View Full Version : About the Lack of Good Centers:ESPN Insider

12-16-2002, 09:06 PM
Mavskiki brought up the fact that this is a horrible time to find good NBA centers and I hoped he would start a thread on it. I just happened to be reading this article from ESPN Insider and thought it might be of some interest to everyone.

Coming out of the Darko
by Chad Ford
Monday, December 16 Updated 3:57 PM EST

Editors Note: NBA Insider Chad Ford is traveling through Eastern Europe this week with NBA international scouting guru Tony Ronzone. Together, they're checking out some of the top European prospects for the 2003 NBA Draft. Ford will file a journal each day this week.

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- It's 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night. Much of the U.S. is tuning in breathlessly to the first national broadcast on ESPN2 of a LeBron James high school basketball game. The general public is learning what NBA scouts and I have known for the last couple of years -- James is a phenom. A freak of nature. The type of kid that comes along once a decade. The total package.

Darko Milicic, 17, is seven feet tall and has a full complement of skills. It's not news. Had he come out last year, as a high school junior, chances are he seriously would have challenged Yao Ming to be the top pick in the draft. This year he's the undisputed No. 1 pick. NBA teams are tanking games as we speak to get their hands on him.

While Dick Vitale and Bill Walton are flinging shout outs LeBron's way, I'm on a Delta Airlines flight from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany. LeBron may be that once in a decade pick. But the growing trend has the NBA shying away from American kids all together. More NBA teams than ever are scouting Europe at an unprecedented rate. Agents are infiltrating the deepest reaches of the former Eastern Bloc looking for the next Nowitzki or Gasol.

Anyone with pay-per-view or a coach-class ticket to Cleveland can catch LeBron drop 30 and 10 on some scared high school kids. But 3,500 miles and six time zones away, 7-footers are practicing crossovers, centers are draining 3-pointers with blindfolds on, and another 17-year-old seven-footer named Darko Milicic stands ready to challenge James as the Next Big Thing in the NBA. He's not alone. James may be the answer for one lucky team looking for the next Kobe or T-Mac. But Yugoslavia stands poised to almost single- handedly fill in the dearth of big men in the NBA.

The trick is getting there to scout the talent. Armed with a notepad, an economy-size pack of Dramamine and the NBA's top international scout, Tony Ronzone, I'm headed for Belgrade to give you unprecedented access to the breeding ground of some of the world's most talented players.

DEC. 12-13: THE TRIP

Twenty-four hours. That's exactly how long it takes to get to my hotel in Belgrade from my doorstep in Bristol, Conn. Now you understand why NBA GMs are so reluctant to make the trip to Belgrade. It is a hike, no matter where you're coming from. The U.S. is still haggling with Yugoslavia over sanctions and doesn't have any direct flights into Belgrade. Most people fly into Frankfurt and hop on Yugoslavia's own airline, JAT. Considering there's only one flight a day, you become intimately familiar with Frankfurt International.

If that doesn't deter travelers, Belgrade's dangerous reputation normally does. It hasn't been that long since the U.S., along with NATO, was dropping bombs on Yugoslavia's capital in an attempt to end the Kosovo crisis. Serbs have long memories, and Ronzone relates that until recently Americans haven't been welcome here. Ronzone once snuck into the country without a visa just to see some players. That's crazy.

The signs of a war are scattered like leaves throughout the city. I can look out the window from my hotel and see the country's main communications tower still in rubble. It was among the first buildings we bombed in the campaign. Serbs took deep offense at the action, since the building is in the heart of a city populated by almost three million people. The exoskeleton of the building still stands. I ask my driver about it. Is there no money to rebuild it?

"No," he responds. "We have rebuilt it."

Then why do the remains of the building still stand in the heart of Belgrade?

"To remember," he says. "Serbs always remember."

I shut up after that. But, I really had no reason to fear. Mention the NBA or ESPN to Yugoslavians and their eyes brighten up. They are among the most avid basketball fans in the world.

By the time Ronzone and I arrived, word already had spread through town, thanks to a local newspaper writer who was waiting for us at the airport, that Tony and I were coming to Belgrade. Ronzone is a legend in these parts, and teams and agents line up for the chance to escort him through the country. We were met at the airport by Djordje Matic, a basketball writer for Glas Javnosti, a leading paper and sports information web site in Belgrade. Matic had read in Insider last week that I was coming with Ronzone, and word spread fast. According to Matic, who had come to the airport hoping for an interview, many of the basketball people in Yugoslavia are fanatical readers of Insider. Local sportswriters translate my column into Serbian each day. American sportswriters don't really come to Yugoslavia, so apparently the trip was a big deal to the people there. I couldn't believe how many people here knew who we were.

The first night, Ronzone and I wandered the streets next to the Danube river. River boats filled with young Serbs pulsated with a surreal combination of techno beats and traditional "gypsy" music (their word, not mine). Despite the troubles over the last 15 years, the Serbian youth are remarkably resilient. They love life and appear to be living it to the fullest. The party was still going at 4 a.m. On the way home, I begin noticing the young people. They are huge. The men, the women and the children. I'm 6-foot-2, and many of the young women I saw that night were looking me square in the eye. Most of the young men were much taller. You wonder why Eastern European countries keep producing these 7-foot phenoms when all we can produce is Eddy Curry and Chris Marcus? The proof is in the genetics. One scout tells me later that Montenegro, part of the Yugoslavian republic, has, statistically, the tallest people in the world. Tomorrow I'm going to find out why.


11 a.m. Within hours of landing in Belgrade, a tip from a local talent scout leads us to a rundown gym in the heart of Beograd. Rumor had it a 15-year-old, 7-foot-1 kid who is supposed to be the next great Yugoslavian big man would be there. The kid plays for a Yugoslavian junior team, and we were about to catch a rare sight for a scout's eyes -- a junior game between two of Yugoslavia's best two programs -- Partizan and Red Star. The junior teams in Yugoslavia are similar to JV teams in high school. The squad is used to develop young players for the senior squad. Several top prospects are "buried" there until they are ready to contribute to the senior team.

Two years ago, Darko Milicic dominated the junior league so thoroughly he was brought up to the senior team at the unprecedented age of 16.

The scene at the gym is reminiscent of anything you'd catch at a playground in New York City. Graffiti litters the walls of the dilapidated gym. Kids shoot baskets outside through hoops with no nets. Metal bars line every window. The gym is surrounded on each side by Belgrade's toughest housing projects. Broken-down cars line the sides of the road. Wary eyes watch our every move as we pull up to the gym.

"Welcome to the ghetto," a man says to us in broken English.

When we open the door, we're blasted by an unfamiliar, but pungent smell. The Yugoslavians, for the most part, are chain smokers. The musty aroma of a crowded gym mixes with cigarette smoke and billows through the doors as we walk inside. Yugoslavian men line the wall on one side. There is only room for 30 or so people to watch the game from a small area behind the bench. The rest spill onto the court. Ronzone and I are greeted by the former coach of Partizan, who ushers us onto the court. Ronzone and I stand in the far corner, our feet literally touching the international three point line. There are no sidelines. We, like many others, are literally standing on the court as the two teams played.

The court itself is a wreck. Green floors haven't been painted in years. There is no heat to speak of in the gym. The side walls are made of crumbling brick. The padding that is so common underneath each basket has long been torn away, exposing metal bars and unused hooks ready to impale or bludgeon anyone who goes hard to the basket out of control. The scoreboard is impossibly small. In the tiny enclosure, the crowd noise sounds as if we had stepped into Arco Arena, except not many fans in Scramento yell in Serbian.

But when we walk in, the room grows unusually quiet. The silence lasts just a moment, but it is palpable. So is the look on many faces. I felt for a minute like we were in Rocky III, walking with Apollo Creed into an inner city gym in Los Angeles and feeling the fighters' pause and fix us with that fierce gaze, just for a few seconds. That's the only way I can describe the scene. It was the eye of the tiger. These kids were hungry. And they immediately recognized that something foreign had intruded on their isolated world.

The kids, all 15, 16 and 17 years old, are huge. There are 6-4 point guards dishing to 6-11 three-men. Seven-footers are jockeying for position in the post. The kids are too big to play there. They look like NBA greats playing on an elementary school gym. None of them is old enough to grow facial hair. All of them have games far beyond what we see from U.S. teenagers.

The play is unbelievable. The kids, all 15, 16 and 17 years old, are huge. There are 6-4 point guards dishing to 6-11 three-men. Seven-footers are jockeying for position in the post. The kids are too big to play there. They look like NBA greats playing on an elementary school gym. None of them is old enough to grow facial hair. All of them have games far beyond what we see from U.S. teenagers. Ronzone jokes that nine out of the starting 10 could earn scholarships to any Division I college in the country.

The 7-foot-1 kid we've heard about, Pedja Samardziski, is dominating on both ends of the court. He rebounds in traffic, makes precision passes out of the double teams, shows footwork that would put most NBA big men to shame and then spots up for a 3 when the game is winding down and his team is trailing. Most impressive is the kid's body. He isn't thin as a rail, like Nikoloz Tskitishvili. His shoulders are huge, and he has a nice center of gravity that allows him to wear down his defender in the post. It's hard to believe that if this kid lived in the U.S., he'd be only a sophomore in high school right now.

On the same Partizan team is another kid who recently signed with Marc Cornstein, Milicic's agent. His name is Vladimir Mijovic, a 17-year-old small forward who is 6-9 with a 7-foot-2 wing span and a polished perimeter game. Mijovic, like so many European big men, likes to bring the ball up the court, is aggressive putting it on the floor and is a dead eye from beyond the arc.

The trademarks of Yugoslavian basketball were all present, even on the junior team. The kids rarely missed an open jumper, and every player on the court could see the floor and make the correct pass.

After the game, men in thick black leather smoked, spoke of the young players they'd seen, and bragged about a 15-year-old, 6-foot-3 point guard, Milos Teodosic, whom they claimed was the top playmaker in Europe. Period.

That was all I needed to hear. "Let's go see him," I tell Ronzone. He smiles and starts talking to some of his contacts. Teodosic plays for the junior national team and was holed away in a small campus about three hours from Beograd. We don't have time to go. In a few hours we're leaving for a small town called Vrsac, where the young Darko Milicic is making a bid to become the highest-drafted European in NBA history.

5:30 p.m. The drive to Vrsac, a small town of 30,000 in the middle of Nowhere, Yugoslavia, is a treacherous hike. A snow storm is moving in, and we decided to leave early to make it in time for warm-ups. The road has a single lane, no lighting and, for most of the trip, shows no signs of noticeable life. Ronzone's cell phone isn't working here, and we wonder aloud, after several close calls, whether ESPN or the Pistons would send a search and rescue team to find us if we disappeared in a ditch.

The weather is icy. Our conversation turns to the medical possibility of reviving people who have been frozen into a block of ice. Needless to say the 50 mile drive takes us two hours, but we arrive just in time to watch Milicic warm up.

7:30 p.m. We run into Bucks assistant GM Larry Harris as we walk into the arena. Harris, the son of Mavs assistant coach Del Harris, is just finishing up a pretty intensive scouting trip that took him to Turkey, Greece, Poland and Split Croatia. This is his first chance to see Milicic live. A scout from the Sonics and an independent scout who does work for the Hornets, Nets, Pacers, Heat and Magic also are in attendance.

Milicic (7-0, 245 pounds) may be the prize tonight, but his team, KK Hemofarm, is playing BC Buducnost, which also has several major prospects on the roster. In addition to Darko, scouts are watching lithe 6-11 forward Zarko Cabarkapa, and 7-6 big man Slavko Vranes (pronounded Vran-ich).

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 walks onto the floor and gets a warm reception, but it's clear that most of the fans here don't know just how good he is. His coach doesn't run plays for him, his guards dominate the scoring, and Milicic spends most of his time setting cross screens. The situation isn't that dissimilar to Yao Ming's role on the Chinese national team. Coaches in Yugoslavia love control, and Milicic has been largely a victim of his own success.

Unlike the LeBron James spectacle going on in the U.S., Milicic's presence is severely understated. The media don't follow him or hang on his every word. Like everything else in Yugoslavian basketball, team comes before individual. Milicic's European agent, Dragan Delic, lets Darko know before the game that we're there to scout and do a big story on him. He shrugs and quickly gets about his business.

Milicic blocks a shot on the game's first possession. He then gets out on the break. Point guard Dijorde Djogo finds him in the post, and Milicic spins to the basket for an easy two. The next trip down, Milicic grabs a rebound in traffic on the defensive end, then battles for an offensive board back in the Hemofarm end. Within five minutes its clear why scouts are so enamored.

He's as tough as the Yugoslavian winter in the paint. Every time he touches the ball down low, he lowers his shoulder and takes it at his man. He's not afraid of contact. He has soft hands, understands when to pass the ball out of the double team, has a sweet jump hook, and plays aggressively at the defensive end. He hits several quick spin shots off the block, prompting one scout to proclaim that he hasn't seen that type of footwork out of a young big man since Tim Duncan. Milicic is in the zone.

At the end of the first quarter he has a dream stat line: eight points on 3 of 4 shooting, six boards, four blocks and three assists. And, as two scouts quickly add, zero mistakes. To make things even more enticing, consider this -- his team didn't run one play for him in the first quarter.

Milicic gets his first major challenge at the start of the second quarter. Buducnost subs in Vranes, a 7-foot-6 shot-blocking machine. Milicic tells me later that Vranes is the tallest player he's ever faced. It shows on the first possession when Vranes stuffs a quick Milicic turnaround in the paint. Here is where Darko proves himself. The next time down the floor, Milicic catches the ball in the same position on the block. Instead of trying the jumper, he puts the ball on the floor and blows by Vranes across the lane, sinks the lay-up and gets the foul.

See how he adjusted in just one series? It takes some of our young kids years to figure that out. It took him one play.
NBA Scout, watching Darko Milicic
"See how he adjusted in just one series?" one scout whispers into my ear. "It takes some of our young kids years to figure that out. It took him one play." Milicic seems intent on destroying Vranes after the play. His teammates are still ignoring him, but Milicic keeps finding a way to get the ball. Everytime he touches it, something good happens. He takes the ball on the baseline, fakes out Vranes and dunks the ball with surprising authority.

As he walks back up the court, he waves his hands in the air in an attempt to get the crowd into the game. He plays with a passion that had every scout smiling. It's not easy to find big kids these days who actually love to play the game. Too many have been forced into basketball based on size alone. Milicic cares, and many feel that's the difference for him. His passion will drive him to keep improving.

By the end of the half, Milicic has 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. When he leaves the game, his team is up 42-22.

Milicic gets off to a slow start in the second half. A calf injury sustained midway through the second quarter is bothering him. He has several turnovers, and midway through the third quarter he takes a 3-pointer. That's a no-no with his coach, Lukajic Zeljko, who has been trying to ween Milicic off his perimeter game this year. Milicic reveals later that he often played point guard for the junior team. Zeljko wants him focusing on his low-post skills, even though several players concede that he may be the best 3-point shooter on the team. Milicic picks up his fourth foul moments later, and his coach pulls him. Hemofarm is never seriously challenged the rest of the game, and Milicic never gets back in.

Vranes has a few shining moments without Milicic in the game. He's very coordinated for his size, and like Yao, he has a lot more meat on him than Shawn Bradley. But his offensive game is very limited, and he isn't the shot-blocking factor Milicic is on the defensive end. His agent is considering putting him in the draft, but he won't be ready to play for a few more years. Of course, when has that stopped teams from drafting a kid, especially one who might stand 7-foot-7 in shoes?

The other top prospect, Carbakapa, doesn't have the same karma as Milicic. He struggled, especially in the first half, to find his game. His outside jumper wasn't going in. He had more luck, especially in the second half, putting the ball on the floor and taking it to the basket. One scout found that to be an encouraging sign. The last time he saw Carbakapa play, he felt that he relied too much on his perimeter game.

Carbakapa's flaw, and it's a big one, is on the defensive end. He was absolutely abused in just about every situation. At one point, his defensive lapses earn him a derisive glare from one his teammates. Carbakapa shrugs his shoulders and marches back down the court. He ends the game with 13 points, but most of the observers agreed that it wasn't an impressive performance. You can't and shouldn't judge a guy on one game, but unfortunately for many NBA teams, that's what they have to do. They can't be at every Budocnost game. Bad impressions sometimes stick.

After the game, the crowd doesn't leave the arena. Instead, it files into the lobby to watch the waning minutes of Red Star's game versus Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is one of the top teams in the Euroleague this year, and Red Star, behind the play of former Ohio State star Scoonie Penn (Scoonie Penna to the Yugoslavians), is poised to pull a major upset. The crowd in the lobby is cheering wildly for Red Star. It takes another 30 minutes before we can actually go home and get to sleep -- with dreams of Milicic still dancing in our heads.

12-16-2002, 09:44 PM
Excellent article. The NBA is going to change so much with the European influence over the next 3-4 years, it should be exciting to watch.

12-16-2002, 11:18 PM
Great read, thanks for posting it.