Darko Milicic isn't used to visitors in the small, windswept town of Vrsac, Yugoslavia. The occasional NBA scout drifts into town on occasion, but even most of them wait until his team KK Hemofarm travels to Belgrade to play a team like Partizan.
"What are you doing here?" Milicic asks with a smile on his face.
Of course, he knows. Like most of Yugoslavia's young guard of elite players, he follows ESPN closer than many of his American counterparts.
"Shouldn't you be watching LeBron James?"
While the rest of the world tuned in breathlessly to the first national broadcast on ESPN2 of a LeBron James game, I was navigating through the snow and ice to get a peek at the kid many think will be the second player selected in this year's NBA draft.
Milicic, who is actually six months younger than LeBron, is trying to get his arms around the hype. "He's like Magic?" he asks. "Kind of," I respond. "Like Jordan?" he counters. "Sort of," I say. "What about Kobe," he says. "Maybe" is the best I can do.
The truth is, we still don't know what James is. He dominates high school competition like few ever have. But he's playing against boys every night. Kwame Brown was beating the stuffing out of boys like that a few years ago.
Milicic smiles even wider as I struggle to explain LeBron to him. He is rubbing a sore calf muscle. He's just hours removed from banging in the low post against a bigger, stronger 28-year-old defender.
"I play against men," he says matter of factly.
Then he drops the bomb. "So who do I remind you of?"
Uh-oh. Milicic had just dropped one his most impressive performances of the year against a Euroleague team.
Milicic scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked five shots and handed out three uncredited assists (they don't count assists the same way in Europe as they do in the U.S.) in just 15 minutes. He picked a good time to put on a masterpiece. Scouts from the Pistons, Sonics and Bucks were also in attendance.
Darko keeps pressing. He wants comparisons.
Milicic, who stands 7-foot and carries a solid 245 pounds, is tough to pin down. He's still too young to play for the national team, so he hasn't had much opportunity to work with Divac or Peja Stojakovic. He knows them and respects them, but he doesn't try to be them. He is his own player. Comparisons quickly escape him. Is he Gasol? No, he's much stronger. Is he Nowitzki? Again, he's stronger and a much more physical player. Maybe Sabonis? He laughs and puts his head in his hands.
So who exactly are you, Darko Milicic?
"I like Kevin Garnett," Milicic begins. "He plays like Yugoslavian players play, with heart."
The Garnett reference isn't surprising if you spend much time with any of the young European bigs. Vlade is the great grandfather. Peja is the father. They have paved the way. But Yugoslavians today don't just watch Kings games. They like the ferocity and versatility that Garnett displays on a nightly basis. They love a guy who scores 22 points, grabs 13 boards and still has time to dish out six assists.
European players, like most African-American players, are stuck with stereotypes. You know the code words. Skills, fundamentals, great feel for the game. Milicic is all of these things, but he's not only these things. He's fast, athletic and will dunk it in your face.
Right now, the NBA is still far from Milicic's mind. And it should be. The NBA has ruled that Milicic is ineligible for this year's draft. The league requires that international players be 18 years old before entering the draft. Milicic does turn 18 before the draft, but he'll miss the NBA's 45-day window to declare by three weeks. The league feels that makes him ineligible
Milicic's agent, Marc Cornstein, has been working for over a month trying to convince the NBA Players Association to file a collective bargaining agreement grievance. The NBPA had a conference call this week with its executive committee. While some in the association feel that they should take up the cause, the NBA veterans that make up the executive committee aren't so sure. Why open the floodgates to 17-year-olds, when so many veterans are losing their jobs?
If the NBA Players Association won't lead the fight, Milicic and Cornstein are probably out of luck. Milicic will have to wait until 2004 to get his shot at the NBA. He doesn't really grasp the political ramifications of such a move.
In America we've convinced ourselves that the NBA is a man's game. College is the game for kids. In Europe, it's different. Kids go pro at 14. Milicic has already traveled throughout Europe and Asia. He understands life on the road and lives in a world where only the strongest survive. He doesn't need to be coddled.
"I think I am ready," he said.
Darko isn't cocky, but he's definitely confident in his game. "The people from the NBA who come to see me think I'm ready," he said. "Why does David Stern not think I'm ready. He's hasn't seen me play."
Milicic quickly is becoming a big name in NBA circles, but he's still a relative unknown in Yugoslavia. Hemofarm doesn't get the same publicity as higher-profile Belgrade teams like Partizan and Red Star. Milicic's coach doesn't run plays for him, the guards dominate the scoring and Milicic spends most of his time setting cross screens. Coaches in Yugoslavia love control, and Milicic has been largely a victim of his own success.
These days, Milicic is just trying to keep his demanding coach happy. The restrictions on him clearly frustrate him. His coach has told him to quit shooting from beyond the arc. During one game, he took and made a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down. His coach pulled him from the floor during the next stop in action. Darko spent most of the remaining time on the end of the bench.
Milicic isn't complaining. "The coach is trying to make me a better player," he said. "He's trying to establish me as an inside player. He tells me the shots there are easier. He's right."
Milicic says he actually prefers to play in the paint, a rarity for Yugoslavians who usually thrive on the perimeter. He likes the contact, the jockeying for position and the footwork drills. But most of all, he likes to be a team player. Asked whether he preferred to shoot 3s or dunk, Milicic chooses neither.
"I like the assist," he said. "When I make a good assist, my coach is proud. He tells me that I see the floor very good. I want to help my teammates win."
Milicic trains between five and six hours every day. He shoots for at least an hour, works on his ball handling and lifts before he goes to bed each night.
It's that raw determination, coupled with a wealth of experience for a kid his age, that has NBA scouts and general managers drooling over Milicic.
"When you look at 17-year-old big men in the States, you're basically looking at kids trying to grow into their body," one NBA scout told ESPN.com. "They are so much bigger than the local competition that they just end up being lazy and dunking all of the time. Darko's biggest advantage is that he's played against players who are his equal or better for a long time. That's how players, especially big men, get better. LeBron lapped his competition sometime last year."
Unlike the Nuggets' Nikoloz Tskitishvili, the fifth overall pick last summer, Milicic is actually playing for his team. NBA scouts feel that he'll have a much smoother transition -- think Gasol -- than most young players.
But what really excites them is his mature low-post play. "More than Nowitzki, Gasol or even Divac, Darko has a nasty streak in him that will help him succeed in the post," a league executive said. "A lot of the Europeans are really threes in the pros. He'll be a true low-post player. His coach is doing us a huge favor by forcing him to develop those skills now. He already has moves that remind me of (Hakeem) Olajuwon in the post. Once we get a hold of him, the sky's the limit."
That is, if David Stern ever lets him come out and play.