NBA Draft Busts: Darko Milicic

The 2003 NBA draft is arguably one of the best draft classes of all time. With Four future Hall of Famers taken in the first five picks, the selection of Darko Milicic at number two may stand as one of the worst Draft Day decisions for years to come. After reaching the NBA Finals the previous year, the Detroit Pistons had a strong roster that didn’t have any major holes to fill. This led them to take a chance on the young seven-foot center from Serbia, a decision that lives on in NBA infamy. 

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NBA Draft Busts: Darko Milicic

Pre-Draft Hype

One thing was certain going into the 2003 draft. LeBron James was going to be the first pick. While this was never in question, there were plenty of talented young players vying for the number two spot. Carmelo Anthony had just wrapped up an amazing freshman year, capping it off with a National Championship while earning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award. Anthony wasn’t the only talented freshman in the lottery conversation. Georgia Tech’s Chris Bosh had made a name for himself as the second freshman in ACC history to lead the conference in field goal percentage. He nearly averaged a double-double in his 31 collegiate games. The elder statesman of the group was junior Dwyane Wade from Marquette. The future All-Star, NBA Champion, and Olympic Gold Medalist had recently recorded the fourth triple-double in NCAA tournament history. This helped the MVP of the Midwest Region’s draft stock dramatically.

Despite all of this talent at home, sportswriters in the spring of 2003 were enamored with a 17-year-old seven-footer from Serbia. Milicic was front-page news at the time, making the cover of major sports magazines and impressing NBA scouts in the months leading up to the draft. Teams were captivated by Milicic’s speed and athleticism for his size. He averaged 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks for his Serbian team Hemofarm. General Managers were drooling over the lanky lefty, praising his shooting range and even comparing him to Kevin Garnett. All of this, paired with the talented roster already assembled in Detroit, led the Pistons to take Milicic.

Darko’s Downward Spiral in Detroit

Then-Team President Joe Dumars continuously told the NBA world that Milicic would be a big part of the Pistons’ future, but the rookie rarely saw the floor that first year. He did manage to make NBA history, becoming the youngest player ever to play in the NBA Finals. Detroit would win it all that season, defeating Los Angeles Lakers in five games. The Pistons would make it back to the Finals the following year, losing to the Spurs amid rumors that head coach Larry Brown would be leaving after the season.

Milicic was likely one of the few players on the roster happy to see his coach leave. The big man constantly clamored for more minutes and hoped that a new coach would give him the playing time he felt he needed to improve his game. Not much changed, however, as new coach Flip Saunders only played Milicic 5.6 minutes per game before the team traded him to the Orlando Magic in February of 2006.

Bouncing Around the NBA

Milicic’s play improved slightly while in Orlando. He averaged 7.7 points and 1.8 blocks for the Magic in his season and a half there. His one full year in Florida was the only season that he played at least 80 games. Orlando decided not to submit a qualifying offer for Milicic when his rookie contract was up. The big man agreed to a three-year, $21 million contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. This was another low point in his career. Milicic did not want to play for Memphis and quickly lost his starting job in the 2008-09 season.

The Grizzlies shipped him off to the New York Knicks the following offseason. Milicic threatened retirement while in the big apple, but stayed with the team long enough to be traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves just before the All-Star break. Minnesota offered Milicic a four-year extension worth $20 million in July of 2010. The 2010-11 season was by far his best statistically, averaging 8.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and two blocks per game. Those block numbers were the most impressive, good enough to place him fifth in the league by season’s end. This improvement led to Milicic earning the starting center role at the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign. Sadly, his production would diminish along with his playing time and the Timberwolves would waive him after the season.

Life After the League

Milicic signed with the Boston Celtics before the 2012-13 season but only played five minutes for the team before requesting his release. Since leaving the league, he has pursued a kickboxing career, began life as a farmer in his home country, and had a folk song created in his honor. Milicic has twice announced his return to basketball since his retirement. In 2015 he decided against playing for Metalac Farmakom of the Basketball League of Serbia. In 2019, he made local news again by joining the amateur team I Came to Play in his hometown of Novi Sad. He played only one season with the team.

Biggest Bust Ever?

Milicic retired from the NBA after 10 seasons with six teams. He averaged six points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Milicic is widely considered one of the worst draft selections of all time. This is not only due to his lack of production but because of the three future Hall-of-Famers and eight All-Stars that were drafted after him. The Pistons picked the young big man over more polished young players because they had a strong roster and hoped the reload for the future. Milicic was the fourth-youngest player to step foot on an NBA court and has questioned the Pistons’ decision himself. While Detroit managed to win it all in 2004 and played in back-to-back Finals, the sports world will always wonder if they could’ve been an NBA dynasty had they only avoided drafting Darko.

 

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