Darko Milicic settling in with Celtics
Well-traveled big man won't live up to draft hype, but faces no pressure in Boston
WALTHAM, Mass. -- No expectations.
That's what Celtics coach Doc Rivers had when Boston inked veteran big man Darko Milicic this offseason. And it's also what Rivers wants Milicic to operate with after a nine-year NBA career that's been weighed down by his lofty draft position.
"I think he has a good support system here, everybody supports him, they're not asking him to go out and be [Kareem Abdul-]Jabbar," Rivers said of the former No. 2 overall pick, who was sandwiched between LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft (a top 5 that also included Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade). "We're just asking him to help us win basketball games, and I think that's helped him."
In two games as part of Boston's preseason trip to Europe, Milicic averaged 2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 1.5 assists over 17.5 minutes per game while serving as the top reserve at the center position.
By the time the Celtics returned stateside earlier this week, Rivers proclaimed that Milicic could spend time as a starter at the center position early in the season in order to limit the wear and tear on Kevin Garnett.
Needless to say, if there were expectations for Milicic, he's overachieved to this early checkpoint.
"I'm going to do my best," said Milicic. "Whatever it takes, I'm going to do it. Whatever the coach tells me to do, I'm going to do it. I know what my job is, and I'm not looking to go crazy on offense. I know what my job is, and I'm going to do my job."
Milicic said before camp that he's no longer trying to justify his draft status, noting that he'd have to average 100 points and 50 rebounds per game to catch up with the exploits of James and Wade.
Still just 27 years old, he's at peace with being an NBA role player, particularly on a championship-caliber team.
"It's great being around these guys, it's team spirit," said Milicic. "The guys are great, trying to make me feel good from the first day that I came here. [It's a] championship team, you can feel it from the first day. ... I'm just here to play basketball. We're all here for one reason: to win a championship."
Later Milicic added: "From the first day, I could feel a championship spirit. Everyone wants to win. And from the first day they tried to make me feel like I'm home. Great, great, great group of guys. Since Detroit, I haven't played with guys who want to win this much, and they're all in, 100 percent, as a team. So, it's great playing with these guys. Playing with these guys, you get a confidence. When you play on some [expletive]-up team, you don't get it."
Milicic was likely referring to Minnesota, which utilized its amnesty provision this summer to shed the final two years -- and as much as $11 million -- left on his contract. The Timberwolves had splurged on him two summers before with a four-year, $20 million deal and Milicic responded with a solid 2010-11 campaign (career-high 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds over 24.4 minutes per game). Then things went sour last season after he got injured, culminating with his coach questioning his conditioning and drive during the season.
The Celtics are well aware that Milicic has potential, but also realize that no one has consistently been able to get it out of him. The red flags don't scare them away, particularly with a player on a low-risk, veteran-minimum deal.
In Boston, it's a clean slate for Milicic. No expectations, even after a strong start.
"I don't know if I was surprised or not [by his play so far]. Honestly, I didn't know Darko," said Rivers. "But I like what he's doing for us. He's doing everything we've asked him and even doing a little bit more. I'm happy, let's put it that way."
What can Milicic do to help the Celtics this season?
"Rebound, be a great passer, be a big body," said Rivers. "Basically that's it. It's a simple role, but it's a hard role. I think he's been great, his conditioning is still -- the whole team, in my opinion, the conditioning has to improve, so we're working on that over the last couple days. Darko's just one of those, but other than that, he's doing everything.
"He picks up stuff extremely quick. His passing ability when he's on the floor with Kevin [Garnett], that makes us a pretty good passing team."
But five other teams have seen the potential and failed to get it out. Can that really change in Boston?
"We'll find that out, but I think the only difference is we're not asking him to be a superstar; we want him to be a superstar in his role," said Rivers. "And if he does that, then that's great for us, that makes us a winning team."
One thing that's helped Milicic settle in is his subtle humor. His use of expletives -- particularly in the context that he does -- might be enough to make Garnett blush (OK, probably not).
Asked Thursday if he had fun on the Europe trip, the Serbia native responded: "No. We had to stop in [expletive] Iceland to refuel. That was terrible. I mean, especially that I came from there [Europe]. I lived there, so I came from there five or six days before, and then came back again. Switched those time zones two times, I mean, I don't even know what is day or night, or what day, what year. I mean, we're all tired, but especially me, kind of changing the time zones and coming back again. But, I'm adjusting right now."
Ask Milicic how he's feeling and he's likely to respond that he's feeling "strong as [expletive]," something he reaffirmed to reporters Thursday. Teammates say it's not just a line.
"One thing that surprised me right off the top was his toughness," said Jason Terry. "He's physically and mentally as tough as they come. You've seen his strength throughout this training camp. He's going inside, banging with the bigs -- the last game he had several key blocked shots. I think he's a much tougher player than what everybody thought of him coming in."
He's also very quiet, allowing a 7-footer to somehow blend in with the scenery on a team with larger-than-life personalities.
"He's still very quiet," admitted Terry. "But, off the court, in Italy, we were able to bond as a team and he was there. If we hung out and ate dinner, he was with us. At practice, after practice, joking around, he's with us."
The Celtics have big expectations. Milicic can help Boston reach them, so long as he avoids putting expectations on himself.