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Archive for Saturday, December 13, 2003

Milicic stuck on bench

Pistons rookie: Practices ‘are my games’

December 13, 2003

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— While LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony soar and score, Darko Milicic sits.

Unless he's at practice.

The 7-foot, 250-pound center shows up early for workouts, stays late and spends extra time working with coaches. Milicic is willing to do whatever it takes to get off the bench.

"Those are my games, for now," said the No. 2 draft pick, referring to practice. "I'm working hard to get a chance. I hope to play more soon."

While other top draft picks -- such as James and Anthony -- put up big numbers for teams that have struggled for years, Milicic was held scoreless through the first 23 games.

He scored his first two points of the season Friday night against Seattle.

"It's embarrassing," said Milicic, an 18-year-old from Serbia and Montenegro.

But he understands why he's spent much of his rookie season on the sidelines, playing just 17 minutes in eight games through the first six weeks of Detroit's season.

Unlike James and Anthony -- the first and third picks -- Milicic is playing behind veterans on a team that has won 100 regular-season games and three playoff series the past two seasons.

"He was put in a tough situation," James said. "There are a lot of veterans that play in front of him. He just has to keep working. His time will come."

In Thursday night's loss at Cleveland, coach Larry Brown put Milicic in the game -- with 49.1 seconds left to play.

"I wanted to see if he acted like he belonged," Brown said. "He acted like he was insulted."

Milicic had a shot blocked, and missed a dunk.

Even though the Pistons did not expect him to help them much this season, it's unusual to see a second pick relegated to the bench.

"We all knew his situation was going to be different from any other lottery pick," said Joe Dumars, Detroit's president of basketball operations. "We have a team that's competing at the highest level and we were not in the market for a savior, but we are all very happy with Darko's development."

Milicic started playing professionally at age 14 in Europe, initially living in a room that was about 100 square feet. Last season, he had a 300-square-foot apartment and scored as much as 37 points a game.

Now, with a three-year contract worth about $11 million, he lives in a 5,000-square-foot home in suburban Detroit. And he's embracing American culture. Rap is his music of choice while zipping around town in his BMW or Audi sports car.

The Pistons could have taken Anthony, a Syracuse standout who has helped Denver become competitive. But Dumars, a former Pistons standout, chose Milicic.

Detroit, which lost to New Jersey in the Eastern Conference finals, landed the high pick from Memphis because of a 1997 trade for Otis Thorpe.

The last time a team that had advanced to the conference had one of the first two draft selections was in 1986. Boston took Len Bias, but he died of a cocaine overdose two days after the draft.

Before that, it was the Los Angeles Lakers, who took James Worthy with the first pick in 1982.

Brown says Milicic has not earned the right to play in a frontcourt that includes Ben Wallace, Elden Campbell, Mehmet Okur, Corliss Williamson and Zeljko Rebraca.

"It's not a bad thing. It's just unique to see such a high pick not play," Brown said. "What you don't hear or read is that there were teams that wanted our No. 2 pick so that they could take Darko. But we may not know until his third year, when he's about 20, what we've got for sure."

Detroit simply hopes it didn't make the same mistake that Portland did in the 1984 NBA draft when it took center Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan.

But not too long ago, some thought Dallas made a poor choice when they traded for Dirk Nowitzki, the ninth pick in the 1998 draft. Nowitzki played just 47 games as a rookie and averaged 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds.

"I wasn't really prepared for competing at a high level, but at least I was able to get a sniff here and there," Nowitzki said. "We weren't great at the time."

Nowitzki, now one of the best players in the league, offered this advice for Milicic: "Always keep your eyes and ears open. Try to learn as much as you can."

Wallace has noticed the rookie get stronger and better.

"He's getting tougher when we push him around in practice," Wallace said. "If he gets knocked down, which we can't do as easy as we did when he first got here, he gets right back up. He has a lot of fight in him. That's important because as long as he improves his strength and stamina, his skills will take care of the rest."

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