Myth: Detroit Pistons picking Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony with the No. 2 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft was an avoidable blunder
Welcome to Myth Week at PistonPowered. This is the first in a five-part series of posts addressing what we see as myths involving the Detroit Pistons.
I firmly believe most teams in the NBA would have drafted Darko Milicic with the second pick in the 2003 NBA draft. In fact, although I’m less sure of this, I believe every team would have taken Darko second.
Of course, Darko was a tremendous bust. The three players taken after him – Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade – are stars. Those are facts I won’t dispute.
But it’s not fair to blame the Pistons for picking Darko. They were just the team unfortunate enough to land the No. 2 pick.
Not an unknown
Too many people think Darko was a late riser, who overtook Melo with a couple dazzling workouts. That wasn’t the case.
Yes, Darko wowed in his individual workouts, but that only confirmed what everyone already (thought they) knew. Darko was the second best player in the draft behind LeBron James.
Sports Illustrated first mentioned Darko on Dec. 23, 2002. The magazine wrote:
One scout counted at least 10 times that James failed to get back on defense. Added one G.M., "You have to worry that his sense of entitlement is so great after being spoiled by the AAU system, the agents and all the publicity."
There are no such worries about the potential No. 2 pick, Darko Milicic of Yugoslavia, who sleeps on a pullout bed, is warmed by a space heater and earns approximately $20,000 for the small club Hemofarm. A 7-foot lefthander with size-18 feet, Milicic can do it all—score inside and outside, run the floor, pass and block shots.
Tim Leyden wrote an article on Melo in the same issue, but it made no mention of the Syracuse forward’s draft position. Rather, the story hit on the uncertainty of the freshman’s place in basketball.
It wasn’t until March 31, 2003 that a scout declared Melo’s draft position had solidified:
He’s going to be the Number 3 pick in the draft [after LeBron James and Darko Milicic] because he’s a throwback guy with the skills to play multiple positions.
LeBron was the consensus No. 1 pick since his junior year of high school. Darko became the consensus No. 2 the winter before the draft (and important to note in this timeline, before Detroit “won” the second pick in the lottery). Carmelo solidified his No. 3 spot in the spring, on the way to leading Syracuse to a national title. During the pre-draft process, Chris Bosh set himself apart as the fourth-best player in the draft. The real mystery began with the Heat’s fifth pick.
And I don’t think any of that would have changed – no matter which teams had the first four picks.
Obviously, no player is a sure thing. But calling Darko the high-risk, high-reward pick and Melo the safe pick can only be done with the befit of hindsight – or a lack of understanding of the draft at the time.
Let’s start with the latter.
When the Pistons landed the No. 2 pick in the lottery, many fans assumed they would take Anthony, the player who had just spent a season dominating the college game. But those fans thought that way because they had never heard of Darko.
Darko wasn’t playing on national television. He wasn’t carrying a well-known Syracuse team to six wins in March. He wasn’t written about in newspapers across the U.S.
So, most of those fans who wanted Melo at the time felt that way because they didn’t know Darko. Melo was a safe pick because they knew him. Darko was risky because they didn’t.
But NBA teams knew Darko, which leads us to the problem with using hindsight.
At the time, Europe was seen as the place to find polished players. Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had recently entered the NBA ready to compete after earning their stripes playing against older competition abroad. The 2003 draft probably ended that line of thinking, and the notion had begun to unravel beforehand – but not completely. Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated:
But several years of fishing by the NBA has depleted the talent pool. Other than 7-foot Darko Milicic, an 18-year-old from Serbia-Montenegro who will probably be one of the top three picks, there is no player overseas perceived as a safe choice.
Thomsen wasn’t the only one smitten with Darko’s apparent ability to make an immediate impact. ESPN’s Chad Ford:
Darko is really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots the NBA 3 and plays with his back to the basket, so you can slot him in at the 3, 4 or 5 positions. OK, a few other guys can do that too; what sets Darko apart is his toughness in the post. You have to love a guy who has the footwork to spin by an opponent but still prefers to lower a shoulder and bang. Fact is, Milicic plays in attack-mode at both ends of the floor. The more you push, the more he pushes back. While he won’t be asked to carry the Pistons, he’s capable of doing this earlier than you think.
Ford also wrote an entire article full of Will Robinson praises for Darko. Among them:
"He’s going to own the game. Own the game," Robinsons exclaims. "We’re going to have to build a new arena. The only thing that could destroy a kid like that is a woman."
"I’ve seen a lot of kids come through here in my day," Robinson says. "And none of them have ever played like that. That kid’s going to be a star. He’s a 7-footer that plays like a point guard. That kid’s something special."
Yes it is. Like just about anything else Robinson says, it’s awfully hard to argue with 92 years of experience.
In a league that can be swayed by the whims of trends and fleeting success stories, it’s nice to have an anchor that keeps the ship from straying too far beyond shore.
Will Robinson is sold on Darko Milicic. The question, for the unbelievers still out there, is why aren’t you?
Like I stated above, I think the first for picks would have been LeBron-Darko-Melo-Bosh no matter which teams had them. But that doesn’t mean everything was certain at the time – and I don’t mean just according to the uneducated “The Pistons have to take Melo because I’ve heard of him, and not this Dorko guy” fans.
"He has the makings of the most dominant center in Europe since Arvydas Sabonis," says an NBA scout who isn’t sure that James should be picked ahead of Milicic.
And as much as I’ve been pumping up Darko, it’s not like Melo was perfect. ESPN’s Jay Bilas found a couple faults:
“does not blow by people off the dribble and is suspect defensively.”
In fact, the Nuggets actually toyed with the idea of taking Pavel Podkolzine, according to both ESPN’s Andy Katz and Chad Ford. Ford:
After Pavel Podkolzine’s unbelievable workout in Chicago, a few were quietly whispering that Nuggets’ GM Kiki Vandeweghe might grab the 7-foot-4 Siberian.
If Anthony were such a sure thing, that never would have happened. Clearly, the Nuggets had some pause for the same reasons the Pistons knew they didn’t want Melo over Darko.
The Tayshaun Prince factor – or lack there of
I don’t believe the Pistons having Tayshaun Prince had anything to do with their decision to pass on Anthony.
As I’ve detailed above, I think the reason was solely based on Darko being seen as the best player available.
But the Pistons have never seemed bothered by letting their rookies sit on the bench, anyway. Larry Brown was coaching them at this point, after all.
If Dumars thought Melo was better than Darko but not as good as Prince, the Pistons would have drafted Melo and played him behind Prince.
In fact, they did something similar with Darko. The Pistons signed Elden Campbell that summer, and he started. Mehmet Okur was the backup, and Darko was out of the rotation.
The Pistons also traded for Rasheed Wallace that season, but you could argue they only did that after they knew what they had in Darko.
Either way, the Pistons didn’t shy away from Darko because they already had a crowded frontcourt. So, I doubt they would have passed on Anthony only because they believe they were set at small forward.
What went wrong
Darko was a colossal bust. I’m not sure whether the pre-draft reports of his humble attitude and mean streak were exaggerated or he lost his edge in America, but he never showed those traits in Detroit.
The big question I have whenever a draft picks fails is whether it could have been avoided. In this case, I think the answer is a resounding no. Although the Pistons could have picked Melo, Wade or Bosh, that would have gone against the very strong conventional wisdom of the time.
Blame chance for the Pistons getting stuck with the No. 2 pick in a 1-3-4-5 draft. But don’t use hindsight to blame them for picking Darko.
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