Milicic preps for return to Europe
Darko Milicic has played for five teams since being selected No. 2 in the 2003 draft
Milicic plans to return to Europe after finding little playing time in the NBA
More topics: value of blocks, trouble with box scores, future of advanced statistics
As the draft class of 2003 prepares to spin the free-agent wheel of fortune this summer, Darko Milicic is preparing to collect his winnings and go home ... literally.
"When I look back now, this isn't how my career was supposed to look," said Milicic, who's averaged 5.4 points and four rebounds over nearly seven seasons in the NBA. "Being a defensive guy, all of this time not playing, that's not how I saw my career, that's not how I enjoy playing. That's why I've decided to take a shot and go back to Europe. I'm 24, I'm still young. So I can still be happy overseas."
Few could have seen this coming when the Pistons selected the 7-foot center with the second overall pick in the 2003 draft -- just behind LeBron James and just ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
"He certainly looked like a guy who would get taken in the top 10," said Chris Ekstrand, the former editor of the NBA's annual draft guide. "I saw him on tape and saw a 7-foot guy at the top of the circle making 19-footers and clips of him getting a rebound around the basket and throwing it down. So you think, 'OK, 18 years old, 7-feet, can play inside and outside -- hey, I'll take a chance.' "
Milicic wowed Pistons president Joe Dumars during a preseason workout, draining three-pointers and acing a series of agility exercises. But when the season began, Milicic wasn't handed starter's minutes for a rebuilding club. There was a championship to win, and then defend, and developing a rookie big man had dropped down the list of priorities for Detroit. In three seasons with the Pistons, he averaged just 5.7 minutes a game.
"Everybody said this is how it goes in the NBA," Milicic said. "You've got to watch first, you've got to learn. It's all bull. I didn't learn anything by watching. There is no practice in the world even close to game situations. They're trying to keep you happy, trying to keep you thinking your time is around the corner, but it's a lie. You can't keep everybody happy. But I was in the flow and listened to them. And now it's too late."
Milicic is quick to blame his present on a past he feels hurt his game and psyche. "What changed me was Larry Brown," Milicic said of the former Pistons coach. "He is a guy who doesn't understand anything, a guy who can't understand what kind of player you are. Even if I made a shot, he'd tell me it was not a good shot.
"That took my mind off basketball. I got frustrated and wondered, If they weren't going to put me in the game, why was I [in Detroit]? So I started thinking of stupid stuff and began not caring about the game, not trying to get better."
Milicic followed his time in Detroit with a productive season and a half in Orlando (7.8 points, 5.1 boards, 1.8 blocks in 23.1 minutes), a stint that helped him earn a three-year, $21 million deal from Memphis in July 2007. Milicic averaged 7.2 points and a career-high 6.1 rebounds as a full-time starter in 2007-08. He played one more season with the Grizzlies before being traded last June to New York, where coach Mike D'Antoni abandoned his plan to revive the young center's career by mid-November.
But Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis believed Milicic's physical skills were worth tapping into, and Minnesota acquired him at the trade deadline for Brian Cardinal. After all, Minnesota has minutes to offer and few expectations.
"The last thing we'll do here is try to pressure him or ask him to achieve certain objectives," GM David Kahn said. "The plan is to allow him to play, practice and knock off the rust. And I hope the game becomes enjoyable for him again because clearly it hasn't been.
"There's a real fluidity in his game. He really moves like a forward. He can shoot up to three-point range and can post up with a nice little jump hook. And he's an excellent passer. He's just got a lot of skill."
True, games in which he blocks four shots in 10 minutes, or grabs nine boards in 25 minutes, suggest he isn't the punch line he has commonly become. But Milicic isn't playing against a simple scouting report; he's playing against a draft position he likely will never meet.
"Certainly he should not have been the No. 2 pick in the draft," Ekstrand said. "If he had been the 20th pick in the draft, or even the 10th, people wouldn't be so hard on him. But they put that label on you when you are picked, and everything that could go wrong did. In Darko's case, every one of those [other] first five players turned into superb players right away.
"I don't think it's fair to call somebody a bust if he never plays. There are not that many human beings with his athleticism and skills walking around. He is a legit big man. Maybe if he was given plenty of minutes, it would be determined that he really is a big off the bench and maybe that's it. Maybe he doesn't have enough to be starting center in the NBA, but maybe he does. Still, after all these years, we don't know."
Tim Duncan's shot-blocking skills. At the fourth MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last weekend, University of Chicago professor John Huizinga and researcher Sandy Weil presented a paper on the value of a blocked shot, having analyzed 1.6 million possessions over seven seasons (2002-03 to '08-09). The most startling finding in their report: Duncan has been whistled for one goaltending call in the last six years -- one! -- and none in the last three seasons.
Blocking layups. The study found that swatting a layup is worth, on average, 1.54 points saved for a defense, while a blocked jumper saves 1.04 points per shot. And no one has excelled at this more than Jermaine O'Neal: Ninety-one percent of his blocks were against layups. Worst in this respect? Brendan Haywood, who blocked only 31 percent of layups over the past seven seasons. While that news caught the attention Mavs owner Mark Cuban, the fact that his team is 12-0 with Haywood in the lineup didn't seem to leave him any regrets.
Rasho Nesterovic's generosity. A block that sends a ball into the third row of the stands may be intimidating, but it isn't nearly as valuable as a block that lands softly into the hands of a teammate, for obvious change-of-possession reasons. The master of this is Nesterovic, as 65 percent of his blocks are tipped to teammates to kick-start an offensive possession, tops in the NBA.
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