Liberated fromthe end of Detroit's bench, Darko Milicic has shown a newly mature game in hisfirst month with the Magic
He is almostunrecognizable, this new and improved Darko Milicic. First, there's the hair.Where once were goofy blond highlights and later a swept-back 'do that made himlook like a young, freakishly tall Matt Dillon, there is now brown bristle.Gangly and buzz-cut, the 7'1" Milicic could be mistaken for a Magic forwardof yore, the ever-hustling but rarely scoring Andrew DeClercq.
Milicic is noDeClercq, however, which is both a compliment and a criticism. After beingacquired from Detroit with point guard Carlos Arroyo for center Kelvin Cato onFeb. 24, the much-maligned Milicic has shown Orlando that--as Pistons presidentJoe Dumars has often said since drafting Darko second in 2003--he can be a veryproductive player. Just how productive depends on how hard he is willing towork. Which is to say, how DeClercq-ish he chooses to be.
First, thepositives. In his first five games after cracking the Magic's rotation as thebackup center, Milicic averaged 7.0 points (on 57.9% shooting), 5.5 reboundsand 2.0 blocks in only 20.4 minutes. Against the Rockets on Feb. 26 he blockedYao Ming, Juwan Howard and, finally, Tracy McGrady. Against the Warriors onMarch 1 he snuffed 6'11" Troy Murphy's layup without even jumping; hemerely put his arms in the air and Murphy shot into them, like a man trying tothrow a beach ball through the branches of a tree. "What's struck me themost is his length," says Orlando center Tony Battie. "You [think] thathe's not that close, and suddenly he makes a block."
Milicic has donelittle offensively beyond hustle for putbacks and shoot the occasional jumphook, but he's still the Magic's most-skilled big man. Against Golden State hedrove baseline, elevated and then delivered a one-handed assist to forwardDwight Howard. "Anybody that big who can make that pass," says Warriorsassistant Keith Smart, "is going to be dangerous."
Orlando coachBrian Hill is going easy on Milicic after the self-esteem demolition derby heendured in Detroit. In their postgame discussions Hill always lists five goodplays Milicic made before offering any constructive criticism."Everything's not instinctive, but I see confidence," says Hill."He's not afraid to try things." Hill believes that by season's endDarko will be able to spread the floor, opening up opportunities for Howardinside.
But talent andathleticism have never been the issues with Milicic. In Detroit he developed awell-deserved reputation for lackadaisical work habits. Teammates had to get onhim to go hard in practice, and he was quick to sulk about a lack of playingtime instead of embracing the chance to learn from All-Stars like Ben andRasheed Wallace. He failed to get a minute in 119 of his 215 games as a Piston."I was pissed," Milicic says. "They just stopped playing me, Idon't know why." These days, so removed is Milicic in the publicconsciousness from that title-winning Pistons squad that, when Battie was askedlast week if Milicic had displayed his championship ring, Battie lookedbaffled. Then, after a moment, he laughed. "Damn, I totally forgot he hadone."
So far inOrlando, Milicic has applied himself diligently. After he had 12 points, ninerebounds and two blocks against Golden State, Warriors guard Jason Richardsonnoted, "He plays hard--you can't doubt that."
If Milicic doeswork out, as looks likely, Orlando has the option to extend his contract thissummer and build around Howard and him. With the contracts of Penny Hardawayand Grant Hill coming off the books over the next two years, the Magic haveonly $25.9 million in salaries locked in for 2007-08. And for all the worriesabout whether Milicic will (so to speak) Kwame out, consider this: If you hadthe first pick in the draft this year and Milicic was a 20-year-old coming outof Serbia, knowing what you know about him now, how would he stack up againstAdam Morrison or Rudy Gay or LaMarcus Aldridge? Asked this, one EasternConference G.M. ponders for a moment and says, "I think he'd still be alottery pick." The G.M. pauses, then adds, "Though with risk."
Big Numbers OnBad Teams
Playing for a badteam has a way of turning Average Joe into Career-High-Average Joe. Consider:In 1989-90 the expansion Timberwolves signed forward Tony Campbell as a freeagent. Minnesota struggled to a 22-60 finish, but Campbell--a career6.4-points-per-game scorer entering that season--had a monster year, averaging23.2 points.
A more recentexample of the bad-team boost is point guard Brevin Knight. Before signing withthe Bobcats in August 2004, the 5'10" Knight had shuttled between six teamsin seven years, bottoming out in 2003-04, when he averaged 4.7 points and 3.6assists with three clubs. While Charlotte had gone 34-108 with Knight throughSunday, he had averaged 11.1 points and 8.8 assists--second best in the leagueover that span.
Yet at the tradedeadline there wasn't much interest in Knight, despite his cap-friendly, $4.6million salary. "Brevin is one of the top five true point guards in theNBA," says one Eastern Conference scout. "But he has two major holes:His size makes him a defensive liability, and he's a horrendous perimeter jumpshooter. Because of that, I don't consider him anything more than a solidbackup [on a good team]."
Knight isn't theonly player with lofty stats that are potentially misleading because he suitsup for a sorry squad. SI identified three more and asked a scout and a veteranassistant coach to assess their value.
•Al Harrington,PF, Hawks. A runner-up for the Sixth Man Award with the Pacers in 2003-04,Harrington pined for a bigger role. He got it with woeful Atlanta; over thepast two seasons his averages of 18.1 points and 6.9 rebounds have positionedhim as one of the top three free agents in a weak class. However, potentialsuitors, beware. "He's a decent low-post scorer, but he can't guard threesor fours," the scout says. "Put him on a good playoff team and he'sprobably your fifth-best starter."
•Mike James, PG,Raptors. At week's end James, 30, was averaging 18.3 points on 47.2% shootingand 5.4 assists, all career highs, for the 20-38 Raptors. "He's a diamondin the rough," says the assistant. "Who cares if he's not a true pointguard? He's a tenacious defender who has an uncanny ability to make shots. I'dtake him on my team any day."
•Gerald Wallace,SF, Bobcats. In three seasons with the Kings he put up 3.4 points a game. Intwo seasons with Charlotte his average has spiked to 12.4. But there was areason he received little attention as a free agent last summer. "He wreakshavoc as a defender," says the scout, "but if teams decide to focus onhim, they can shut him down completely." --Chris Mannix
•NBA Insider JackMcCallum every Thursday at SI.com/NBA.
On 6'8" power forward Marcus Fizer, the No. 4 pickof the Bulls in 2000 who is averaging 20.4 points for the D-League's AustinToros:
"He's the one minor league guy I'm surprisedhasn't been called up, because he's still got it offensively. Everybody knowsthe downside--he's undersized, he's never been in great shape, and I don'tthink his coaches in Chicago had a lot of good things to say about him. But hecould come off an NBA bench and score against any second unit in theleague."