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Darko Milicic This 17-year-old 7-footer may be the NBA's No. 2 draft pick

March 03, 2003
March 03, 2003

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March 3, 2003

Darko Milicic This 17-year-old 7-footer may be the NBA's No. 2 draft pick

Ever since Michael Jordan first started denigrating Toni Kukoc,
Europeans in the NBA have routinely been stereotyped as
fair-skinned suburbanites who shy away from contact in the paint
or conflict in the locker room. Seventeen-year-old Darko Milicic
is about to stomp on that stereotype--if not leap over it
altogether. ¶ Milicic (pronounced MIL-i-sich) is the prodigious
7foot center from Yugoslavia who is expected to be the No. 2 pick
behind LeBron James in this year's NBA draft, and he's far from
soft.

This is an article from the March 3, 2003 issue Original Layout

When Milicic was 14, he moved 100 miles from his home in Novi
Sad, Montenegro, to the remote Serbian industrial town of Vrsac
to join the junior team of the club Hemofarm. At an age when most
Americans are still in junior high, he was living alone in an
apartment and practicing basketball in the mornings and evenings
with a full day of school in between. In return he received room,
board and $100 a month, much of which he sent home to his
parents.

"I was the youngest player on the team," Milicic said through an
interpreter last week. "I think that move was much more difficult
than the move I will be making next year to the NBA."

Last season Milicic was called up from the junior team to play
with Hemofarm in the same league that produced Kukoc, Vlade Divac
and Dino Radja. Milicic was 16, and in his first game he guarded
a 40-year-old. "He was trying to use every trick, trying to draw
the contact and talking trash to me," says Milicic. Does young
Milicic talk trash? "No," he says, "I like to stay focused on the
game."

These days Milicic is focused on the NBA draft. Commissioner
David Stern's ruling last month that a player could be drafted if
he's 18 in the same calendar year as the draft--not by the May 12
application deadline, as he had previously declared--ensured that
Milicic, who will turn 18 on June 20, will be a hot item six days
later, when NBA teams make their selections. If he is the second
pick, he could sign a guaranteed three-year contact worth more
than $11 million.

Why is the NBA so high on Milicic? He's averaging only 9.6 points
and 4.9 rebounds in 17.9 minutes per game, and his coaches
constantly badger him in the manner of Bobby Knight, as is common
in Serbian basketball. But Milicic is more than an athlete; he's
an all-around shooter, passer and rebounder who makes his
teammates better. "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.

A lefty with wide shoulders, Milicic has a well-developed
245-pound body, and he's only going to get stronger. He has been
lifting weights the past two years and says that he does 150
push-ups and 200 sit-ups every night. Milicic has an explosive
first step and a knack for converting loose balls around the
basket with hands that seem as big and soft as baseball mitts.
"He's not going to have any trouble competing physically,"
predicts one G.M. His weakness? He has spent so much time
learning to shoot the three-pointer and to beat his man off the
dribble that he doesn't know how to play with his back to the
basket.

Until last month, when his club rewarded him with a new
two-bedroom apartment, Milicic had been sleeping on a pullout
couch in a small studio with a space heater at his feet. While
LeBron James received a $50,000 Hummer for his 18th birthday,
Milicic doesn't even have a driver's license. The two throwback
jerseys valued at $845 that earned James a two-game suspension
were worth more than a weekly paycheck for Milicic, who is making
$20,000 this season for playing against grown men with two-day
stubble and cigarette breath. "I have worked really hard and made
something of myself," Milicic says. "In Yugoslavia there is a
little too much structure in the game, and it takes away from the
creativity of the player. I am looking forward to the freedom. I
am ready to go to the NBA."

COLOR PHOTO: ALEKSANDAR DJOROVIC/GRAZIA NERI [COVER INSET] BEYOND LEBRON The Next Sports Prodigies DARKO MILICIC BasketballCOLOR PHOTO: ALEKSANDER DJOROVIC/GRAZIA NERI (TOP)COLOR PHOTO: GRAZIA NERI UPSIDE Some say the rarity of good big men makes Milicic a betterpick than James.