NBA

MONROE: Darko a definite draft darling

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Mike Monroe

 
   
 

NEW YORK

One thing is certain about Thursday night¿s NBA Draft Lottery show, which has been turned into a 30-minute prime time program on ABC: Twelve teams are going to be sorely disappointed they didn¿t catch lightning in a bottle and win the chance to draft LeBron James. I have talked to a lot of NBA personnel types over the last few weeks about this year¿s draft crop, and nobody has hinted seriously that James should not be the No. 1 pick. But after spending over an hour Wednesday afternoon with Darko Milicic, the 7-foot Serbian who turns 18 just days before the June 26 draft, I¿m convinced that one of those 12 disappointed teams is going to find instant consolation. For one thing, Milicic is big. He¿s not big, as in too tall to take in with one sweep of the eyes. But trust me when I tell you Milicic is every bit of 7-feet, and maybe a millimeter or two taller. And he¿s not Mark Eaton big, as in wider than two or three axe handles. But trust me when I tell you his physique more closely resembles ¿s than ¿s. And then there are those arms. I thought I¿d seen long arms when I met before last year¿s draft. Milicic¿s are even longer. In fact, they are longer than Yao¿s. I know. We measured them, right there in the living room of agent Marc Cornstein¿s East Manhattan home. It may not have been quite as scientific as whatever method the NBA will use in Chicago for the pre-draft camp on June 3, but you can¿t argue with it. We had Milicic stand against a wall and extend his left arm with the extended fingers on his hand touching a facing wall, then extend his right arm and hand as far as it would reach, whereupon we marked the point of extension. We used a very official hardware store tape measure to discover the distance spanned 89 inches. That¿s 7 feet, five inches, which is one inch longer than Yao¿s reach and a half-inch longer than Nene¿s. (Nene, by the way, is about to be Hilario's official full name. He is having it changed this summer in Brazil, where they like their sports heroes to have just one moniker, as in Pele and Ronaldo.) Milicic is a natural power forward, not a center, skilled to the point some scouts believe he can play small forward, too. And guess what? He says his favorite thing to do on a basketball court is not to dunk or drain 3-pointers. ¿Passing to my teammates for baskets," he said. Hey, the kid is too young and naïve to already be blowing smoke at sports writers, so there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. Some of those same NBA player personnel experts who assured me James would be the choice of whichever team gets the first pick in the lottery also tell me Milicic isn¿t the No. 2 selection, he¿s more like No. 1A. The real difference between Milicic and James, of course, is that James' pre-draft hype has reached levels never before seen. The last time I recall this much buzz about the draft lottery was in 1992, when a center named Shaquille O¿Neal declared after his junior season at LSU. But we¿d already seen what O¿Neal could do in three seasons of Division I college ball. James has remarkable skills for a legitimate 6-9 player, but as none other than reminded us a few months ago, he has yet to play against players with skills much beyond those of sports writers. We¿re certain that was intended as a knock on the skills of James¿ foes. What would NBA draftniks be saying about Milicic had they seen some of his games on TV, as many of us saw James¿ games on ESPN? No average fan in the U.S. has seen Milicic play except in videotaped snippets. ¿I don¿t care about that," Milicic said Wednesday through Cornstein¿s European associate, Spomenko ¿Semi" Pajovic. ¿Everybody from NBA came over a couple of times to see me. Who was supposed to see me, saw me." Pajovic has been around basketball in Yugoslavia for many years and Wednesday made a bold statement. ¿I saw Vlade (Divac) when he was 17. I saw (Toni) Kukoc. I saw (Peja) Stojakovic. None of them come close to (Milicic). ¿But I tell Darko, five percent of success is talent; 95 percent is hard work." The good news: Pajovic assures one and all that Milicic¿s work ethic is world-class. There will be difficulties for Milicic in his rookie season, of course, not the least of which will be the language barrier. He understands English fairly well, but speaks it haltingly. Pajovic said it would be an ideal situation were the to get him, since they have fellow Serbian Peja Savovic (also one of Cornstein's clients) already on their roster. That would ease the transition immensely, Pajovic said. That would suit Milicic fine, he said. All he really knows about the is that they are young and in need of immediate help and they have other players who speak Serbian. (Denver¿s Skita Tskitishvili speaks fluent Serbian, as does Savovic.) Mainly, Milicic said, he just wants to be on an NBA roster and prove he can play in the league. First impressions can be tricky, especially when filtered through a translation process, but my first impression of Milicic was overwhelmingly positive. He seems genuine, earnest and humble. Milicic played professionally in the Yugoslavian League for Hemofarm, about 100 miles from his hometown of Novi Sad, starting at age 15. What you have to understand about playing in Europe is that it more closely resembles an apprentice-master system of player development than anything based on skill. The youngster had to defer to his elders, some of whom were, literally, old enough to be his father. And as good as he played, he did not become even a local superstar. He could walk down any street without drawing extra stares, rarely asked for an autograph. Cornstein and his wife Natasha took him to dinner Tuesday night at an Italian eatery in the melting pot that is Manhattan and three Serbian-speaking patrons asked for his autograph. He will have to get used to that, no matter where he winds up. The , of course, are in the lottery, but Milicic said as much as he has enjoyed New York in two short days -- ¿No. 1 city in whole world," he said -- he finds the traffic more than a little intimidating. Apparently, he doesn¿t understand that certain hand signals transcend language barriers. Senior writer Mike Monroe covers the NBA for FOXSports.com and can be reached at his e-mail address, mmonroe@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Mavericks, Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs, Nene Hilario, Yao Ming

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