Brown helping Darko turn on the lights
For Darko Milicic, working with Larry Brown has already been an enlightening experience.
Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Detroit Pistons.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- "Darko, get your hands up," new Detroit head coach Larry Brown yells at the No. 2 overall pick, Darko Milicic, during the Pistons' third day of training camp.
Darko gets his hands up in the post as second-year forward Mehmet Okur guards him.
"Darko, roll with the ball," Brown yells after Miliic pops instead of rolls on the pick and roll.
Brown runs the play again. This time, Darko rolls to perfection. He catches the ball, spins and then misses the layup. He grabs his shorts, bends over and shakes his head in disgust.
"Darko, don't quit," Brown yells. "Get a rebound. Don't give up on the play."
Milicic nods, wipes the sweat from his brow and goes back and tries again. This time, Darko spins away from his defender and hits a soft fadeaway.
"Darko, very good," Brown says with a smile.
The scene will play out for the next hour. Darko will hear his name at least 50 times and on virtually every play.
Tayshaun Prince, Okur and seven other players are on the floor with Milicic. But somehow, Brown only seems to see Darko.
The 18-year-old prodigy is learning from the master. Both of them are loving it.
Pistons president Joe Dumars watched from the sidelines with an even bigger grin across his face.
"This is the best thing that could've ever happened to Darko Milicic," Dumars said. "He doesn't know how lucky he is."
Dumars isn't just referring to the one-on-one instruction Darko is getting from arguably the best coach in the NBA. He's also alluding to the fact that, with veterans forced to miss the first few days of training camp, Milicic can make his mistakes outside the glare of the team veterans.
"First impressions are important," Dumars said. "If they see Darko all exhausted the first day, it leaves an impression. He's got five practices under his belt and has improved dramatically with each one. He'll be ready when the veterans come in (Friday)."
Ready for Ben Wallace? No one is ready for that, are they?
When practice is over, Milicic walks over, shakes hands and says unsolicited, "I'm exhausted." He pauses. Then adds, "And I love it."
Milicic does know how fortunate he is. Veterans Zeljko Rebraca and Okur have been telling him all week.
Last season, coach Rick Carlisle virtually ignored rookies like Okur and Prince. With Brown in town, the opposite is true. He appears almost obsessed with teaching them how to play the game.
"I've been here five days," Okur said, "and I've already learned many things. Coach Brown is making all of us better players. What's not to like?"
Dumars feels the same way. Respect, he claims, is the most important thing in a player-coach relationship. Dumars believes that every player on his team will end up respecting Brown.
"Players instinctively respond and gravitate to coaches who try to make you better," Dumars said. "I don't know many players who don't want to get better."
While Okur and Milicic are talking, Brown is on the court still teaching. This time, he has all of his assistants huddled together as he debates various post moves with his staff.
Early on, Milicic's biggest problem is conditioning. It's not that he underestimated how hard training camp would be. In Serbia, training camp consists of five, two-hour practices a day for 21 straight days. The regiment includes a brisk marathon through the forest every morning.
|“||I love him. Right now, he's a deer looking at the headlights, but he's so skilled. He listens to everything you say and is skilled enough to go out there and execute. ”|
|— Larry Brown on Darko Milicic|
"That's a real killer," he said with a smile. "This is easy compared to that."
The problem is that Milicic took the summer off to rest. He had played for over two years straight. Now he's paying the price.
After practice, a sore Darko is off to close on his first house. Early next week, he'll take a drivers test and soon be the proud owner of his first car -- a BMW X5 (he thinks). Everything is new to him. He is still adjusting to life in the NBA. He chose not to have someone from Serbia come live with him. He's on his own. That's the way he wanted it.
"I don't want any distractions," Milicic said. "Right now I just need to eat, sleep and be in the basketball gym."
Brown is excited to have such a willing student.
"I love him," Brown said. "Right now, he's a deer looking at the headlights, but he's so skilled. He listens to everything you say and is skilled enough to go out there and execute."
Brown says he's determined to ease Darko into the NBA this year. He'll have the luxury. With three other 7-footers on the roster, the Pistons are one of the few teams in the NBA that can afford to coddle their lottery pick.
"LeBron (James), Carmelo (Anthony) and (Dwyane) Wade are going to come in and contribute right away and people from the press are going to kill us for passing on someone like them," Brown said. "But the thing is, they're thrown into the deep end. They don't have time to be taught. Whatever they did in high school or college is what they are going to do in the NBA. With Darko, we have time to change the way he plays."
An NBA career is a marathon, not a sprint. After five days in camp, Darko Milicic is converting even the disbelievers that, at the end of the race, Dumars' gamble will pay off big -- thanks in part to an assist by Larry Brown.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com's ESPN Insider.
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