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The Curious Case of Darko Milicic

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 2/21/06


We're breaking new ground here.

When it comes to projecting the development of young players, the traditional method in all sports has been to look to the past. We study trends. We make comparisons, either subjective or objective. We recite cautionary tales or stories with happier endings.

But in the curious case of Darko Milicic, there are few comparisons. In the modern era (post-merger), no top draft pick has ever seen as little action early in his NBA career as has Milicic. Only six players drafted in the top three in that period have played fewer than 1,000 minutes as a rookie; Milicic played 159, the lowest of the group:

Year  Player             Min
----------------------------
2004  Darko Milicic      159
1986  Chris Washburn     385
1998  Raef LaFrentz      387
2001  Kwame Brown        818
1989  Pervis Ellison     866
1988  Danny Manning      950

Of this group, LaFrentz, Ellison and Manning were limited by injuries, while Washburn missed much of his rookie season because he was in drug rehab. Only Milicic and Brown, then, played less than 1,000 minutes by coach's decision (so to speak), and Milicic did not get to that mark in two-plus seasons in Detroit, playing just 553 total minutes.

After Wednesday's trade that sent Milicic, along with point guard Carlos Arroyo, to the Orlando Magic for Kelvin Cato and a top-five-protected pick in 2007, that number should increase in a hurry.

"We only have three healthy big men, so he will immediately add depth to our rotation," Magic Coach Brian Hill told reporters in Orlando.

"Not everybody comes in as Shaquille O'Neal and dominates the league right away. Sometimes big guys don't develop until their third, fourth, fifth years in the league. And you certainly don't develop without an opportunity to play."

There were few places more difficult for Milicic to find an opportunity to play than Detroit, where he was behind All-Star Wallaces Ben and Rasheed as well as sixth man Antonio McDyess. The Pistons also signed veteran Dale Davis last summer, and he passed Milicic in the rotation, leaving him on the bench again most of this season.

Just barely 18 when he was drafted by the Pistons, Milicic entered the league as one of the youngest players in NBA history; even now, during his third season, Milicic is one of the 25 youngest players in the league. He's younger than likely Rookie of the Year Chris Paul as well as 2005 top overall pick Andrew Bogut.

How soon is too soon to make bold statements about a player's future based on his performance?

When I'm looking at season-long statistics, I generally tend to use a cut-off of either 250 or 500 minutes. This is admittedly an unscientific method, but tends to minimize the effects of garbage time and small sample sizes. Milicic, as noted, only barely beats the 500-minute mark for his career. He's topped 250 minutes in a season only in 2004-05, and then by four minutes. So his statistics thus far hold precious little predictive value.

At the same time, the absence of minutes, even on a team that has made consecutive Finals appearances and is threatening for a third, is a statement in and of itself. Jermaine O'Neal was the quintessential young player stuck behind too much talent. He's one of the small handful of players in league history younger than Milicic and was on Trail Blazers teams that won an average of nearly 65% of their games. Still, O'Neal played at least 300 minutes all four seasons in Portland, including the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.

A couple of years ago, in a study of early entrants to the NBA out of high school, I concluded that these players' futures could be determined much more quickly than conventional wisdom would have it:

"The only players who did not play 1,000 minutes in their second year to have success so far have been Jermaine O'Neal and Al Harrington."

It looks like I may have to add DeSagana Diop to that list. After playing 943 minutes his second season and just over 2,000 total in four years in Cleveland and showing few signs of being an NBA-caliber regular, Diop has been a solid role player for the Dallas Mavericks this season. Dallas is 15-1 since inserting Diop into the starting lineup, and while he is still a nearly total non-factor on offense (4.8 points per 40 minutes), Diop's defensive presence has been valuable enough that the Mavericks have been 4.2 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court this season.

Diop is an example of a concept known as the "second draft" popularized by John Hollinger.

"In the past, a player would leave school at age 21 or 22, sign a three-year rookie contract with an option for a fourth year and not hit free agency until about age 25," Hollinger wrote in this year's edition of Pro Basketball Forecast. "By then, his development as a player was nearly complete, so a team playing the free-agent market couldn't find many bargains.

"The current environment has made bargain hunting much easier. If a player joins a team at age 19, he's a free agent by the time he's 22 or 23. In many cases, the players haven't received much playing time and are still making all kinds of mental and physical adjustments to their game. Hence, teams can snap up a player like this in free agency, or even in a trade before he becomes a free agent, and with patience and a little luck they'll have a quality player at a bargain price."

Sound like anyone? Milicic is a quintessential second-draft possibility now that he will be getting more opportunity in Orlando.

While Milicic was drafted in the midst of four star-caliber players -- LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade -- it is unlikely he will improve enough to join this group. Very few players, even those who have entered the league as young as Milicic, have become stars after playing comparatively few minutes early in their careers. O'Neal is the most similar example of a star, but, as noted, he still played far more minutes. O'Neal was also dramatically better on a per-minute basis when he got a chance.

Diop and Joel Przybilla are a better group of role models for Milicic. While neither entered the league with as much fanfare, both were lottery picks. Both Diop and Joel Przybilla showed few skills other than shot-blocking with their first NBA team (Przybilla was a much better per-minute rebounder than Milicic, but also entered the league with nearly two seasons of NCAA experience; he also played 12 games for a second NBA team, Atlanta) before changing teams in free agency and breaking out into starting centers.

Milicic has averaged 3.4 blocks per 40 minutes thus far in his NBA career, and while that mark will likely go down as he plays more minutes and takes fewer chances defensively, he has the ability to form an intimidating last line of interior defense alongside budding star Dwight Howard.

If a defensive-minded borderline starting center is not the fate Chad Ford and company once imagined for Milicic, neither is it as bad as being resigned to "Human Victory Cigar" status with the Pistons.

Mailing List

Back in the old Hoopsworld days, I had a mailing list that notified readers when my columns were posted. Now that I'm writing several different places, it seems appropriate to bring it back. If you'd like to join, please e-mail me at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com. He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Also see Kevin's previous columns for 82games.com:
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
Valuing the Preseason
Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant
Comparing the 50 Greatest
Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Pick-and-Roll
Every Play Counts: Antonio Daniels
Every Play Counts: Detroit-San Antonio
The Value of Kobe Bryant
Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Suns D
The Value of Steve Nash


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