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Chris Ballard
March 13, 2006
Darko Ages
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March 13, 2006

The Nba

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Darko Ages

Liberated from the end of Detroit's bench, Darko Milicic has shown a newly mature game in his first month with the Magic

He is almost unrecognizable, this new and improved Darko Milicic. First, there's the hair. Where once were goofy blond highlights and later a swept-back 'do that made him look like a young, freakishly tall Matt Dillon, there is now brown bristle. Gangly and buzz-cut, the 7'1" Milicic could be mistaken for a Magic forward of yore, the ever-hustling but rarely scoring Andrew DeClercq.

Milicic is no DeClercq, however, which is both a compliment and a criticism. After being acquired from Detroit with point guard Carlos Arroyo for center Kelvin Cato on Feb. 24, the much-maligned Milicic has shown Orlando that--as Pistons president Joe Dumars has often said since drafting Darko second in 2003--he can be a very productive player. Just how productive depends on how hard he is willing to work. Which is to say, how DeClercq-ish he chooses to be.

First, the positives. In his first five games after cracking the Magic's rotation as the backup center, Milicic averaged 7.0 points (on 57.9% shooting), 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in only 20.4 minutes. Against the Rockets on Feb. 26 he blocked Yao Ming, Juwan Howard and, finally, Tracy McGrady. Against the Warriors on March 1 he snuffed 6'11" Troy Murphy's layup without even jumping; he merely put his arms in the air and Murphy shot into them, like a man trying to throw a beach ball through the branches of a tree. "What's struck me the most is his length," says Orlando center Tony Battie. "You [think] that he's not that close, and suddenly he makes a block."

Milicic has done little offensively beyond hustle for putbacks and shoot the occasional jump hook, but he's still the Magic's most-skilled big man. Against Golden State he drove baseline, elevated and then delivered a one-handed assist to forward Dwight Howard. "Anybody that big who can make that pass," says Warriors assistant Keith Smart, "is going to be dangerous."

Orlando coach Brian Hill is going easy on Milicic after the self-esteem demolition derby he endured in Detroit. In their postgame discussions Hill always lists five good plays Milicic made before offering any constructive criticism. "Everything's not instinctive, but I see confidence," says Hill. "He's not afraid to try things." Hill believes that by season's end Darko will be able to spread the floor, opening up opportunities for Howard inside.

But talent and athleticism have never been the issues with Milicic. In Detroit he developed a well-deserved reputation for lackadaisical work habits. Teammates had to get on him to go hard in practice, and he was quick to sulk about a lack of playing time instead of embracing the chance to learn from All-Stars like Ben and Rasheed Wallace. He failed to get a minute in 119 of his 215 games as a Piston. "I was pissed," Milicic says. "They just stopped playing me, I don't know why." These days, so removed is Milicic in the public consciousness from that title-winning Pistons squad that, when Battie was asked last week if Milicic had displayed his championship ring, Battie looked baffled. Then, after a moment, he laughed. "Damn, I totally forgot he had one."

So far in Orlando, Milicic has applied himself diligently. After he had 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks against Golden State, Warriors guard Jason Richardson noted, "He plays hard--you can't doubt that."

If Milicic does work out, as looks likely, Orlando has the option to extend his contract this summer and build around Howard and him. With the contracts of Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill coming off the books over the next two years, the Magic have only $25.9 million in salaries locked in for 2007-08. And for all the worries about whether Milicic will (so to speak) Kwame out, consider this: If you had the first pick in the draft this year and Milicic was a 20-year-old coming out of Serbia, knowing what you know about him now, how would he stack up against Adam Morrison or Rudy Gay or LaMarcus Aldridge? Asked this, one Eastern Conference G.M. ponders for a moment and says, "I think he'd still be a lottery pick." The G.M. pauses, then adds, "Though with risk."

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