Darko returns to Wolves with new contract, outlook

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.”