Darko Milicic looking for fresh start with Celtics

The Celtics hope Darko Milicic can use his big body in the paint, like he did here in 2008 against Ray Allen.
The Celtics hope Darko Milicic can use his big body in the paint, like he did here in 2008 against Ray Allen.
file/Barry chin/globe staff

ISTANBUL — What’s being asked of Darko Milicic in Boston is something that probably has never been requested of him before. He doesn’t have to start and emerge as a front-line center. He doesn’t have to produce a nightly double-double. And he definitely doesn’t need to fulfill those absurd expectations of nearly 10 years ago.

Milicic, who signed a one-year deal with the Celtics last month, needs only to come into games to spell Kevin Garnett — to rebound, play defense, and use his massive size (listed at 7 feet, 275 pounds) to his advantage. If he does that, he will have satisfied the Celtics’ requirements after spending the first nine years of his career leaving his teams and fans wanting more, much more.

As a 19-year-old wunderkind from Serbia in 2003, he was considered the NBA’s next European sensation. Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars selected Milicic second overall in that year’s draft, over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade.

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The Class of 2003 — in which LeBron James was No. 1 — has become one of the more celebrated draft groups in recent memory, but Milicic is considered an aberration of that draft, a classic bust.

Nine years later, he is still only 27, and his reputation as an underachiever has been cemented. Milicic understands that stardom or even widespread respect probably never will come. At this point in his career, he just wants to be comfortable, appreciated, and not constantly reminded about 2003.

“When I got released [after] last season from Minnesota, I didn’t expect nobody to come forward, especially all the years I’m in the NBA, all the stuff that’s gone on around me,” he said. “So after all that, the Celtics are a championship team and takes me, it’s an honor.

“Whatever it takes. Doc [Rivers] is a great coach. He’s going to fit me in where I fit best. I’m not going to complain about it. Whatever I need to do, I will do it. Since Detroit, I have never played for a team that has championship thoughts.”

The Celtics are Milicic’s sixth team, and he has never averaged more than 8.8 points or 6.1 rebounds per game. With Detroit, he was limited to 96 games over 2½ years because the Pistons were so deep and talented.

He has shown flashes of being a capable and productive center, such as 2006-07 with Orlando, when he averaged 8.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game, but he never has been able to maintain consistency and never showed the skills of being a dominant center.

And with the success of Bosh, Anthony, and Wade, who turned into perennial All-Stars, the selection of Milicic became even more scrutinized, and the pressure mounted.

“For me, I stopped chasing the dream as being the second pick a long time ago,” he said. “All I was asking from people, NBA, my teams, was let me the best that I can be.

“From the beginning, I didn’t have a chance for that. And then I had some chances and things didn’t go well.

“But for me, people can say, ‘You shouldn’t be the second pick.’ I have to have 50 points and 30 rebounds. Those guys are [expletive] animals. LeBron, Wade, all those guys are great players. So to prove people wrong, I have to score 100 points with 50 rebounds a game.

“And all I was thinking in my career is for people to let me the best I can be.”

The Celtics don’t know exactly what that is, but they’re willing to take a chance.

Milicic long has pondered returning to Europe, but he accepted a minimum contract to remain in the NBA.

“Darko has been a good player in stretches in his career and he has struggled in other places,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “He’s a big body and knows how to play. We’re hopeful that he can fit in our system with our guys.

“It seems like everybody that we’ve played at the center position has thrived in our system. And playing opposite [Garnett], and with [Rajon] Rondo, we like his intelligence on the court and his passing ability. And he’s 7 foot 1, 270 pounds, so that helps.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for him.”

Milicic says he just wants to be accepted and allowed to be himself. He has a naturally shy demeanor, and the past nine years haven’t exactly helped him overcome his insecurities.

But the Celtics have welcomed him heartily. At Wednesday’s practice, Rivers joked with Milicic as he stood on the sideline, taking a break from the scrimmage, trying to get him more comfortable with the team concept. Milicic appreciated the gesture.

“Everybody has done a great job, this is a great group of guys,” he said. “I’ve been around some good guys. Detroit was some of the best guys.

“Everybody is here for you. Everybody is sticking together, playing together, fighting for each other. That’s what the team is all about.

“It’s not about one guy trying to make big money, a contract. Here they don’t care about that.

“That’s what I see when I play against them and now that I’m here, that’s what it is.”