Interesting Darko draft history retrospective

Here is the link.

Below the jump I've pasted the article in its entirety.

The rough synopsis is that it's difficult to find anybody on record prior to that draft saying that Darko was going to be a huge bust and that drafting any of Melo, Bosh, or Wade ahead of him was the clear cut thing to do. (Also interesting to note that Miami now has the #1, 4, and 5 players from that draft on their team. Weird). 

For those Wolves fans interested in (to paraphrase a radio expression) a 'deep cut' look at Darko I highly recommend this read. If you've already made up your mind on Darko I suggest you save yourself some time and not read this.

Welcome to Myth Week at PistonPoweredThis is the first in a five-part series of posts addressing what we see as myths involving the Detroit Pistons.

I firmly believe most teams in the NBA would have drafted Darko Milicic with the second pick in the 2003 NBA draft. In fact, although I’m less sure of this, I believe every team would have taken Darko second.

Of course, Darko was a tremendous bust. The three players taken after him – Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade – are stars. Those are facts I won’t dispute.

But it’s not fair to blame the Pistons for picking Darko. They were just the team unfortunate enough to land the No. 2 pick.

Not an unknown

Too many people think Darko was a late riser, who overtook Melo with a couple dazzling workouts. That wasn’t the case.

Yes, Darko wowed in his individual workouts, but that only confirmed what everyone already (thought they) knew. Darko was the second best player in the draft behind LeBron James.

Sports Illustrated first mentioned Darko on Dec. 23, 2002. The magazine wrote:

One scout counted at least 10 times that James failed to get back on defense. Added one G.M., "You have to worry that his sense of entitlement is so great after being spoiled by the AAU system, the agents and all the publicity."

There are no such worries about the potential No. 2 pick, Darko Milicic of Yugoslavia, who sleeps on a pullout bed, is warmed by a space heater and earns approximately $20,000 for the small club Hemofarm. A 7-foot lefthander with size-18 feet, Milicic can do it all—score inside and outside, run the floor, pass and block shots.

Tim Leyden wrote an article on Melo in the same issue, but it made no mention of the Syracuse forward’s draft position. Rather, the story hit on the uncertainty of the freshman’s place in basketball.

It wasn’t until March 31, 2003 that a scout declared Melo’s draft position had solidified:

He’s going to be the Number 3 pick in the draft [after LeBron James and Darko Milicic] because he’s a throwback guy with the skills to play multiple positions.

LeBron was the consensus No. 1 pick since his junior year of high school. Darko became the consensus No. 2 the winter before the draft (and important to note in this timeline, before Detroit “won” the second pick in the lottery). Carmelo solidified his No. 3 spot in the spring, on the way to leading Syracuse to a national title. During the pre-draft process, Chris Bosh set himself apart as the fourth-best player in the draft. The real mystery began with the Heat’s fifth pick.

And I don’t think any of that would have changed – no matter which teams had the first four picks.

Safe pick

Obviously, no player is a sure thing. But calling Darko the high-risk, high-reward pick and Melo the safe pick can only be done with the befit of hindsight – or a lack of understanding of the draft at the time.

Let’s start with the latter.

When the Pistons landed the No. 2 pick in the lottery, many fans assumed they would take Anthony, the player who had just spent a season dominating the college game. But those fans thought that way because they had never heard of Darko.

Darko wasn’t playing on national television. He wasn’t carrying a well-known Syracuse team to six wins in March. He wasn’t written about in newspapers across the U.S.

So, most of those fans who wanted Melo at the time felt that way because they didn’t know Darko. Melo was a safe pick because they knew him. Darko was risky because they didn’t.

But NBA teams knew Darko, which leads us to the problem with using hindsight.

At the time, Europe was seen as the place to find polished players. Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had recently entered the NBA ready to compete after earning their stripes playing against older competition abroad. The 2003 draft probably ended that line of thinking, and the notion had begun to unravel beforehand – but not completely. Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated:

But several years of fishing by the NBA has depleted the talent pool. Other than 7-foot Darko Milicic, an 18-year-old from Serbia-Montenegro who will probably be one of the top three picks, there is no player overseas perceived as a safe choice.

Thomsen wasn’t the only one smitten with Darko’s apparent ability to make an immediate impact. ESPN’s Chad Ford:

Darko is really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots the NBA 3 and plays with his back to the basket, so you can slot him in at the 3, 4 or 5 positions. OK, a few other guys can do that too; what sets Darko apart is his toughness in the post. You have to love a guy who has the footwork to spin by an opponent but still prefers to lower a shoulder and bang. Fact is, Milicic plays in attack-mode at both ends of the floor. The more you push, the more he pushes back. While he won’t be asked to carry the Pistons, he’s capable of doing this earlier than you think.

Ford also wrote an entire article full of Will Robinson praises for Darko. Among them:

"He’s going to own the game. Own the game," Robinsons exclaims. "We’re going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman."

"I’ve seen a lot of kids come through here in my day," Robinson says. "And none of them have ever played like that. That kid’s going to be a star. He’s a 7-footer that plays like a point guard. That kid’s something special."

Yes it is. Like just about anything else Robinson says, it’s awfully hard to argue with 92 years of experience.

In a league that can be swayed by the whims of trends and fleeting success stories, it’s nice to have an anchor that keeps the ship from straying too far beyond shore.

Will Robinson is sold on Darko Milicic. The question, for the unbelievers still out there, is why aren’t you?

Like I stated above, I think the first for picks would have been LeBron-Darko-Melo-Bosh no matter which teams had them. But that doesn’t mean everything was certain at the time – and I don’t mean just according to the uneducated “The Pistons have to take Melo because I’ve heard of him, and not this Dorko guy” fans.

Thomsen found a scout to say this:

"He has the makings of the most dominant center in Europe since Arvydas Sabonis," says an NBA scout who isn’t sure that James should be picked ahead of Milicic.

And as much as I’ve been pumping up Darko, it’s not like Melo was perfect. ESPN’s Jay Bilas found a couple faults:

“does not blow by people off the dribble and is suspect defensively.”

In fact, the Nuggets actually toyed with the idea of taking Pavel Podkolzine, according to both ESPN’s Andy Katz and Chad Ford. Ford:

After Pavel Podkolzine’s unbelievable workout in Chicago, a few were quietly whispering that Nuggets’ GM Kiki Vandeweghe might grab the 7-foot-4 Siberian.

If Anthony were such a sure thing, that never would have happened. Clearly, the Nuggets had some pause for the same reasons the Pistons knew they didn’t want Melo over Darko.

The Tayshaun Prince factor – or lack there of

I don’t believe the Pistons having Tayshaun Prince had anything to do with their decision to pass on Anthony.

As I’ve detailed above, I think the reason was solely based on Darko being seen as the best player available.

But the Pistons have never seemed bothered by letting their rookies sit on the bench, anyway. Larry Brown was coaching them at this point, after all.

If Dumars thought Melo was better than Darko but not as good as Prince, the Pistons would have drafted Melo and played him behind Prince.

In fact, they did something similar with Darko. The Pistons signed Elden Campbell that summer, and he started. Mehmet Okur was the backup, and Darko was out of the rotation.

The Pistons also traded for Rasheed Wallace that season, but you could argue they only did that after they knew what they had in Darko.

Either way, the Pistons didn’t shy away from Darko because they already had a crowded frontcourt. So, I doubt they would have passed on Anthony only because they believe they were set at small forward.

What went wrong

Darko was a colossal bust. I’m not sure whether the pre-draft reports of his humble attitude and mean streak were exaggerated or he lost his edge in America, but he never showed those traits in Detroit.

The big question I have whenever a draft picks fails is whether it could have been avoided. In this case, I think the answer is a resounding no. Although the Pistons could have picked Melo, Wade or Bosh, that would have gone against the very strong conventional wisdom of the time.

Blame chance for the Pistons getting stuck with the No. 2 pick in a 1-3-4-5 draft. But don’t use hindsight to blame them for picking Darko.

So my question is - what happened? Where did this prospect go? Reading DX's write-up of him in 2006 already suggests a bit of a hot/cold quality to Darko's game, saying

Unlike last year’s European Championship when he logged 40 minutes (4.5ppg 4.0rpg 1.3bpg) in the entire tournament—but still showed some terrific sparks at time--Darko is now expected to be their go-to-guy on both ends of the floor. His excellent size, length and athleticism are a huge asset for Serbia in the middle, given that he is one of the premier shot-blockers in today’s international game. Milicic’s potential to become a defensive stalwart was already noticeable last season playing for the Magic, but what was less visible was his offensive ability since he didn’t get many opportunities to create offensive game.

During the friendlies so far, Darko showed that he can be an inside-outside threat and a focal part of the team’s offense, showing nice touch on his jump-shot while hitting a few three-pointers in the process. He got carried away and settled for too many jumpers in the next game, but this doesn’t appear to be as much of a reason for concern as it was in the past. Due to his immense physical gifts he is also a force down low, although his footwork and skill-set in that regard still have a ways to go, Darko is able to get good position on the block and is a very effective passer out of the double team.

Their subsequent write-up of him in 2008 essentially states that he's still a legit NBA athlete at the position with great size and intriguing potential with one major roadblock holding him back:

There is very little doubt at this point that he came to the NBA far too early for his own good, and in turn missed out on the type of playing time that is so incredibly important to a player so young. Younger than some NCAA seniors, though, there is still plenty of time for him to turn his career around, although it’s hard to call his NBA tenure thus far as anything less than a huge disappointment.

Darko is younger than Carmelo, Bosh, and Wade, and drafted at a younger age than KG was when we drafted him. Furthermore, it was not until halfway through his fourth season before Darko had accumulated as many career minutes as Wade played his rookie year (the lowest minute total of the Carmelo/Bosh/Wade triumvirate their rookie years). In fact, all of those guys surpassed Darko's total career minutes thus far by the end of their third year and have since gone on to amass nearly triple Darko's career minutes. 

I suppose an argument can be made that bad players don't earn minutes, but Ryan Hollins played more minutes last year than Darko did in his first three years combined. No, I think DX nailed it when suggesting that Darko came over too soon and did not get nearly enough developmental minutes to work on his game. We'll see if Jonny Flynn benefits at all from being force fed minutes, but at just 25 years old Darko is only (approx.) two years older than Wes Johnson, Ekpe Udoh, Craig Brackins, Trevor Booker, Damion James, Greivis Vasquez, and Lazar Hayward - all first round picks in this year's draft. He's only a year older than Pekovic, for crying out loud, or even NY's heralded rookie big man Timofey Mozgov. He's younger than Tiago Splitter, younger than Linas Kleiza, younger than Hammed Haddadi, and younger than Marc Gasol to name a few.

The guy who Darko could've been had he received the playing time is Andrew Bynum - at least according to the initial scouting reports Darko was big, strong, aggressive, had a great scoring touch and defensive instincts. Whereas Bynum played limited minutes his first year and then received a jump of 1200 minutes the next year (as well as intensive hands on coaching and consistent role on his team), Darko played on a veteran team under noted rookie disliker Larry Brown. No role, no minutes, and most likely limited interest from the coaching staff yields one of the greatest draft busts in recent memory. 

I didn't intend for this fanpost to turn into an apology piece for Darko (even though it's kind of become one). I guess I am just fascinated at his story in the NBA and I just can't shake the question of what might have been with him? I keep thinking that he's this old dude who's been around forever and is washed up because there's no more potential left, and yet when I realize that he's only a year older than Pekovic and younger than Splitter I find my mind struggling to reconcile my perceptions of Darko with the reality of his limited development and playing time. That is, if I have such high expectations and hope for Pekovic and Splitter (including fully expecting both to grow and adjust to the NBA over the next three seasons), then why do I feel this need to buy into the idea that Darko is what he is at this point, despite giving those other two guys additional room to grow? Perhaps Rambis is correct in his gamble that with playing time, a clear role, and consistent personalized attention from the organization and coaching staff, Darko still has significant growth potential left in his game. And perhaps Pekovic and Love will be perfect practice partners for Darko as they help him rediscover the aggressive game Darko was noted for as a prospect. 

I will end with this - whatever the truth may or may not be about Darko, and no matter what he does or does not do for us this season and beyond, learning more about Darko's story makes me feel better and better about the decision to let Rubio and Bjelly stay overseas and play and develop more and more. No need to make the same mistake twice if these guys simply aren't ready to be over here. 




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