. I was frustrated because they were missing. This year it’s going to be taking those shots. And if I get frustrated because I don’t make them, we have guys who can go in.”
His 3-point proficiency won’t define him, though. In the end, his dominance of the block will, as will his ability, as the team leader, to take the Rebels back to the NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss missed the postseason altogether last season after two trips to the NCAA Tournament in the previous three seasons.
“(Shooting 3s) is only a part of my game, but it won’t define me,” he said. “I know I’m a tough guy getting rebounds and putting everything together. But it gives me another weapon on the offensive side of the court. I think it’s going to help me a lot.”
On newcomers who’ve impressed: “They’ve all impressed me. Starting with ‘Dre and Cullen, they’re both great players that are going to help us right from the beginning. Justas (Furmanavicius) is playing super hard every single day. He can rebound, he can shoot, he’s a tough guy. And then we’ve got those twin towers over there (Karlis Salinis and Dominik Olejniczak) that look great. Karlis can shoot really good, and Dom is tough and he can rebound and dunk. He’s just a big guy in the post. I’m kind of sad he can’t play this year because he would make my job so much easier. They’re all great.”
On competing with other big guys in practice: “It has helped because last year, for example, I was the biggest guy on the court, you know? So I was getting away with some things that you can’t do, like stay behind with defense or get some rebounds that you usually don’t get in a game. But this year we’ve got a bunch of guys that can challenge you. You’ve got to try to stay in front of them, and all of that helps.”
On the transition for a foreign player: “It depends for every player. I feel it’s worse for the wings and guards because they’re so much more athletic over here than they are in Europe. Their job over there is to distribute the game, and over here they’re so athletic and make so many plays.”
On helping foreign newcomers along: “I try to to teach them the things I’ve learned the last three years, and I talk to them every single day.”