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What Did NBA Ever Learn from the Darko Milicic Saga?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterOctober 13, 2014

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What a mistake.

Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons' general manager in 2003, went ahead and selected Darko Milicic No. 2 overall while passing on proven Division I stars. 

Since then, the only thing Milicic has really been good for is a laugh. 

Ten seasons, six points and 4.2 boards per game. Those are the numbers. Not quite as flashy as the ones put up by Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, the three players drafted directly after Milicic.

Milicic's last NBA game came back in 2012-13, when he played a riveting five minutes of basketball for the Boston Celtics. And now it looks like he's ready to give up on the sport altogether, having recently announced he'll be taking his talents from the hardwood to the ring. 

He's moved on to kickboxing, which doesn't require post moves, rebounding instincts or shooting touch. 

"I won't go deep into this [kickboxing] if I cannot be devoted to it 100 percent. We will see what happens," Milicic told reporters

And the running joke continues.

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AUBURN HILLS, MI - JUNE 27: Darko Milicic, 2nd pick of the 2003 NBA draft, holds his new uniform with Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown at the Palace of Auburn Hills June 27, 2003 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Allen Einstein/Getty Images

Milicic's fall from coveted NBA prospect to arguably the biggest bust ever could have its own chapter in a book that details the history of the league. 

Poor Fit in Detroit

Despite all the pre-draft hype, Pistons head coach Larry Brown didn't quite let Milicic loose after the team's bold play to draft him No. 2 overall. And he didn't need to—the Pistons had reached the Eastern Conference Finals the year before and would ultimately go on to win the NBA title in Milicic's rookie year. 

On the other hand, LeBron James, Anthony, Wade and Bosh—the other top-five picks—went to teams that won 25 games or fewer the season prior. They each had minutes and green lights waiting. Milicic had Ben Wallace, Mehmet Okur, Corliss Williamson and Elden Campbell—quality, veteran big men with playoff experience. (Rasheed Wallace would later join the team in February 2004, too.)

"We all knew his situation was going to be different from any other lottery pick," Dumars told reporters back in December 2003. "We have a team that's competing at the highest level and we were not in the market for a savior, but we are all very happy with Darko's development."

The other high-profile rookies were putting up numbers in spotlight roles. Milicic's first bucket didn't come until the Pistons' 24th game that season. 

"It's embarrassing," he told reporters. 

"I wanted to see if he acted like he belonged," Brown said. "He acted like he was insulted."

AUBURN HILLS, MI - DECEMBER 8:  Darko Milicic #31 of the Detroit Pistons waits to enter the game against the Toronto Raptors on December 8, 2004 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Pistons won 90-86 in overtime.  NOTE TO USER: Us
Allen Einstein/Getty Images

It didn't take long before fans and media members started getting antsy. "To the shortsighted, he looks like a bust," Chris Broussard wrote for The New York Times just a few months into Milicic's rookie year. 

Unfortunately for Milicic, most of the frontcourt that helped the Pistons win the 2004 championship would return in 2005. 

"I think he's much further along than he was last year, but I still don't know that he's going to break into this lineup," Brown told ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) a few weeks into Milicic's second season. 

It never happened. Detroit went back to the NBA Finals in 2004-05 with Milicic playing in only 37 games along the way. 

Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

"It's been worse because I was expecting to play," he told reporters, referring to his second year. "I've said it 10,000 times, the best way for me to improve is to play. All the work in practice and individual workouts can only help me so much."

"It bothered me a lot that I never got a chance to play," he told the media just prior to his third season in Detroit. "I was expecting just a chance to show coach what I could do but I never got a chance to do that."

Milicic wasn't the only one complaining. FreeDarko.com was soon born. Fans had chanted his name at games. Some would ultimately question the way Brown handled Milicic. 

"Brown destroyed Darko's confidence in his rookie year," Kelly Dwyer wrote for Yahoo Sports in 2012.

It was just tough to write him off, given how little opportunity he had received. "The poor kid...he just needs to play," Pistons former assistant coach Dave Hanners told ESPN's Marc Stein back in July 2005. 

With Brown leaving the Pistons for the New York Knicks later that July, it finally seemed like Milicic might get his chance to prove he belongs. 

Nope.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 27:  Darko Milicic #31 of the Minnesota Timberwolves backs down against the Golden State Warriors during the game on February 27, 2011 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
David Sherman/Getty Images

Milicic failed to capitalize as a third-year NBA player in the 2005 summer league, where he was outplayed by undrafted prospects and journeymen just hoping to stick. 

"The biggest hoop name playing this town was unable to wow the Cox Pavilion audience as a youngster of his stature normally might," ESPN's Marc Stein wrote. "The kid often seen moping in public, his confidence unquestionably beaten down by a role of insignificance on an NBA powerhouse, still looks a long way from lively."

Twenty-five games into his third season, Dumars would ship Milicic to the Orlando Magic, which would let him walk in free agency after the 2006-07 season. The Memphis Grizzlies picked him up, held on to him until 2009 and then eventually sent him to New York, where he played in a total of eight games. In 2010, the Knicks would move him to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who inexplicably extended his career by signing him to a four-year, $20 million deal. That lasted a whole 98 games before they chose to amnesty his contract.

In 10 seasons, Milicic couldn't make an impression anywhere. There were late-first- and even second-round picks from his class who would ultimately go on to have better careers. Take a look at how Milicic's body of work stacked up with the top 30 picks in 2003:

2003 NBA Draft (First Round, Career Statistics)
PickPointsReboundsAssists
1LeBron James27.57.26.9
2Darko Milicic6.04.20.9
3Carmelo Anthony25.36.53.1
4Chris Bosh19.28.72.0
5Dwyane Wade24.35.06.0
6Chris Kaman11.77.91.3
7Kirk Hinrich11.83.15.2
8T.J. Ford11.23.15.8
9Michael Sweetney6.54.50.6
10Jarvis Hayes8.33.11.1
11Mickael Pietrus8.33.10.8
12Nick Collison6.55.61.0
13Marcus Banks5.91.52.1
14Luke Ridnour9.62.34.6
15Reece Gaines1.70.70.7
16Troy Bell1.80.70.7
17Zarko Cabarkapa4.32.10.6
18David West15.97.22.2
19Sasha Pavlovic4.91.80.9
20Dahtay Jones5.61.80.9
21Boris Diaw9.14.73.7
22Zoran Planinic3.81.31.1
23Travis Outlaw8.53.20.8
24Brian Cook5.52.60.6
25Carlos Delfino8.13.61.7
26Ndudi Ebi2.11.00.2
27Kendrick Perkins5.76.01.1
28Leandro Barbosa11.92.22.3
29Josh Howard14.35.71.6
Basketball-Reference.com

To his credit, Milicic did show some promise as a rim protector, having averaged 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes throughout his career. But he also averaged 4.4 personal fouls per 36 and just never looked natural anchoring the paint on either side of the ball. 

It wasn't just Milicic's game that was lacking. His work ethic and body language had been continuously questioned throughout his career.

"I didn't handle it well in Detroit," Milicic admitted to Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free-Press (subscription required; h/t RealGM.com) back in 2010. "I was kind of frustrated because I didn't play. I didn't work as hard as I could. In this league, it takes a lot to become a good player. I did do a little bit, but not enough."

Beware of International Hype

Dumars and the Pistons didn't venture on some secret scouting trip to pull this random 7-foot Serbian out of nowhere. Milicic was widely viewed as a terrific NBA prospect prior to the draft.  

He played against top competition in Europe and put up some signature performances in the process, like the 37-point bomb he dropped on a Latvian team with Hemofarm Vrsac. Milicic contributed to Yugolslavia's national team in 2001 as well, when it won the European Championships for Cadets.

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JUNE 10:  Darko Milicic #31 of the Detroit Pistons runs downcourt against the Los Angeles Lakers during Game three of the 2004 NBA Finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills on June 10, 2004 in Auburn Hills, Michigan.  NOTE TO USER: User expr
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

A natural center with what seemed like unique versatility, Milicic was also known for his toughness—a guy who played with an edge. 

He even liked to compare himself to Kevin Garnett. "He plays like Yugoslavian players play, with heart," Milicic told Ford.

Scouts and executives across the league shared similar praise for Milicic. Dumars wasn't the only one.

league executive even told Ford that Milicic already had moves that remind him of Hakeem Olajuwon: 

More than Nowitzki, Gasol or even Divac, Darko has a nasty streak in him that will help him succeed in the post. A lot of the Europeans are really threes in the pros. He'll be a true low-post player. His coach is doing us a huge favor by forcing him to develop those skills now. He already has moves that remind me of (Hakeem) Olajuwon in the post. Once we get a hold of him, the sky's the limit.

"The gap that once existed with international players is gone, and with the position that [Milicic] plays, he's right in line to take a team that's not on the map and put it there," an Eastern Conference GM told ESPN's Marc Stein (h/t Yahoo Sports). "I have Darko as a clear-cut No. 2," one other Western Conference executive told Stein. 

The media bought into Milicic as well. 

"He's the real deal. He's really one of a kind," Ford wrote in his 2003 mock draft. "He'll have no problem holding his own in the post."

"Milicic, expected to declare by the May 12 deadline, can't miss. Some even say they'd take him over [LeBron] James if given the opportunity," David DuPree wrote for USA Today. "He's the perfect mismatch — too quick for most power forwards, too big and strong for small forwards."

Pistons' fans might want to put some indirect blame on Dirk Nowitzki for Dumars' error. He was really the first international prospect to be taken high in the draft, only he actually delivered. 

From there, it seemed like every international prospect was either being compared to Dirk or billed as the next one overseas. 

"Milicic is the best European player to come out since Dirk Nowitzki, at least that's according to the scouts," Ford wrote back in 2003. 

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Dumars' mind, along with the minds of other optimistic scouts and general managers, might have been clouded at the time by the success international guys like Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Yao Ming were experiencing. Maybe to Dumars, their success helped diminish the perceived risk that was attached to Milicic as a teenage Serbian with such little experience.  

ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst put together an oral history of 2003 draft night, including quotes from basketball insiders and executives themselves. Ford noted the NBA's sudden fascination with international prospects: 

Many of the younger GMs had this international fever. There was a mania to find the next Dirk. There was a realization by these NBA guys that these Euro players could play. As scouts were bemoaning the state of basketball in the U.S. because of AAU, here are these Euros who were so skilled and had been drilled in all the arts. Scouts were flocking over to Europe. 

It just never clicked for Milicic. We saw defensive highlights and offensive flashes—he just couldn't put it all together.

Breaking down the numbers and where he went wrong, Milicic struggled finishing around the basket in the NBA and simply wasn't consistent enough as a shot-maker in the post or mid-range. For his career, he shot just 61.3 percent within three feet of the rim (not good for a 7-footer), 39.7 percent in the three-to-10-foot range, where he'd typically post up, and less than 33 percent from 10 feet to the arc, per Basketball-Reference.com.

TONY DEJAK/Associated Press

We saw the moves, the footwork and the inside-outside game that ultimately fueled the pre-draft hype. We just never saw the execution. 

And that's the risk that's tied to drafting a prospect, particularly one without NCAA experience, whose appeal is based strictly on potential: You just never know how a kid is going to adapt or if he's ever going to add to his game.

And when you're drafting internationally, chances are you're chasing long-term potential without having much tape to evaluate. 

"I'd seen him play in Europe. One game he didn't play at all, and another game he only played a few minutes. Hard to get a great idea," said Denver Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who had the No. 3 pick in the 2003 draft (via Windhorst).

If anything, Milicic helped remind us just how difficult the evaluation process can be when an international prospect is involved. 

Take a look at all the international players that have been selected in the lottery since Milicic went No. 2 overall. Not too many studs:

International Prospects Taken in Lottery Since 2003
YearPick
Andris Biedrins, Latvia, Golden State Warriors200411
Fran Vazquez, Spain, Orlando Magic200511
Yaroslav Korolev, Russia, L.A. Clippers200512
Andrea Bargnani, Italy, New York Knicks20061
Mouhamed Sene, Senegal, Seattle SuperSonics200610
Thabo Sefolosha, Switzerland, Chicago Bulls200613
Yi Jianlian, China, Milwaukee Bucks20076
Danilo Gallinari, Italy, New York Knicks20086
Ricky Rubio, Spain, Minnesota Timberwolves20095
Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania, Toronto Raptors20115
Jan Vesely, Czech Republic, Washington Wizards20116
Bismack Biyombo, Congo, Charlotte Bobcats20117
Bleacher Report

Though every now and then we find a gem overseas, the success rate for international prospects hasn't been overwhelmingly high.

Milicic's Effect on Future Drafting Strategies

Maybe we should credit Milicic for contributing to the growing draft-and-stash trend in the NBA. International prospects surely don't want to come over just to rot on the bench the way Milicic did his first two years in Detroit. And if teams don't need a rookie to perform right away, they might as well let him spend a season abroad. Besides, when you stash a guy overseas, his salary doesn't count against your cap that year. 

Since 2003, we've seen notable names like Ricky Rubio, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Mirotic, Joel Freeland, Donatas Motiejunas, Lucas Nogueira, Livio Jean-Charles and most recently Dario Saric, all choose to remain abroad for at least a year after being drafted. 

And you have to wonder if Milicic's failed NBA experience has changed the way general managers conduct their evaluations and draft strategy.  

It apparently changed the way Dumars conducted his. Back in 2012, he spoke to the media about these changes he made as a result of the Milicic pick:

After I drafted Darko, from that point on, the amount of background we do on every single player that you see us draft is ridiculous. We do as much or more background than any other team in the NBA because of that. The background on (Milicic) was about 20 percent of what we do now. I look back on it now and realize you didn't know half of the stuff you needed to know. With Darko, we may have had two sources of information. That was it. We may have talked to a couple of guys over in Europe. That was it. 

Whether Dumars developed tunnel vision after being wowed by a couple of workouts or simply just failed to do enough research, the fact is that based on Milicic's unique background in comparison to Anthony's, Wade's and Bosh's, this was a major risk-reward play no matter what. 

And every general manager should have a grip on the risk and potential reward associated with each prospect. In this case, the potential reward that was tied to having a skilled two-way center blinded Dumars from the risk that comes with drafting a 19-year-old kid from abroad. 

At the end of the day, if Dumars didn't pull the trigger, chances are another team would have shortly after.

The buzz was seemingly felt by everyone at the time. 

The criticism Dumars deserves should be directed at the risk he took passing on betters bets that offered similar potential reward. The Milicic pick shouldn't necessarily be a knock on Dumars' scouting. Almost everyone bought into Milicic at the time.

And if you're a general manager in this league long enough, chances are you'll eventually get burned by a kid who just doesn't get better. 

Gregory Smith/Associated Press

Since the pick, Dumars has actually fared quite nicely in the draft, having selected Andre Drummond, Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe, Arron Afflalo, Rodney Stuckey and Amir Johnson prior to stepping down as Pistons' general manager in April 2014.  

We know the draft can often be a crapshoot. All the analytics and game tape in the world can't always predict who's going to bust. 

Who knows whether extra homework on Milicic would have suggested his work ethic would be poor or that he'd struggle finishing in traffic? And who knows if Milicic's career would have been different had he been drafted to a team that gave him a chance to play early on? 

By passing on more proven prospects like Melo, Bosh and Wade for an 18-year-old Serbian, Dumars took a risk in chasing unfamiliar long-term upside. And he won't be the last. 

It's only a matter of time before the next Darko Milicic deceives the basketball community and makes a general manager look silly.

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