By Ben Fisher
Michael Jordan doesn’t offer praise easily. And even when he does, he typically can’t resist getting a jab in there somewhere.
Which is why, upon visiting the Charlotte Bobcats’ locker room after a late January victory over the Sacramento Kings, it was in typical Jordan fashion to point to a stellar Kwame Brown performance (13 points, 18 rebounds) by stating, “About damn time you lived up to that draft pick.”
It isn’t just the Bobcats owner who feels that way about the 28-year old, who is finally coming into his own as a capable rebounder and post player 10 years after being the first high school player to ever go No. 1 over-all at the 2001 NBA Draft. Granted, it’s taken longer than Jordan and others (ask any Washington Wizards fan) would have liked and he remains no better than the 15th best player to be selected, but Brown is carving out his own legacy – one that does not include the word ‘bust’.
In a season ripe with stories of redemption, Brown is hardly the only player undergoing a re-write of his NBA career as he begins to realize some of the promise and expectations heaped upon him early on. Two other high lottery picks – Minnesota’s Darko Milicic and Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani – also find themselves writing new chapters as they leave behind their underwhelming NBA beginnings in favour of strong second acts.
Many scoffed when Timberwolves GM David Kahn rewarded Milicic with a four-year, $20 million contract this past summer. This was, after all, the same player that Pistons GM Joe Dumars foolishly chose No. 2 in the talent-rich 2003 draft, ahead of – as any NBA fan knows – Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But Kahn had seen the strides that Milicic had taken since coming over from New York in a February trade and knew that the seven-footer – at just 25 years of age- would have the opportunity to develop his game and grown alongside fellow first rounder Kevin Love. While Milicic’s 9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds weren’t exactly going to merit consideration for the upcoming All-Star Game, it has been sufficient improvement so as to build his confidence and help him embrace a bigger role on the young squad.
Much like Brown, Milicic entered the league with tremendous upside as a low post player, but struggled with maturity issues and adjusting to the NBA game. Now, both men are finding their focus and drive, with Milicic being afforded the playing time he didn’t get during stints in Detroit and Orlando, much like Brown failed to get with Washington and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bargnani, meanwhile, didn’t come from the loaded draft classes of the other two, but obviously carried the weight of expectations from being a No. 1 over-all pick. He also carried the intrigue and aura of being a three-point shooting big man, a skill set which was – and, to some extent, still is – coveted by teams seeking the next Dirk Nowitzki. The 25-year old has also since been saddled with the added weight of developing into the face of the franchise, thanks to Chris Bosh’s Miami exit in the off-season.
Like Milicic, Bargnani had difficulty adjusting to the NBA game and North American culture right away, and seemed unsure of how to play against bigger and more physical opposition than he was accustomed to facing in Italy. It didn’t help that he only began to gain a bigger role with the Raptors as they were in decline, fading away from their one division title in 2007.
Bargnani’s turnaround this year has largely stemmed from coming to terms with who he is as a player – that is, no longer succumbing to the pressure of being a rebounder or physical inside presence and completely embracing his finesse, shooting-oriented game. In hindsight, Brandon Roy’s injury woes have also further validated his draft selection, with no other player outside of LaMarcus Aldridge (who was too similar to Bosh for draft consideration) and Rajon Rondo (who was never considered No. 1 pick-worthy) matching his contributions thus far.
Looking back, can it be said that any of these three men should have been chosen in their draft slot? Probably not, but the term ‘bust’ brings to mind a complete and utter failure, something that none of Brown, Milicic nor Bargnani can now be considered in light of their recent redemption.