It’s one of the best draft classes ever with one of the biggest draft busts. 2003 will always be the LeBron James draft, but right after The King, the first guy that often comes to mind isn’t Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony – it’s Darko Miličić.
Darko’s story has been told many times. It was a perfect storm of wrong place-wrong time. The early 2000s were marked with “let’s go find out Dirk” mentality. The NBA realized international players were undervalued, and suddenly being foreign was a plus, not a minus. Find the next Dirk, and your job is safe for a decade.
Still, when a historically great draft class happens, half of your job is done for you. LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh, and Wade are obvious top 4 picks. No1 is easiest; you get Lebron. No.4 second easiest, just get the guy that’s left on the board. No.2 and 3 depend on preference, small details decide. It sucked to be no.5, and Pat Riley knew it. Then the Pistons gave him the best gift he ever got. They picked Darko Miličić. How did this happen?
Darko had arrived in NYC on May 22 and wanted to get some shots up that very night. His agent found him a gym in Manhattan, and they started to work out. A curtain away, literally a curtain between them, the Detroit Pistons were having a workout ahead of their playoff match with the Nets. Quickly, the Pistons realize who’s on the other side and go over to see him. By that time, only Tony Ronzoni, the Pistons international scout, had actually seen Miličić play.
“The practice shuts down; everybody walks over to the other court and Tony Ronzoni – they probably violated a million NBA rules on this – gets on the court with him and starts putting Darko through a workout, after he’d just got off the plane. With the Pistons players there, coaches there, Dumars there. This is what sealed Darko with the no.2 pick in the Draft. He was unconscious. He was shooting threes; he was dunking the ball, playing with great energy. Everybody fell in love with Darko that night.”Chad Ford, The Bill Simmons podcast
Remember Detroit practicing for a playoff game? You’re probably wondering, ‘How the hell were they in the lottery then?’ Well, one of the craziest outcomes in Draft Lottery history, that’s how. Due to a trade for a 35-year-old Otis Thorpe in ’97, Memphis would keep their pick only if it were no.1. Otherwise, the Pistons had it. The Grizzlies had the 6th best odds in the lottery, so the Pistons were counting players in that range – that’s why their scouts were following Darko in Serbia.
Suddenly, the pick jumped, and the Pistons had the second overall pick in one of the best draft classes in NBA history. Everyone already saw Carmelo in Detroit. But the Pistons had just seen Darko workout and were enamored with the young Serb. Chad Ford was with Darko and his agent watching the lottery.
“When the Pistons get the second pick in the draft, Cornstein’s [Darko’s agent] phone is ringing off the hook. He’s got three cellphones, and they’re all ringing. John Hammond, the assistant GM from Detroit, calls Mark. Mark’s so busy he hands the phone to me, and here’s John Hammond on the other line saying ‘We’re so excited, we’re gonna draft Darko, we love him, we can’t wait to work with you,’ and I’m like ‘This is Chad Ford from ESPN,’ and Mark is like ‘THAT’S OFF THE RECORD.’”Chad Ford, The Bill Simmons podcast
After the Pistons’ playoff game against the Nets, Ford went up to Joe Dumars’ suite with John Hammond and saw them crafting the plan to pick Darko. That’s why Ford was so confident when reporting Detroit will pick Darko Miličić.
This story is one of the reasons NBA front offices don’t put so much weight in the workout anymore. It’s not that they don’t value it at all, but being around the guy, and just feeling his character out is more important than 20 minutes on the court.
The Pistons thought they had the next Dirk, and selecting him over Carmelo, Bosh, and Wade would make them geniuses. It turned out to be the complete opposite. It’s not that Miličić wasn’t talented – he just wasn’t no.2 pick talented, particularly in that draft class. Darko probably would’ve had a good NBA career with less pressure and more time to mature as a person and a player.
Miličić is back in Serbia and seems at peace with his basketball biography. Carmelo and Wade recently mentioned him while drinking wine on IG live (as one does). Melo was particularly mature, pretending he didn’t know who Darko was. Miličić turned out to be the bigger man than Carmelo.
“When it comes to these kinds of comments, my story has been told. They made it; I didn’t. We’re not kids anymore, and I’d hope everyone was mature enough to know life has ups and downs. My advice to them would be, as I consider them to be good guys, not to judge and ridicule. Thank the Lord you didn’t have the path I did. As always, all the best and I congratulate them on their career. I wish them a lot of success and less judgment.”Darko Miličić, B92
Darko still has more rings than Carmelo. Take that for data.