Darko Milicic is known for many things, including his draft position in the illustrious 2003 NBA draft, his nickname as the "Human Victory Cigar", and his inability to live up to the hype which resulted in the term "bust" being applied next to his name.
Last season, pundits threw around jokes after Milicic's comments on wanting to go back to Europe. This year? He looks to be an entirely new person, apparently rejuvenated with enthusiasm and competitiveness that had faded with years of misuse. Not only that, but he's already making some of his most openly brash critics eat their words (see: John Hollinger). The scary part? In the words of Kurt Rambis, this is "the tip of the iceberg".
Last season, pundits threw around jokes after Milicic's comments on wanting to go back to Europe. Here was a guy -- making $7 million in the final year of a 3-year contract -- who was unhappy with his situation. Message boards went crazy with fools laughing at his misfortune, taunting his team's fans, and further relegating the Internet, a place already filled with morons, into even deeper despair. They couldn't understand, how could a "bum" (popular term coined for player's who can't play) be unhappy with his situation? I mean, isn't living in New York and making $7 million that year enough? Especially since he's never achieved anything in his career?
One of the first lessons we are taught at a young age is everyone's different. We are all wired differently and respond to encouragement and criticism in different ways. What works for one doesn't work for another. Obviously, that means we need to be catered to differently. Trying to mold someone into something they're not tends to bring about horrific results and create a negative experience all-around.
So, let's start at the beginning. Darko Milicic appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16 (17?) year old who was being hailed as the next transcendent talent to come out of Europe. The oft-made comparison from scouts? Dirk Nowitzki with a mean post-game and adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Darko repeatedly compared himself to Kevin Garnett. By lobbying your talents, and having them lobbied for you by a vast majority of scouts, a target begins to form on your back. Expectations begin to rise and people rooting for you to fail appear out of the woodworks.
Let's fast forward to the pre-draft workouts. Darko is doing things the legendary scout from the Pistons, Will Robinson, had never seen a big man do. On one of the drills, Darko starts in a stationary position outside the three-point line, takes one dribble, and dunks the ball. Take a second to comprehend the athleticism required to do something like that. He also displays a nice touch from long-range and continues to work hard despite fatigue setting in. Here's what Mr. Robinson had to say about the kid. Keep in mind, Robinson had been a team scout for many decades and seen countless prospects walk through the gym.
"He’s going to own the game. Own the game. We’re going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman."
Will Robinson talking about Darko Milicic after seeing him work-out in Detroit, May 30, 2003, ESPN.com
Obviously, Darko went on to be selected as the second overall pick by the Detroit Pistons. To say his time there was a waste would be an understatement. He mentioned multiple times that he didn't learn a thing that could be applied to his game. In fact, the notion that sitting on the bench for a few years will somehow make a player better is so ridiculous, it's funny! Sure, he had two all-stars playing ahead of him in the front-court, but what qualities could he take from them that would help his game? While athletic, there was no way he could play in the same manner as Ben Wallace and while long and lanky like Rasheed Wallace, his style of play was the direct opposite. Sure, he could practice scoring on Ben Wallace and defending Rasheed, but what's the point when you can't apply it to an actual game? You won't attempt anything outside the comfort zone because you have x amount of minutes to make an impact. Why risk a turnover trying to do an up-and-under when a hook shot is the safe route? So began a long line of stints with an insecure Darko playing very passively on offense and being used primarily for his superb defensive ability. The only glimmer of hope was the final year with Orlando, where Darko showed glimpses of becoming the complimentary big to Dwight Howard before the project was abruptly shut down with Orlando's decision to sign Rashard Lewis to a max contract.
At every stop, Darko would tease the fans with monstrous potential he had. Whether it was putting up 20/10 double-double's on Yao Ming, posterizing Tim Duncan, or some other mouth-dropping action or performance, he'd gain the attention of the fans. However, each time he'd sink back into his security blanket and refuse to play with the same aggressiveness and ferocity he displayed for those brief moments. Thus, the never-ending cycle of inconsistency continued to harbor around him. The stint that receives the most attention from casual and observant fans is the time Darko spent with Memphis. Playing with Pau was supposed to make him better, right? That appeared to be wrong the minute the season tipped off, with Pau playing uninspired ball for most of the year before being shipped off to Los Angeles*.
Off he went to New York, where it's well-documented he displayed no passion and some resentment at the treatment of his career. It got so bad that he began ordering burgers and french fries before the game, knowing that he wouldn't see any action that night. Right as it appeared he had one foot out the door, Minnesota came calling. What the hell, right? After the continuous insistence from David Kahn and Kurt Rambis, Darko held a 24-game tryout with Minnesota, who was impressed enough with him to offer him a multi-year contract as well as guarantee him a starter's position.
So, we're now witnessing the transformation that's occuring with Darko. Slowly but surely, he appears to be gaining the confidence that should be expected from someone with his talent-level and potential. Starting with the game against his first coach, Larry Brown, Darko appears to have some new-found confidence brewing and more importantly, appears to be enjoying the game. Tallying up the occasional smiles seen these past few games probably equals more than in all his previous seasons combined. A great deal of credit needs to go to Kurt Rambis and his staff, who continued to work with Darko after his unexplainable, inexcusable start to the season rather than dumping him to the side like his previous teams.
Now, after drudging on about his past, it's time to bear witness to his future. These past few games, Darko has looked more aggressive than at any other point in his career. He's demanding the ball, looking for contact, and more importantly, doing some of the things that make him unique and unguardable. First, by demanding the ball, he's displaying confidence. Confidence is a huge factor with someone who's been constantly made to feel like [pardon the French] by everyone he's played for. That will go away soon, if Rambis continues to let him play through his mistakes. By being confident, he's opening up more of his game and creating more options for himself (and his teammates). Last night's game against Oklahoma City showed some of that. For instance, on one possession, Darko faced up and threw a jab step to the left, creating the notion he'd go to his strong hand. Instead, with a lightning quick step, he went right and scored an And-1 finger-roll. Against Charlotte, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City, he's begun to use the baseline spin move that will become unstoppable once he gets the timing down. Everyone saw the ridiculous reverse layup he made against Los Angeles...it had people flabbergasted considering Darko is "terrible" and "unskilled". So, last night was the first of many where Darko will be the number one post option on a team supposedly devoid of them. The upcoming game against San Antonio will be a great test for Darko, seeing as he's mentioned playing against guys he admires (like Duncan) motivates him to play extra hard.
If the "trend" of Darko dominating continues, he'll have taken on almost impossible circumstances and overcome them. If that isn't Rocky-esque, I don't know what is. But, in a more comparable context, the Chauncey Billups situation comes to mind. Without dismissing Billups -- a former all-star and great player -- and throwing his name into the dirt, Darko will not only triumph in a similar fashion as Billups, but he'll do so on a larger scale. He'll go on to not only clear his unjust label as a bust, but also become the right choice at Number 2 by displaying *wait for it* franchise player potential.
*One thing that gets lost in translation is that Darko actually averaged 10 & 7 for the first couple games of the year before going down with a hand injury. He appeared to become much less comfortable shooting the ball after coming back from injury.