NBA

Darko returns to Wolves with new contract, outlook

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MANKATO, Minn. (AP)

In two months with Minnesota last season, an out-of-shape Darko Milicic showed the kind of passing savvy and defensive instincts that no other Timberwolves big man had displayed all season long.

Emboldened by the kind of playing time he never got in the two years previous, Milicic displayed enough talent and potential to coax the Timberwolves into re-signing him to a four-year deal with $16 million guaranteed.

''It's undeniable when you watch Darko work out or when you see him on the court, the guy has some real skills that are not easily found in our league,'' Timberwolves president David Kahn said.

But that's always been the biggest problem with Milicic. He has the natural skills and ability to make coaches and executives drool. It's what prompted the Detroit Pistons to take him second overall in 2003, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

Milicic has never been able to turn that potential into sustained production in the NBA. Maybe that's why there was such an outcry when the Wolves re-signed Milicic to a fairly modest deal by NBA standards.

Milicic's deal could be worth as much as $20 million if he completes it and he will make an average of $4 million per season. The average salary for a starting NBA center this season ranges from $7.3 million to $8.4 million, depending on who each team counts as that player.

While watching Milicic huff and puff through the final 24 games of the season for the Wolves after hardly playing at all for the Knicks all season long, Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis wondered what he could get from the 7-foot Serbian if he had an entire summer and training camp to work with him.

The Timberwolves are about to find out.

''He just hasn't played a whole lot of basketball over the last few years,'' Rambis said. ''That's what he has to get back to doing, where he feels very comfortable on the floor and gets his confidence back up.''

Milicic came to the United States at 17, landing on a veteran-laden team that was competing for a championship. He became lost in the shuffle, and the lack of success in a strange land quickly thrust Milicic into a funk both personally and professionally.

''When I first got here, the first month, I didn't leave the house,'' Milicic said of his first days in Detroit.

He bounced around from Detroit to Orlando to Memphis, showing flashes of the ability that made him such a prospect, but never following through. He hit rock bottom last year with the Knicks, appearing in only eight games and playing a total of 71 minutes before being shipped to Minnesota in February.

The criticism levied against him - the labels of ''bust'' and ''lazy'' - hurt him deeply, so much so that he now refuses to talk about his first 6 1/2 seasons in the league.

Milicic made no secret of his desire to return home and play in Serbia after the season ended. But then Rambis and the struggling Wolves gave him the starting role he had been looking for all along. Milicic started 18 games, averaging 8.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, and recapturing the joy he felt for the game so many years ago.

After signing the extension in July, Milicic said he prepared himself over the summer more diligently than he ever had as a professional and reported to Wolves training camp determined to finally make it work. Rambis visited Milicic in Europe and sent assistant Bill Laimbeer to Serbia for two weeks this month to prepare him for a bigger role than he's ever had.

He's lost 10 pounds and has some definition in his upper body that was not there last season.

''Last February, I almost shut it down,'' Milicic said. ''(Now I'm) much better. I was working on a lot of running, running sprints. That's what I do, two months before I do a lot of running, sprints outside, try to be lighter.''

Rambis said the defense and rebounding prowess are there, but he needs a willingness and comfort with attacking the defense.

''We need him to be confident in his offensive production,'' Rambis said. ''He's just a little bit rusty in that area because he hasn't played enough games and got enough touches where he feels good and confident and comfortable.''

Helping matters further, the Wolves brought in rookie big man Nikola Pekovic this year. Pekovic is from Montenegro, which is just south of Serbia, and the two have quickly formed a bond to make things more comfortable for both.

''I just never expected somebody would give me a chance like they gave me here,'' Milicic said. ''The only chance for me to play was go back to Europe. So they came and gave me a real chance and I said there's no reason to go, I'm going to stay here and play.''

Tagged: Timberwolves, Darko Milicic

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