Updated: Feb. 15, 2006
Darko's dismal career takes a brighter turn
By Chad Ford
Whether you think Darko Milicic
is the biggest bust in the history of the NBA or you see him as a superstar in embryo, Wednesday's Detroit-Orlando trade is one of the most compelling stories of the year.
president Joe Dumars may never shake the rap that he should've taken Carmelo Anthony
or Dwyane Wade
with the No. 2 pick of the 2003 draft. And, before the 2003 draft, the Pistons' first choice after Darko was Chris Bosh
Hindsight being 20-20, it's impossible to claim that the Pistons made the right decision when they chose the 18-year-old 7-footer from Serbia.
But Dumars wasn't alone in his belief that after LeBron James
, Darko had the most upside of anyone in the draft. NBA scouts had loved him since discovering him playing Vrsac, Serbia, at age 15. Don and Donnie Nelson of the Dallas Mavericks
were so intrigued that they illegally worked him out and were fined and suspended by the league.
Allen Einstein/Getty Images
Things started harmlessly enough with Larry Brown back in 2003.
By the time Pistons international scout Tony Ronzone and I arrived in Serbia in December 2002 for what would be my first look at the 17-year-old, Darko had a pack of scouts following him wherever he went. After Darko's dominant performance in Greece at the FIBA Final Four, it became a given that he would be a top-three pick in the NBA draft.
Just 67 hours into his arrival into the U.S., the deal was sealed on May 23, 2003. I happened to be there to chronicle it all. The Pistons were practicing at the John Jay College gym in New York for a playoff game with the Nets. Darko was working out in the adjacent court, behind a curtain. One by one, the Pistons, including Dumars, head coach Rick Carlisle, Ben Wallace
and Chauncey Billups
, trickled in to watch him work out. What was supposed to be a casual shootaround became a full-on workout in minutes. Darko put on a show that day, hitting shots from everywhere in the court, showing great footwork in the paint and doing everything at a furious pace.
"That's a freak of nature right there," Dumars told me just minutes after the workout was over. "And he's just 17. Seventeen."
"We could really use him," Richard Hamilton
said. "That kid can play. Too bad he can't suit up tonight."
agreed: "He'd be perfect for us. Perfect. The thing I like about kids like this is they only have one agenda, and that's to play. They take this job seriously. It's their way out of a bad situation, and they're not going to squander it."
That night, the Pistons unexpectedly moved up in the draft lottery, securing the No. 2 pick in the draft. Dumars bumped into Darko again at the Plaza hotel. It seemed like destiny had put Darko in the Pistons' lap.
Darko would follow up with another strong workout in Detroit. While the Pistons momentarily flirted with the idea of drafting Bosh after his own stellar workout in Detroit, Dumars' heart was set on Darko.
Meanwhile, right until the draft, Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe was actively trying to swap picks with Detroit so that he could select Darko ahead of Carmelo.
All in all, about half of the GMs I talked to in the days leading up to the 2003 draft had Darko ranked No. 2 on their draft boards, behind LeBron. Everyone else I talked to had him third or fourth. No one I talked to had him ranked behind Wade.
USA Today's David Dupree wrote weeks before the 2003 draft that some NBA GMs told him they'd take Darko ahead of LeBron.
But I was Darko's biggest advocate in the media. I was also the only member of the U.S. media to have seen him play in person before the draft. While I believed the Cleveland Cavaliers
should take LeBron James with the No. 1 pick, I wrote several times before the draft that I thought that Darko had just as much potential as James. I even compared him to a young Wilt Chamberlain.
Now, three years later, Darko is a punchline. LeBron, Wade and Bosh are in the All-Star Game, and Carmelo will be there soon enough. Darko's career stats: 1.6 points and 1.2 rebounds in 5.8 minutes per game.
Darko's failure has sent shockwaves throughout the league. That year, NBA teams drafted a record eight international players in the first round and another 12 in the second round. Only one of them, Boris Diaw
, is having solid success in the league. A few others, such as Zaza Pachulia
and Mickael Pietrus
, are making strides.
By 2005, the number of international players had been halved to four in the first round. This year, only three international players are projected as first-round picks. Scouts even have a name for the dwindling number of international players coming into the league: the Darko Backlash.
It's enough to make you forget that Darko is just 20 years old. That he's grown an inch and now stands at 7-1. That he's added 20 pounds of muscle and spent the last three years practicing against Ben Wallace on a daily basis.
Darko's story in Detroit might be over. But if all the scouts and GMs that loved Darko before the draft were right about him, then his career might be far from over.
The Pistons will move on. Dumars' team won a championship in 2004, pushed the Spurs to seven games in the Finals last season, and look like the best team in the NBA again this year. His legacy is in sound shape.
But what about Darko? He still has a long way to go.
I've always believed Darko would've been a star by now had he landed on a team that could have played him and given him confidence.
To look at one counterexample: Given how ugly Dirk Nowitzki
's rookie season was in Dallas, I wonder what Dirk would look like now had he been drafted by a championship contender like Detroit.
In Dallas, Don Nelson almost lost his job after Nowitzki's rookie year because he stubbornly let Nowitzki play through some awful stretches. It paid off for Dallas in the long run.
In contrast, Darko's first NBA coach, Larry Brown, has long been suspicious of rookies and wanted Darko to forget about doing all the things that he, like so many other Euros, did well -- play the complete floor game. Instead, Brown wanted him to play with his back to the basket.
Would landing in a place like Denver (a developing team that needed a big man) or Toronto (a city with a large Serbian population) instead of Detroit have made a difference for Darko? Maybe. We'll never know. All we do know was the mix of circumstances in Detroit, combined with Darko's reaction to it, led to failure.
Even without Brown's skepticism, there was hardly any chance for Darko to play in Detroit. The Pistons peaked just as Darko entered the picture. For more than two years, the Pistons' starting five has been as solid as any other in the league. No one was breaking into it -- especially not an 18-year-old big man.
So Darko sat. And stewed.
He lived alone, one of his first mistakes. He got homesick. Started listening to the hecklers. Lost his passion for the game.
By midseason of his rookie year, he spent more energy living the life of an NBA player off the court than playing the game that an NBA player is paid to play. When he did get into the game, typically only seconds before everyone went home, he looked out of place.
"Awkward" barely captures how lost the big kid looked. He tried to do too much, with too little time. Then, after a while, he just quit trying. He was awful and he knew it. The shame and embarrassment of it all, for a kid as proud as Darko, was too much to bear.
By the end of his rookie season, Darko looked nothing like the 17-year-old kid I saw dominating players 10 years older in Serbia in the winter of 2002. He was timid and mechanical and just plain scared.
Larry Brown's harsh treatment of Darko only escalated his problems. Brown often made Darko the focus of practices. Brown rarely rewarded him with playing time after a good game.
Darko grew more inward. Dumars' attempts to mediate the conflict with the two usually ended in kind words, but not more playing time. Dumars never pushed his coaches to play Darko more because he wanted Darko to earn his time. For his part, Darko believed that no matter what he did, he wasn't going to get the opportunity he thought a No. 2 pick deserved. Something was lost in translation.
When Brown left the team this summer and the more easygoing Flip Saunders replaced him, Darko's biggest excuse had walked out the door.
I saw glimmers of the old Darko this summer at the European Championships, and then in the Pistons' preseason. But once he started off the regular season with a stumble, and Flip Saunders buried him at the end of the rotation, the writing was on the wall.
The Darko experiment was over. He hadn't progressed to the point where he could earn minutes on an elite team like the Pistons. He was under contract for only the next 18 months. The Pistons didn't see anything changing in the near future.
Dumars quietly sent out word that Darko might be available for the right price several months ago. A number of teams were interested, including Dallas, Minnesota, Phoenix and Memphis. All offered combinations that included young players, expiring contracts and first-round picks.
When the Orlando deal became a possibility, it was the one that made the most sense for the Pistons. The Pistons would get a lottery pick to replace Milicic and major salary relief. The team almost pulled the trigger several weeks ago. But after a meeting with Milicic's agent, Marc Cornstein, Darko responded with several fantastic practices. Dumars held back.
His concern: Was he giving up on Darko too early? After a few more weeks of reflection, and plenty of DNPs for Darko, Dumars finally got back on board and said yes.
Ned Dishman/Getty Images
With a fresh start in Orlando, things may be looking up.
For the Pistons, believe it or not, this trade is all about the future. Pistons owner Bill Davidson isn't James Dolan. He has not authorized Dumars to exceed the luxury tax threshold
in payroll. With Ben Wallace hitting restricted free agency this summer and Chauncey Billups
looking for a contract extension, Dumars needed a way of clearing some money off the cap.
This deal clears $9.2 million off Detroit's payroll next year. With Ben Wallace figuring to earn a starting salary of about $10 million per year, the Pistons have found a way to re-sign him without incurring the luxury tax.
They also found a way to replace Darko for the long term with the Magic's No. 1 pick in either 2007 or 2008.
Whoever the Pistons select is probably looking at a two-year stint on the practice team, but at least the Pistons get to reset the clock, given that Darko was approaching free agency. Furthermore, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the next draft pick. Rasheed and Ben Wallace are both 31. They cannot play big minutes forever.
The deal is equally interesting for the Magic. Darko is a calculated risk. But the Magic have little to lose at this point. And it's easy to see the upside, still.
Had Darko stayed in Serbia the past two years and continued to produce the numbers that he produced when he was 17 years old, he likely would've been the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft. The hype around him would only have grown, assuming a normal progression. So the Magic ended up trading a lottery-protected pick for a guy who likely would have gone No. 1.
Darko, theoretically, should be the perfect complement to Dwight Howard
Howard does almost all of his work from within 10 feet of the basket. Darko prefers playing from 10 feet out or more.
Howard is one of the best rebounders in the league. If there's been one positive from Darko's brief stints on the floor, it's that he's proven to be a very good shot blocker.
He also should get the playing time. The Magic didn't give up a lottery pick and take on more cash to sit him at the end of the bench. They have roughly 18 months before he hits restricted free agency. By then, they have to have a handle on who he is. Can he play, or was he just one of the most overhyped players in the history of the draft? Look for Darko to get 25 to 30 minutes a night in Orlando.
Most important, he'll get a fresh start on a forgotten team. For that reason, no one makes out better on this trade than Darko. After years of bad break after bad break, the basketball gods are smiling on him again, it seems.
What will he do with the opportunity?
For once in his NBA career, it's all on him.
Can he shake off the rust of the last three years? Can he let the past go and rekindle the flame -- the red-hot intensity -- that once impressed so many? Did he learn anything from his three years in exile? Or will he fade quietly into the night?
I know that I don't know the answers the way I thought I did when I first fell for Darko 3½ years ago. I don't think he knows the answers either.
But despite his failures, I'm still cheering for Darko. The kid has too much talent, has overcome too much in his life, to fail now.
I still remember the wide-eyed kid from the Serbian ghetto, the one who had left his mother when he was 14 to support his family by playing pro basketball while his father was at war. I still remember the kid who played every minute like it was going to be his last. The kid who, when he was done with a killer workout, would stay on the floor and shoot jumpers for hours because the basketball floor was his home.
That kid hasn't shown his face here in a long time. Can he find himself again in Orlando?
Darko's story is far from over. Here's hoping for a happy ending.