No matter how badly it hurts your stomach to think of it, please remember that it really is not Darko Milicic’s fault that he was drafted ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He was just an 18-year-old Serbian kid with bleached tips who wanted to play in the NBA. Not his fault.
And now, seven years on, as his 2003 lottery brethren, pursue their max deals and their dream-team lineups and hypothetical titles, Chad Ford reports that Darko and the Timberwolves have made a verbal agreement on a new four-year, $20 million deal. Here’s the best part of Ford’s article: “The deal for Milicic is extraordinary considering in February he wasn’t playing and said he was giving up on the NBA to return to Europe.” Hey, that is extraordinary, would somebody please give that guy 20 million dollars!? Recall: this means that Al Jefferson’s days as a Wolf are essentially over. So, no more of the Big Al torture chamber, no more of that surly Mississippi wit, no more of that silky up-fake.
In many ways, its easy to understand Darko’s allure for Kurt Rambis and David Kahn. Darko is an actual seven-footer (especially when he’s not slouching his shoulders and slightly bowing his head, which he does often). He’s got long arms, soft hands and nimble feet. He has, they say, a real knowledge of the game and truly impressive court vision and passing skills. In all of these respects, Darko is a better fit than Jefferson for both for Rambis’s offense, which relies on decisiveness and sharp passing out of the post, and for the T-Wolves defense, which is in desperate need of a long-limbed rim protector.
But, friends, this account comes with some serious caveats. First, despite his immense gifts of size, dexterity and coordination, Darko is a terrible scorer. His career true shooting percentage is .482, which, for a seven-footer, is really, really bad. Like, worse than Robert Swift (.531), worse than Jerome James (.510), worse than Patrick O’Bryant (.513), just to name a few. For the most part, this is due to his chronic passivity. While Big Al uses his footwork and ball skills to attack the basket (when he’s not settling for 15-foot jumpers, that is), Darko’s array of feints and spins seem to carry him invariably along the path of least resistance, ever further from the hoop; the result, generally, his is gently fading jump hook. Without a doubt, Darko can get that shot whenever he wants and is tall and long enough to see over almost any defender who checks him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go in all that much.
As for that badly needed defense. Sure enough, over his career Darko blocks about a shot more per 36 minutes than Al. But in the stats that really matter, its hard to find a significant difference. Last season, the Wolves were 1.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Darko was on the floor. In ’08-’09, Al’s last healthy year, the Wolves were .9 points better per 100. Similarly, according to 82games.com, Darko’s and Al’s opponents were roughly equally productive last season. So Darko has an edge, but its pretty slender, especially considering the malleability and imprecision of these kinds of defensive stats.
That passivity hurts Darko at the defensive end of the floor, too. As I’ve mentioned, he was able to block some shots last year, but just as often he was caught on his heals on the pick-and-roll, or a step late in his rotations. He would go through long, languorous spells where he could not seem to summon the energy and intensity to compete with his peers in the paint. We saw this in his mercurial on-ball defense, and in his sporadic rebounding (his rebound rate of 12.3% put him 48th among NBA centers last year).
Some of this can be written off to poor conditioning, a by-product some 60 games worth of towel-waving in New York. Darko’s gray, rigor mortis-y death-grin was always a sure sign that the big guy was going through some torturous fatigue and that we might be in for one of his notorious one-shot/no-rebound quarters. But the reality is that even in his years as a rotation player for the Grizzlies and Magic, when he ought to have been at his fittest, Darko has never been even an average defender, shooter or rebounder (in his best year, ’08-’09, Darko was 33rd among centers in rebound rate, at 15.7%).
So we can hope–as Memphis, Detroit, Orlando and the Knicks all hoped–that Darko will one day live up to the promise of his immense gifts, will learn to attack the basket, to bring a measure of intensity to his defensive battles, to pursue rebounds with abandon. We can hope, in other words, that he will somehow, in his seventh NBA season, totally reinvent his game and remake his mental approach. But we Wolves fans know way too much about that kind of hope.