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
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
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
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
”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