MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Less than five months ago, Darko Milicic was done with the NBA.
Carrying the label of one of the biggest busts in draft history, the former No. 2 overall draft pick who was taken ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was ready to head back to Europe and continue his basketball career closer to his homeland of Serbia.
Then a trade to the NBA's version of Siberia surprisingly turned everything around for him. After an encouraging finish to the season with the lowly Timberwolves, Milicic warmed to the idea of staying in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves became enamored with the 7-foot center's potential, so much so that they agreed to a four-year deal on Thursday to make him their starting center. The deal includes about $16 million in guaranteed money, with the final year of the contract only partially guaranteed.
Still, it's a significant commitment to a player who was on the brink of leaving the league.
"Minnesota, from the moment Darko got there at the trade deadline in February, had really shown a commitment to him," agent Marc Cornstein said. "It's really the first place he's been, and he's been in quite a few places, that made it feel like home. I'm thrilled we were able to get this done this quickly."
Timberwolves president David Kahn made signing Milicic his first priority of the summer and he also said earlier Thursday that the team was "very, very close" to a three-year deal worth a reported $13 million with 2008 second-round draft pick Nikola Pekovic, who has been playing in Greece.
The Timberwolves declined comment on the deals, which cannot become official until July 8.
Assuming both deals become official, that's a big chunk of the team's salary cap room devoted to two unproven Europeans who will be counted on to revamp the team's front line.
That also means if the Wolves hope to land a bigger name free agent, they will have to do so through a sign-and-trade deal with another team. Al Jefferson, who has three years and $42 million left on his deal, is likely to be the main component of any potential offer.
Memphis forward Rudy Gay was scheduled to visit Minnesota on Thursday, but abruptly canceled and agreed to a five-year deal worth more than $80 million to stay with the Grizzlies. Knicks power forward David Lee is scheduled to visit on Saturday.
Coming off major knee surgery, Jefferson averaged 17.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game last season and is a much more established talent than Pekovic or Milicic, who has bounced around with four teams in his seven years in the league.
Milicic averaged 8.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 24 games with Minnesota last season. He started 18 of those games even though he was terribly out of shape after sitting on the bench for all but eight games with the New York Knicks.
Coach Kurt Rambis is intrigued by the potential the 25-year-old Milicic showed in the final two months of the season. He thinks the center is a better fit for the up-tempo offense the Timberwolves want to run than is Jefferson, one of the best low-post players whose skills are better suited for the halfcourt game.
"Darko, we think, could be our starting center this year and we'd like to have him back," Kahn said last week. "Pekovic we see competing for the starting job, but also playing significant minutes for us at both spots, the five and four."