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.
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."
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
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
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."