As the draft class of 2003 prepares to spin the free-agent wheel of fortune this summer, Darko Milicic is preparing to collect his winnings and go home ... literally.
"When I look back now, this isn't how my career was supposed to look," said Milicic, who's averaged 5.4 points and four rebounds over nearly seven seasons in the NBA. "Being a defensive guy, all of this time not playing, that's not how I saw my career, that's not how I enjoy playing. That's why I've decided to take a shot and go back to Europe. I'm 24, I'm still young. So I can still be happy overseas."
Few could have seen this coming when the Pistons selected the 7-foot center with the second overall pick in the 2003 draft -- just behind LeBron James and just ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
"He certainly looked like a guy who would get taken in the top 10," said ChrisEkstrand, the former editor of the NBA's annual draft guide. "I saw him on tape and saw a 7-foot guy at the top of the circle making 19-footers and clips of him getting a rebound around the basket and throwing it down. So you think, 'OK, 18 years old, 7-feet, can play inside and outside -- hey, I'll take a chance.' "
Milicic wowed Pistons president Joe Dumars during a preseason workout, draining three-pointers and acing a series of agility exercises. But when the season began, Milicic wasn't handed starter's minutes for a rebuilding club. There was a championship to win, and then defend, and developing a rookie big man had dropped down the list of priorities for Detroit. In three seasons with the Pistons, he averaged just 5.7 minutes a game.
"Everybody said this is how it goes in the NBA," Milicic said. "You've got to watch first, you've got to learn. It's all bull. I didn't learn anything by watching. There is no practice in the world even close to game situations. They're trying to keep you happy, trying to keep you thinking your time is around the corner, but it's a lie. You can't keep everybody happy. But I was in the flow and listened to them. And now it's too late."
Milicic is quick to blame his present on a past he feels hurt his game and psyche. "What changed me was Larry Brown," Milicic said of the former Pistons coach. "He is a guy who doesn't understand anything, a guy who can't understand what kind of player you are. Even if I made a shot, he'd tell me it was not a good shot.
"That took my mind off basketball. I got frustrated and wondered, If they weren't going to put me in the game, why was I [in Detroit]? So I started thinking of stupid stuff and began not caring about the game, not trying to get better."
Milicic followed his time in Detroit with a productive season and a half in Orlando (7.8 points, 5.1 boards, 1.8 blocks in 23.1 minutes), a stint that helped him earn a three-year, $21 million deal from Memphis in July 2007. Milicic averaged 7.2 points and a career-high 6.1 rebounds as a full-time starter in 2007-08. He played one more season with the Grizzlies before being traded last June to New York, where coach Mike D'Antoni abandoned his plan to revive the young center's career by mid-November.
But Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis believed Milicic's physical skills were worth tapping into, and Minnesota acquired him at the trade deadline for Brian Cardinal. After all, Minnesota has minutes to offer and few expectations.
"The last thing we'll do here is try to pressure him or ask him to achieve certain objectives," GM David Kahn said. "The plan is to allow him to play, practice and knock off the rust. And I hope the game becomes enjoyable for him again because clearly it hasn't been.
"There's a real fluidity in his game. He really moves like a forward. He can shoot up to three-point range and can post up with a nice little jump hook. And he's an excellent passer. He's just got a lot of skill."
True, games in which he blocks four shots in 10 minutes, or grabs nine boards in 25 minutes, suggest he isn't the punch line he has commonly become. But Milicic isn't playing against a simple scouting report; he's playing against a draft position he likely will never meet.
"Certainly he should not have been the No. 2 pick in the draft," Ekstrand said. "If he had been the 20th pick in the draft, or even the 10th, people wouldn't be so hard on him. But they put that label on you when you are picked, and everything that could go wrong did. In Darko's case, every one of those [other] first five players turned into superb players right away.
"I don't think it's fair to call somebody a bust if he never plays. There are not that many human beings with his athleticism and skills walking around. He is a legit big man. Maybe if he was given plenty of minutes, it would be determined that he really is a big off the bench and maybe that's it. Maybe he doesn't have enough to be starting center in the NBA, but maybe he does. Still, after all these years, we don't know."
• TimDuncan's shot-blocking skills. At the fourth MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last weekend, University of Chicago professor John Huizinga and researcher Sandy Weil presented a paper on the valueof a blocked shot, having analyzed 1.6 million possessions over seven seasons (2002-03 to '08-09). The most startling finding in their report: Duncan has been whistled for one goaltending call in the last six years -- one! -- and none in the last three seasons.
• Blocking layups. The study found that swatting a layup is worth, on average, 1.54 points saved for a defense, while a blocked jumper saves 1.04 points per shot. And no one has excelled at this more than Jermaine O'Neal: Ninety-one percent of his blocks were against layups. Worst in this respect? Brendan Haywood, who blocked only 31 percent of layups over the past seven seasons. While that news caught the attention Mavs owner Mark Cuban,the fact that his team is 12-0 with Haywood in the lineup didn't seem to leave him any regrets.
• Rasho Nesterovic's generosity. A block that sends a ball into the third row of the stands may be intimidating, but it isn't nearly as valuable as a block that lands softly into the hands of a teammate, for obvious change-of-possession reasons. The master of this is Nesterovic, as 65 percent of his blocks are tipped to teammates to kick-start an offensive possession, tops in the NBA.
• Dwight Howard ... sort of. Howard is the anti-Duncan, having been called for goaltending on 24 percent of his blocks, according to Huizinga's and Weil's research. In other words, 24 percent of Howard's blocks gave an opponent points. But before we go and write off Howard as an overrated block artist, consider that his skills in defending the low post likely carry an intimidation factor that changes shots, one the study admittedly could not measure.
• Blocks out of bounds. Fun as it is to watch a shot sent flying into the stands, it still leaves a defense more work to do. And no one created more work for his teammates on the defensive end than Rasheed Wallace, who swatted 25 percent of his blocks out of bounds, the study found. Wallace creating more work for his team? Sounds about right.
• Theo Ratliff's unique scoring prowess. By and large, players nowadays seem more interested in making a statement with a block than in flipping possession for a fast break, the research paper found. Of those who did excel at creating points out of defense, Ratliff ranked No. 1, accounting for 300 points over the last seven seasons, a total the study's authors equated to about five extra wins for Ratliff's teams.
• "I'm not speaking [for] Chris Bosh. I'm just saying, the individual that wants to move on ... there are different reasons why a guy wouldn't want to play [in Toronto]."-- Tracy McGrady offers his two cents on Bosh's situation.
• "When I was growing up, I said I wanted to be in the NBA. I never said I wanted to go to the NBA and play for L.A. or New York or D.C. or a big market. I just wanted to play in this league. It's a privilege. I can't be picky about who I want to go to just because it's a bigger city. I want to have an opportunity to win, and I think we have that here."-- Kevin Durant makes Thunder management very happy.
• "My offense is just terrible right now. I don't know if I even want to shoot the ball next game or for a couple games. I don't even know if I want to shoot the ball because things are just not going my way. I'm struggling really bad right now."-- Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings after going 2-for-12 in a recent win over the Wizards.
• "We're not fond of that kind of statement."-- Scott Skiles on Jennings' stated trouble.
• "He just isn't a high-level, volume guy that carries you. I think he would agree to that."-- Sixers coach Eddie Jordan on Andre Iguodala's skills as a leading man.
• "I'm a man, just like they a man. If a man is talking to me this close to my face, I'm going to say something back. He has to respect me just like I respect him. I just [said], 'Get up out of my face.' He was this close in my face -- I can feel his lips touching my cheek -- I wasn't bragging saying, 'Ah, we winning.' It was 'Back up.' "-- Wizards forward Andray Blatche engaged in with Kevin Garnett in a recent three-point loss in Boston.
•Indianapolis Star: Another season, another intriguing story about Greg Oden's rehab.
•Basketball Prospectus: Stats guru Kevin Pelton offers a glimpse at the many statistical analysts now taking up residence in official capacities with a handful of teams and the league itself.
•Hardwood Paroxysm: While Mike Dunleavy's time with the Clippers was largely a disappointment, he didn't fare so badly in the draft, especially in the first round.
•Off the Dribble: Interesting theory from salary-cap guru Larry Coon about how star players could wield the threat of playing overseas as the ultimate hammer in labor negotiations.
Before we close the book on this year's MIT stats-fest, a few of the more interesting ideas ...
1.Box scores are antiquated. We've been turning to the same statistical snapshots, tracking the same points, rebounds, assists, shooting and minutes for who knows how long. But these numbers are insufficient, given that drawing a charge or deflecting a pass can mean just as much in the outcome. "Box scores are an incomplete story," Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard said. "They can say someone shot 8-for-13 and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line, but they can't tell you he didn't make winning basketball plays." That would take a box score that doesn't fit the tight space of a newspaper's stats page. And an effort to track those extra numbers is something teams must do on their own right now, Cuban said.
2. The next step in the statistical revolution will be player-by-player video analysis. The stats now tracked may be incomplete, but they paint a much better picture on offense than on defense. How many missed shots a player forces or deflections one creates is not something seen in the numbers, or even regularly caught on a broadcast. Companies such as Synergy Sports that track video for individual players hold the key to a treasure trove of data, said a panel of team stat analysts. And once the technology is refined, much of those jewels are expected to open a wide lens on the effectiveness of individual defenders.
3.Next form of analysis:cognitive testing. The biggest challenge teams often face is determining how their own players run the plays. Can they remember the play call? How crisply can they run what's called in a close game and the pressure is high? In short, which players are mentally strong? "Real-time assessment is the next wave," Cuban said in another panel about the limits of advanced statistical analysis. That isn't easy, though, when dealing with young men who normally would still be in college. Added Rockets GM Daryl Morey: "The struggle to use a lot of psychologists' findings ... is that a 20-year-old doesn't know who they are sometimes."