There may not have been a more unlikely candidate to post this season's top single-game plus-minus than Darko Milicic. But as he helped the Timberwolves demolish Cleveland by 34 points last Saturday, the man drafted one spot behind LeBron James in 2003 recorded a plus-41, along with 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. (For those unaccustomed to hoops metrics, that means the Wolves outscored the Cavaliers by 41 when he was on the floor.)
The eye-opening performance was one of many the 25-year-old Serbian center has produced this season after spending the first seven years of his career as more of a punch line than a building block. After a slow start in which he shot 6-of-35 from the field in his first six games, Milicic has bounced back and is averaging career highs of 9.2 points, 6.2 boards, 26.4 minutes and a league-leading 2.7 blocks through 21 games. He had three consecutive 20-point outings late last month, including a 23-point, 16-rebound, six-block, five-assist game in a loss to the Lakers.
Milicic's production has quieted some critics who were baffled when he landed a four-year, $20 million contract last summer with Minnesota. Will the good times last? SI.com recently spoke to Milicic to try to find out.
SI.com: Last year you made no secret of your willingness to leave the NBA and return to Europe. Why did you decide to re-sign with Minnesota instead?
Milicic: I didn't want to leave just to leave. I wanted to know whether or not there was a chance [to play]. And I was getting that chance. For [the Timberwolves] to give me that many minutes and a chance to play, that's all I was looking for. I've had a lot of minutes before but I never had the chance to play that much with the ball in my hands a lot. And I like to play fast, too, and [our fast pace] is also helping me.
SI.com: You didn't get off to a quick start. What was the problem early?
Milicic: I just couldn't make shots. We had a long layoff -- we hadn't played in six months -- so it took time to get used to playing a lot of minutes and having a lot of shots. I had never gotten that many shots before in my career or had the ball in my hands that much.
SI.com: Any worries you'd lose playing time because of the early struggles?
Milicic: No. I've got nothing to lose. I was [annoyed] that we were losing games, and it was tough because it was because of me, too. That was the only thing I was worried about. But I've been in tougher times before. I knew I was going to start making shots; it was just a matter of time. I had a meeting with [general manager] David Kahn, which lasted about 35 seconds. He saw me in the locker room and said, "I believe in you, don't worry about it. Just keep playing hard and you'll start making your shots."
SI.com: You seem to have rebounded to find the best stretch of consistency in your career. What has made the difference?
Milicic: The coaches gave me a chance. I talked to them a lot and they made a little change to get my balance better. My base was kind of off, my legs were too close to each other, which is why my shot was kind of fading away. But they kept playing me through the tough times and let me just figure it out and I did.
SI.com: Now that you're getting more minutes, what role does Kurt Rambis want you to play?
Milicic: He just wants me to play basketball and do whatever I have to do to help the team win: rebound or block shots or pass the ball or shoot. But we have a lot of guys who can score -- [Michael] Beasley, Kevin Love, Wes [Johnson]. So for me to chase shots or try to do everything, it's not really the point, it's not really playing effectively.
SI.com: What didn't your previous teams understand about you?
Milicic: They didn't know anything about me. Larry Brown didn't let me shoot much [in Detroit]. I never understood somebody telling you not to take a shot after you make a shot. In Orlando, I had a good stretch, I felt comfortable. But Dwight Howard is their franchise player. Every time you pull up for a shot, you're going to think about him. You think about if you're open or not, and then in the middle of the shot you wonder if you should pass or shoot, is your shot going to be short. There were a lot of thoughts happening.
In Memphis, they gave me a good contract and a chance to play; I was just going through some bad times and struggling. It was a very bad team. They had a good group of guys. We just couldn't figure it out. Then I went out to New York and I didn't really get a shot. If I was going to back up David Lee for 16, 17 minutes a game, maybe less depending on how the game went, it didn't work out in that time in my career. I needed to play a lot of minutes because I had never had much of a chance before.
SI.com: How are you different now as opposed to when you entered the league?
Milicic: I enjoy it a lot more. In the past, I kind of stepped away from basketball in the summer and I didn't play much. I didn't worry about basketball. I thought it worked but it wasn't even close. I've learned a lot of things. I came to Minneapolis for four weeks and I was working with [strength and conditioning coach] Dave Vitel and [assistant coach] Dave Wohl and we worked on balance and shooting and everything. Then after that, [assistant coach] Bill Laimbeer came all the way to Serbia for two weeks and then [assistant] Reggie Theus came for two weeks. We worked on everything -- footwork, shooting, everything.
SI.com: With all of the missed opportunities of the past, is it difficult to not gun for individual stats over the team success?
Milicic: I just want to do everything right. It's been a struggle to become a better team and win more, and that's going to take a lot of work. But as long as my wife is happy. I'm fine. It means a lot to her and a lot of people that I'm doing well now. For me to really prove people wrong that I was a botched second pick, I would need to average 20 points and 10 rebounds. But this is the best situation of my career. Now we just have to figure out how to win.