Pistons' project center 'just needs to play'

LAS VEGAS -- It wasn't quite Darko Unleashed.

It wasn't even Atlanta-in-April Darko.

It was 28 tedious minutes of offensive struggle against a couple no-hopers named Harold Jamison and Brandon Kurtz, and it left little doubt why the Detroit Pistons have been so desperate to get Darko Milicic onto their summer-league roster.

"The poor kid ... he just needs to play," said Pistons assistant coach Dave Hanners.

It finally happened Friday, at the third attempt. A protracted contract wrangle made Milicic unavailable to the Pistons in the months before his rookie season. A stint on the 2004 summer squad was aborted when a Brian Cook swipe left Milicic with a broken hand in the final ticks of a Finals-clinching victory over the Lakers. Only now, after two seasons of Darko's virtual inactivity, are the perennial title contenders getting a chance to focus their off-season program on the development of their 7-foot gamble.

In the shadow of the Sin City strip, Milicic started at center in the Pistons' Vegas Summer League opener and submitted an unremarkable debut. Stat sheets in these settings are notoriously unreliable, but there was no disputing that Darko didn't come close to the 16 points he hung on the Hawks as a surprise starter in Game 81. In Detroit's 70-64 loss to a motley collection of Phoenix Suns summer-leaguers, Milicic managed just seven points and five boards.

The biggest hoop name playing this town was unable to wow the Cox Pavilion audience as a youngster of his stature normally might. Darko scored just two buckets, both coming in the second half and one fewer than the number of MILICIC 31 jerseys spotted in the crowd. The first was a nifty little driving banker with his right hand after a rare burst of aggressiveness. The other was an uncontested follow.

We'd love to describe more for you, but there really wasn't more to describe. The kid often seen moping in public, his confidence unquestionably beaten down by a role of insignificance on an NBA powerhouse, still looks a long way from lively.

"I didn't play for two years," Milicic said. "It's not easy right now, first time, but it's going to get better."

The Pistons believe it, too. They still swear by the kid and, as president Joe Dumars reminds, Milicic was drafted for another season or two down the road, no matter what anybody thinks.

The first step, though, is playing harder, and Milicic has plenty of room there. The Pistons weren't expecting any sort of statistical eruption Friday, but they were certainly hoping for more. More activity chasing rebounds. More determination to fight for post position.

The Pistons, in short, want to start seeing him play with a hunger in the vicinity of Detroit's newest No. 1 pick. Jason Maxiell, taken No. 26 overall late last month, inflicted a small head wound on the Suns' Mindaugas Katelynas with his aggression in the first quarter and bulled his way to the rim for 16 points.

"He's going to make some mistakes," Hanners said of Milicic. "He's not going to look great all the time. He needs to get in better shape."

But ...

"Part of his confidence problem is that he hasn't ever had any reps doing things," continued Hanners, who's coaching the Pistons here while Larry Brown's future with the club remains unresolved.

"The only way you get that good feeling about yourself is you get in games and you make plays. Good plays or bad plays. He hasn't had the opportunity to do that. He just needs to get in games and play."

He'll have that golden opportunity in Vegas. The Pistons have four more games at Cox before Milicic proceeds to a Serbian national team camp that could result in a roster spot for the prestigious European Championships. If he doesn't make the senior national team, this week becomes even more important.

Not that Dumars is getting caught up in any urgency talk. He knows that drafting Darko ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade is still met with widespread disbelief. He also refuses to budge from the belief that it's a wonderful luxury to have a long-limbed prospect like Milicic on the roster while your team is winning one championship and going to Game 7 of the following Finals.

"We've done what we said we'd do -- make the NBA Finals and develop him at the same time," Dumars said. "We have developed him and we have not compromised what we needed to do as a team. And we expect him to keep getting better and better."

Said Hanners: "With the guys we have on our team, where's [Milicic] gonna play? There's not anybody that's been [drafted recently] that would play ahead of [Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess]."

It's likewise true that Milicic only just turned 20. He's still, as Hanners described, one of the most skilled young big men you could ever wish see, and to say Milicic has done nothing in America is to ignore how noticeably his 7-foot, 245-pound frame is filling out.

"He can pass, shoot and dribble better than any kid his size [and] his age," Hanners said.

Darko has another week in Vegas to give us a few glimpses of those talents. Another week or so before returning to Europe, followed by the long wait until October for a far bigger spectacle than summer league.

October is when we find out how Darko will react if Brown is still with the Pistons when training camp starts.

Or would a new coach mean a new Darko, too?

"He's the greatest coach in the NBA," Milicic insisted. "He's helped me a lot the last two years. I've got nothing [against] him.

"If he leaves, you never know who's gonna come after him. Whoever's going to be [the] coach for me, [it] doesn't matter."

Whether or not you're buying that diplomatic answer, it meant that Milicic could go into Saturday's test against the makeshift Denver Nuggets having flashed at least one veteran move.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.