AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- ''We want Dar-ko!"
Detroit's fans chant those three words tirelessly whenever the Pistons have a big lead in the fourth quarter, hoping coach Larry Brown will give them a rare glimpse of Darko Milicic.
The player drafted No. 2 overall two years ago -- after LeBron James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade -- is more embarrassed than proud when he hears the crowd plead for him to play.
''It doesn't make me feel good at all," Milicic said. ''It's nice that people like me, but if they have to cheer for me to come into the game, that's not good."
Before Detroit played the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the NBA Finals last night, Milicic said his second year in the league was more discouraging than his first.
''It's been worse because I was expecting to play," he said. ''I've said it 10,000 times, the best way for me to improve is to play. All the work in practice and individual workouts can only help me so much.
''I can't say how good I am or how bad I am because I haven't played to show myself, or anybody."
The 7-foot, 245-pound center from Serbia-Montenegro played in 37 regular-season games and averaged 1.8 points, 1.2 rebounds, and 6.9 minutes. As a rookie, he played 34 games, averaging 1.4 points, 1.3 rebounds, and 4.6 minutes.
Milicic often looked unimpressive when he did play.
''When I come in the game at the end, it's hard because people are expecting me to jump over my man for a dunk or something special," he said. ''It's hard for me because I feel like I feel when I wake up in the morning."
With Detroit's playoff position secure, Milicic started the final two games of the season and responded with 25 points and eight rebounds.
''It was good, but it's hard for me to get too excited about two games out of 82," said the man sometimes referred to as ''the Human Victory Cigar."
Milicic has played sparingly in a handful of postseason games, just like last year.
Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars told anybody who would listen that Milicic would not play early in his career, but that hasn't stopped many from declaring him a bust.
Dumars insists he still believes Milicic will help the defending champion Pistons contend for titles for the rest of the decade.
''Darko is a big part of our future here in Detroit," Dumars said. ''Darko is big, young, and very talented and you have to allow young big guys the time to develop."
Brown said Milicic, who turns 20 Monday, has been hampered by the NBA's system.
''I see the problem that our league is facing by not allowing young kids to go to developmental leagues or a minor league," Brown said. ''It's not fair to them to sit on the bench. There's so many kids like that.
''Maybe if he was with a bad team, he would be playing and you could live with his mistakes and he would probably be way ahead of where he is now. With us, we have [Antonio] McDyess and [Ben] Wallace and [Rasheed] Wallace and Elden Campbell and we've been playing for a championship the past two years."
During practices and workouts, Milicic looks impressive as he scores on an array of low-post moves, midrange jumpers, and 3-pointers.
''He's got a lot of talent," McDyess said. ''His time will come. He's working hard in practice and contributing that way, and someday he'll be a big part of a team."
Milicic is looking forward to this summer, when he expects to play a lot for two teams.
''If there is a lockout, I will play for two national teams back home. I will play with the 20-and-under team in the World Cup and the top national team in the European championships," he said. ''If there is no lockout, I will play with the national team and with the summer-league team with the Pistons."
Milicic often drives to practices and games in a BMW X5 adorned with a ''Proud To Be Serbian" bumper sticker. He lives alone in a three-bedroom home in a posh suburb, where his mother, father, and sister visit him about twice a year. Though he came to the United States barely able to speak English, he said the transition was easy.
''It was not a big adjustment because where I come from life is not easy," he said quietly. ''I saw war without rules growing up. There were wars with Croatia, Albania, and a bunch of other places and inside our own country people were fighting.
''I don't get to play much here in the NBA, but I know that my life could be worse."