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It happens every year, without fail.
There are three sure things that happen every year. First, I grow to loathe a guy who everyone seems to be way higher on (Hi Alex Len, Nik Stauskas, and Justin Anderson). Second, I mark out for the best shot blocking prospect in the class, whether he's an elite prospect like Nerlens Noel or a late first rounder like Houston Rockets center Clint Capela. And third, my favorite prospect ultimately becomes a European guy. Two years ago, I fell in love with the potential of our pal Sergey Karasev. Last year, Capela won me over with his athleticism and penchant for dunking on the entire French LNB Pro A. Every year, I fall for a European prospect, and love that player unconditionally throughout the draft process. Maybe the grainy film hides their faults. Maybe it's just because I really enjoy the international game. Regardless, it's happened again this year, with Serbian big man Nikola Milutinov.
Who is Nikola Milutinov?
Milutinov is a 7'0" Serbian prospect who plays for Partizan Belgrade in the Adriatic League. Partizan is a pretty Cleveland Cavaliers-friendly team already; Milutinov teams with Milan Macvan, who the Cavs have draft rights to (In Milutinov's Draft Express vids, Macvan is the bearded guy setting heinously illegal screens every possession). More importantly, the immmortal Sasha Pavlovic is on the wing for Partizan, so you have to think he's at least on the Cavs' radar. Milutinov was also a member of the Serbian U19 team that finished 2nd to the United States, where he averaged 10.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He's probable to stay in Europe for at least a year after being drafted, but he's an interesting prospect at the end of the first round or beginning of the second. Draft Express rates him as the 33rd overall prospect, while CBS Sports ranks him 39th overall.
Milutinov is still young, and will need time for his body to fill out to NBA standard, but he's well on his way. Standing 7'0" with a 7'3" wingspan, Milutinov looks the part of an NBA big. He's pretty light at 220 lbs. and needs to add strength, particularly in his upper body, in order to bang down low and be a true plus defensively. However, he makes up for what he currently lacks in strength by being incredibly mobile. Milutinov runs the floor well, can defend on the perimeter, and is quick in open spaces offensively, and while he's not much of a leaper, that length and quickness combination means that if he can get just a little bit stronger, Milutinov should be able to play both the four and five at the next level without much problem.
Milutinov is probably going to be a role player offensively, but he has the skill set to be a very, very good one. Milutinov is most useful as a pick-and-roll big, because he's fantastic at getting to the rim and catching and finishing in traffic. He's not the best screen setter, but he's quick enough to slip a screen and gets a good seal to roll, so you can work with him even if he's not setting them at a level of Timofey Mozgov's bone-crushing picks. Milutinov is also great at finding open space when the defense collapses on a drive, and he's an excellent catch-and-finish guy, great for a team that has a probing point guard. He's also a good facilitator at a young age; he's one of the best offensive rebounding prospects in this class, and he's an adept passer at a young age, especially out of the post.
Away from the basket, Milutinov has some improvement to do. His post game needs lots of refining, as he doesn't have many advanced moves, and doesn't have great touch. He's shown flashes of a jumper out to 18 feet, although he barely gets any lift on this, and his clunky mechanics probably mean that he shouldn't be taking these shots unless he's wide open. At least for now. Still, though, Milutinov offers plenty to like on the offensive end for a team who's looking for a dive man and glass cleaner.
Here's where Milutinov sold me. He's not exactly a rim protector, because he isn't the best at absorbing contact at the rim and opponents can shoot over him because he's not a leaper. However, he should improve here because as he gets stronger, he can use verticality to contest shots, and it'll greatly help him as a post defender. Right now, he can get pushed around on the block pretty easily. However, the big draw is how good he is as a defender in space at a young age. Milutinov defends the pick-and-roll really well, using his mobility to hedge and contain penetration and his positional awareness is perfect for recovering and stopping a roll man at the basket. He can get beat off the dribble in one-on-one situations, but he's very disciplined, rarely biting on fakes and doing a great job contesting jumpers. He projects as a very serviceable team defender at the next level, even if you don't necessarily want him at the rim.
The one area Milutinov most needs to improve is in defensive rebounding. He's a great offensive rebounder because he's very tough and has a great nose for the ball, but he can get pushed around on the defensive glass at times, and doesn't have the same strong numbers he puts up on the other end. Again, it comes back to strength; if he can get to 7-8 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes, a number closer to what you'd expect from a big of his size in Europe, he'll be set, and make for a very solid all-around defender.
Here it's important to note Milutinov has a contract with Partizan until 2016, and the buyout details aren't well known. So any team that drafts Milutinov will likely be having him come over in 2016-2017 or 2017-2018. This isn't the worst thing though, because it can allow him another year of development on one of the Adriatic League's best teams. The other major thing to take note of here is that for all the talk of Milutinov's strength issues, he makes up for that by being incredibly tough and fearless. He's not afraid of a challenge on the court, and he can scrap if he needs to. He may not win every physical battle, but he's not afraid of them, by any means.
Between his potential as a rebounder and finisher despite being fairly ground-bound, and his ability to cover ground on the perimeter, I see a lot of Anderson Varejao in Milutinov. He's not an impressive athlete, like Varejao, but there's a good amount of grit, instinct and IQ that go into both players' games. It's also promising that Varejao's shooting mechanics are pretty similar to Milutinov's, and with how Varejao developed into a great shooter from the elbows in the last few years, it makes me think Milutinov might be able to do the same. He's got great potential to be one of the league's next great garbageman bigs.
How Does He Fit on the Cavaliers?
Drafting Milutinov is a great long-term planning strategy for the Cavs. You can hide him in Europe for a year and keep him off your books in a year where you've got a packed frontcourt and messy cap situation, and let him get stronger and more NBA ready. Then, in 2016, when Mozgov's contract expires and he might command a high price on the open market, and Varejao's contract becomes movable, you can bring Milutinov over to fill in for moving one or both guys. Once here, Milutinov gives you similar production to what Mozgov does on the offensive end, and he can probably fit well next to Tristan Thompson and is a fantastic fit next to Kevin Love. You probably lose your ability to protect the rim as well as you would with Mozgov, but with Milutinov and Thompson's ability to defend in space, you're probably still fine, even if you don't have that. I probably am overselling the fit here slightly, because I'm higher on Milutinov than most, but it's an enticing way to get a nice young player in this draft and navigate the cap gymnastics the Cavs will be playing in the next two summers.