Before he was a cautionary tale for general managers and a laughingstock for fans, Darko Milicic was a supremely talented young prospect. The consensus was that he had the unique combination of skill and physical attributes needed to dominate at the NBA level. Obviously, that never came to pass, in part because Milicic never seemed to have the mental fortitude and the drive needed to succeed.
In a recent interview with Serbian outlet Blic, Milicic discussed his struggles adjusting to the league as a teenager.
"I thought as a kid that talent was God-given, but it's not," Milicic said, according to a translation from Hoopshype.com. "God gives you talent and you should use that talent with the real meaning of that word. I was stubborn. Maybe being young had something to do with it."
Milicic was 18 years old when he was drafted by a Pistons team trying to win a title right away. Maybe if he had stayed another year in Europe, he would have been more ready to contribute and his career would have gone differently.
Yet the most interesting revelation comes later when Milicic discusses how he never had the right opportunity, despite playing for six teams over a 10-year career. To hear him tell it, he never got a real shot to show his worth.
"Their system is cruel and I don't like it. If a young player doesn't succeed, they don't look after him. That sucks. You have players who are first or second in the draft that get a chance to play. I didn't get the chance. [LeBron James] is a killer now, but he did get a chance in his first year, he could shoot from the stands if he wanted. I barely got the chance. I had that situation in Orlando where if I shoot from perimeter, my coach [Brian] Hill would yell, "Pass to Howard."
In Detroit nothing went right. Larry Brown always told me to go near the basket. They offered me a $40 million, four-year contract in Orlando, and then their manager blows it off, out of nowhere. My manager told me he would deal with it. I said OK, but just not Memphis. Anywhere but there. And, of course, I went to Memphis. Then I got injured, didn't play much."
To be fair, Milicic is right that Europe's system is not as cruel early on. Young players get the chance to develop at their own pace, often in lower divisions on weaker leagues. At some point, however, teams on both sides of the Atlantic expect players to contribute, or they cut them loose.
A 21-year-old Milicic had a solid year in Orlando as a backup center, but eight points, five rebounds and almost two blocks per game understandably didn't make him untouchable. The Magic had Dwight Howard around already, so he was superfluous.
It's undeniable that Darko got a raw deal early on, as Brown is tough on rookies and there was no chance to play on that 2004 champion Pistons team. That said, he never really did much to show he was worth waiting for in any of his other NBA stops. In fact, there's a case to be made that he had more opportunities than the typical mediocre player and never seized them. Who can forget then-Timberwolves general manager David Kahn calling him "mana from heaven" and signing him to a four-year contract after half a season of solid play.
We'll never know exactly why Darko didn't pan out. Maybe he was too young. Maybe the system was too cruel and he never got the opportunity he deserved. Or, maybe he just was another over-hyped prospect who simply wasn't good enough to excel in the best league in the world. He's not alone in that regard.