It is pretty hard to feel bad for a guy who got paid millions of dollars to play in the NBA. However, in the case of Darko Milicic (aka "Darko"), it's not that hard. Over ten years ago, the Detroit Pistons used its 2nd overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft to select a guy who, by all measures, was a "no-brainer" selection. In fact, it's likely that if Darko had been in any other NBA Draft in the 2000s when a guy named LeBron graduated from high school, he would have been the number one overall pick. The scouts drooled over Darko (no joke) and would continuously point to a number of statistics and attributes, including:
- Legitimate 7-footer
- 7-foot 4-inch wingspan
- Tremendous "potential"
Unfortunately for Darko (and the Pistons), that potential was never realized - not even close. Even though Darko stayed around in the league for twelve seasons, he never was more than a 12th man "garbage time" player, finally retiring from the NBA at the end of the 2012-2013 season having averaged 6.0 points and 1.3 blocks for his career.
What about Kwame Brown or Sam Bowie?
Many will point to others like Kwame Brown (#1 overall selection of the Washington Wizards in the 2001 NBA draft) and Sam Bowie (#2 overall selection of the Portland Trailblazers in the 1984 NBA draft and one pick ahead of Michael Jordan) as bigger "busts". Brown has been in the NBA for 13 seasons now and has had a 'semblance' of an NBA career. By no means has he ever lived up to being the #1 overall pick of 2001, but he has stayed around and at times, been a contributor for the teams he played for. Even Bowie stuck around for a decade and averaged a very respectable 11 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
The Universal Moniker for Unfulfilled Potential
In many ways, Darko's hype and ultimate failure has made him a universal moniker for "so much becoming so little" and I'm not sure that I would ever want to carry such a legacy. Just for perspective, there were a few guys who were drafted after Darko in the 2003 NBA draft that have gone on to have fairly decent NBA careers - Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and David West to name a few. Those picks, in-and-of-themselves, point to how much potential Darko had. He was drafted above a kid like Carmelo Anthony who was just coming off leading Syracuse to a National Championship as a freshman. Similarly, Dwyane Wade had just led his Marquette team to the Final Four - a once-storied program that was stuck in idle for years. While the NBA Draft is often more indicative of potential than accomplishment (e.g., Dwight Howard picked over Emeka Okafor), it's hard to imagine somebody looking at both Anthony and Wade, and not seeing a load of potential there.
Darko's NBA legacy is that of a 'cautionary tale' - an NBA GM's worst nightmare. It's made every team's scouts work that much harder - and that's a good thing. You can't judge a lot of these kids on YouTube videos alone - you have to go and see them play, see how they react to adversity, see the potential in-person. In a sense, Darko was and remains the poster-child for the 'freak-of-nature' physical characteristics being downgraded to the question of..."the stats and potential are great, but how does this really translate into production?" Darko may have single-handedly cast a dark shadow on the foreign player who everybody has heard about, but nobody has really ever seen play. There have certainly been others - Nikoloz Tskitishvili, for example, came out a year before Darko and was drafted number five overall - one could make a strong argument that Tskitishvili had a significantly worse career than Darko (if that is even possible). But other Europeans have flourished in the NBA - Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Andrea Bargnani, and Peja Stojakovic to name a few.
The Unanswered Questions
Like most recruiting and scouting, either in sports, corporations, or other talent-driven initiatives, the sad tale of Darko raises many more questions than it will ever answer:
- Everybody knew Darko was 'very raw' coming to the NBA - did the Detroit Pistons spend adequate time developing him? The answer is probably 'no', since the Pistons went on to win the NBA Championship a year later - there wasn't a lot of free playing time to hand out for a kid to experiment with.
- Was Darko just another 'head-case'? There are plenty of examples throughout sports of kids who just can't handle the pressures of the next level - Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Michael Beasley, etc. etc.
- Was Darko really what everybody thought he was going into the 2003 NBA Draft? In the cases of Ryan Leaf and Michael Beasley, there's no question these kids had tremendous talent and had both displayed it at the highest levels of collegiate athletics, they just fell into the shadows of the spotlight.
- How is one supposed to differentiate between the next Darko and the next Dirk [Nowitzki]?
The answer to most of the aforementioned questions comes down to one factor - maturity. By-in-large, the kids who go from tremendous potential to massive production in professional athletics are the ones that exhibit a high level of personal maturity - the willingness to learn, the patience / understanding to 'ride-the-pine', and most importantly, the ability to surround themselves with people / mentors that are going to make sure that they don't get caught up in the pitfalls of professional sports.
He's Not the Last One
There will undoubtedly be many more Darko's in the years to come in all major sports. After all, one of the best recipes for implosion is youth, hype, and money - the mentality bestowed upon these kids of "you can do no wrong and here's millions of dollars to prove it". The NFL seems to be placing increased scrutiny on character and intelligence (e.g., the "Wonderlic" test). However, everybody is continually drawn to the kid with a lot of raw potential in the slim hopes that he turns into the next Kobe Bryant, which means that many are destined to be the "next Darko". However, if scouts look deep and are honest to themselves, they'll understand that there were dozens of reasons why Kobe became Kobe, none of which were related to his undeniable talent, extraordinary potential and physical attributes.
- T.C. Schiller