Soon You’ll Understand

These days, Mike Miller plays an important off-the-bench role for the Miami Heat as they attempt to win a second consecutive Championship. But a little over a decade ago he was simply an up-and-coming NBAer from South Dakota with an unlikely route to the L and a bright future in front of him. Our feature on Miller from SLAM 58 (March, ’02) is below.—Ed.

mike miller in slam magazine

by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17

April 12, 1998—The men’s basketball team got a big boost yesterday when hometown boy Mike Miller—Mitchell High star, winner of the last two South Dakota state Player of the Year awards and a young man with some serious family history here at Dakota Wesleyan—announced he’d be attending Wesleyan next fall.

The signing was a coup for Tiger coach Doug Martin, who figures inking this latest Miller should insure the team’s success for the next four years. Miller, who most of you probably know as “Skinny,” will bring impressive credentials to campus when he arrives. As a freshman and sophomore at Mitchell High, he served as the sixth man on the varsity, the latter being a state championship season when Mike got to star alongside his brother, Jared. As a 6-6 junior, Mike was the only Miller on the court, and he rose to the occasion, averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds while leading the Kernels to their second straight state title. Finally, in his just-completed senior season, Miller led Mitchell in scoring (27 ppg) and rebounding (11 rpg) while his squad finished fourth in the state tournament.

The Miller history goes way back here at Wesleyan. Mike’s father, Tom, (class of ’71) was a solid player for the Tigers, while two of his uncles rewrote the record book. Chris Miller (’75) remains DWU’s all-time leading rebounder, and Alan Miller (’85) is the Tigers’ all-time leading scorer. It will be fascinating to watch Mike chase those records. Perhaps the most exciting news for Tiger fans is that Mike chose Wesleyan over instate rival Northern State, where his brothers Ryan and Jared have starred.

OK, quit laughing. The paragraphs above could’ve easily been written in the Tiger Trib and no one would have blinked. Of course, now there’s people lined up in Mitchell, S.D., who watch every single Orlando Magic game on DirecTV down at Scoreboard Sports Bar, chasing their shots with tales of how they knew—just knew—that Mike Miller would be an NBA star. But anyone who says that, other than maybe a couple members of Miller’s family, is lying. And there’s not even anything wrong with their miscalculations. Think about it: You come from South Dakota and your hoop dreams are supposed to be modest. Good players in the Mount Rushmore State understand there’s no shame in getting a little financial aid, doing your thing in front of 3,200 fans a game (the capacity at the Corn Palace, home to Mitchell High and Dakota Wesleyan’s home games) and then staying in your hometown to make a family. Add the legacy Mike Miller could have followed at his hometown school, and it seems like a pretty good goal for him to have chased. But those types of goals weren’t nearly high enough for Mike.

Even today, early in the second season of Miller’s NBA career and more than three years since he called Mitchell home, the ’00-01 Rookie of the Year can’t help but chuckle at the unlikely path he’s taken. “From the third grade on, I knew I wanted to play in the NBA, and I told everyone that,” he says. “And, buddy, people laughed at me. All the time. And they should have. You never see people from South Dakota make it to the League. It wasn’t like I was overly tall in the third grade, either, but I just had a feeling.”

Miller may rock the latest Sean John line over his bigger-than-ever frame (“Skinny” is a thing of the past now that Miller goes about 6-8, 225) and keep his car stereo stocked with the latest from Jigga Man, but he’s inarguably from a different place. As Magic coach Doc Rivers puts it, “Mike is a great, great kid, and I think some of that comes from the humble upbringing of South Dakota.” The 21-year-old Miller’s face still holds a hint of baby fat, and when he delivers the quick smile and oft-uttered “buddy”—with a homespun accent to boot—you have to remind yourself that you’re sitting with one of the NBA’s future stars. And don’t front on that last part.

After averaging 11.9 points, 4.9 boards and 1.7 assists and hitting 148 three pointers while playing in all 82 games as a rook, Miller spent the summer working out with teammate Tracy McGrady and playing for the gold medal-winning Goodwill Games team, all the while promising he’d be even better as an NBA sophomore. A chip fracture in his foot kept Miller out of the Magic’s first few games, but by December he was back in a groove, averaging 15.3 points as the new-look Magic have slowly come together.

But that’s today’s news, and you can get more of that in the Sentinel. What’s interesting here—all jokes aside—is how Miller got to this point: from high school sixth man to conference champion-favorite sixth man, from cold and old Mitchell to hot and modern Orlando.

“Mike had a plan for a very long time—to be an NBA player. And to execute that plan, he was willing to think outside the box,” says Florida coach Billy Donovan, who guided Miller for the two years between high school and the pros. “He worked very hard in high school, and when it came to college, he didn’t worry about staying close to home, or about where he could get the most shots or the most minutes, which are all things kids usually care about when they’re picking a school. Mike just cared about getting better.”

According to Mike, the plan did indeed kick in around third grade, when he started traveling with his older brothers. “When I was a third grader, my brothers were in fifth and seventh grade,” he says. “I would get put on their teams, so I was always playing against older and better competition growing up.” By middle school, Mike had learned how to improve dramatically even when he wasn’t sharing the court with older, bigger kids.

“Well, my dad was a principal at the middle school, so I had a set of keys to the gym, and I’d be in there all the time, working on my handle and shooting all night long,” Miller remembers.

One other thing played a role as Mike got into high school ball—he grew faster than Li’l Kim’s chest. “Mike grew from about 6-1 to 6-6 the summer after ninth grade,” explains long-time Mitchell High coach Gary Munsen. “That caught the attention of a lot of coaches. Look, Mike’s brother Ryan was a great player, too. It’s just that he’s 6-2. I don’t know if he’d have turned out as good as Mike, but if he was 6-6, he would have gone to a major college.”

As a 6-6 sophomore, playing the role of versatile sixth man on a state championship team, Miller began to get noticed outside of Mitchell—coaches from Nebraska started peeping his high school and AAU games. “Danny Nee and his staff were the first people to tell me Mike was going to be a good Division 1 player,” recalls Munsen. The Huskers, besides not being too far away, had another drawing card: Nebraska is where Eric Piatkowski, South Dakota’s only other known NBA product, played his high school ball. “We’re the lone rangers,” laughs Mike, talking about himself and the LAC shooting guard. “I watched him develop in college, and I always paid attention to him since he was a local guy.”

But it’s not like Pike was Mike’s hero. Remember, Miller aimed HIGH. “Michael Jordan, because he could do everything, and Larry Bird, because he was the Legend,” says Miller of his favorite players as a youngster. “Bird got the most out of what he had. He was the man.”

By the spring of ’97, Miller was beginning to be the man himself. Playing high school ball without his departed older brothers, he led Mitchell to its second straight state title, and while his name was already legendary among the 14,000 residents of Mitchell, he started becoming nationally known as well. Donovan became so enamored of Miller, he had Florida assistant John Pelphrey follow Miller’s AAU team for three weeks that summer. Before long, the love Florida was showing was reciprocated, local know-it-alls be damned. “A lot of people had opinions on where I should go,” recalls Mike. “They wanted me to stay close to home, maybe go to Kansas. They didn’t want to see me at Florida. But I believed in Coach Donovan.”

In Donovan, Miller had found as big a gym rat as himself. A coach who would work him hard, all the time keeping two goals firmly within his player’s reach. Says Miller, “Coach Donovan develops players until they’re ready to go (pro), and he wins. It’s the best of both worlds.”

In two seasons in Gainesville, Miller developed dramatically, off and on the court. “Florida was a situation where I got to play with great players,” Miller says emphatically. “It was definitely a time when I’d get clowned on for being from South Dakota, but the bottom line is that with a group like that, if you can play, and handle yours, they’ll accept you.”

Donovan is forever grateful not only for the 13.3 points and 6 boards Mike averaged over his two seasons at Florida, but for the precedent Miller set: “Mike really went out on a limb by coming to the University of Florida from so far away just because he felt like he’d get the best instruction, and I feel like his doing that allowed us to become a national recruiter that can sign guys like Matt Bonner, David Lee and James White from all over the country.”

On the court, Miller continued to develop his all-around game. His jumper had always been sugarcane sweet, but Florida’s fast-paced attack forced him to improve his quickness, defense, passing and ball handling. Miller came off the bench to lead the Gators in scoring as a frosh, and then as a sophomore continued his progression, again leading the team in scoring and helping UF get all the way to the National Championship game. Throughout his sophomore campaign, the name of that skinny kid from South Dakota started to bubble once again, this time in NBA circles. Hornets assistant coach Steve Silas scouted Miller twice that season, and left little doubt as to Miller’s future. “He’s a top-six pick,” Silas said in January of ’00. “His jump shot and court instincts are outstanding, he gives a great effort and he’s very long.”

The childhood dreaming, the unpredictable growth spurt, the hours of solitary shooting, they had paid off—Mike Miller was going to the NBA. “Losing that championship game to Michigan State almost made me want to come back to school, but at the same time it helped me know I was ready,” recalls Miller, who was taken fifth overall by the Magic in the ’00 Draft. “My eyes had been set on the NBA for so long, and since you never know what’s going to happen, I had to go for it. That was the best decision for myself.”

Again, some of the overprotective faithful back in Mitchell raised their eyebrows. “By the time he was a senior in high school, coaches from Billy Donovan to Tubby Smith to Roy Williams were all telling me that Mike was going to be an NBA player, but it was hard to visualize that,” says Munsen. “When he got to Florida and kept improving, it became clearer, but there were still a lot of people around South Dakota wondering why he left when he did and why the Magic would draft him so high. I don’t think anyone guessed he’d be Rookie of the Year. As far as I’m concerned, he’s been a blessing to South Dakota basketball.”

But he was. Playing on a team that lost Grant Hill early on, Miller rained spot-up threes and dropped dimes all season long, befriending O-Town star McGrady in the process. “We’re two young guys just getting into our careers, and we both love to work on our games,” says T-Mac, whose personal trainer spent six mornings a week last summer putting Miller and McGrady through grueling workouts. “You’ll see how much better of a player he is this season.”

And, their doubts cast aside, the folks in Mitchell remain important to Miller. He still shows up at his family’s summer basketball camps, and last season he hosted Munsen at his house during a spring-time homestand. Miller and Munsen plan on doing it again this season. “That’s my man,” says Miller of his folksy old coach. “He’s always coaching, but if he gets the chance to come down here, it would be sweet to have him again.”

Oh, and regarding his immediate family, they’re not done yet. Mike’s sister, Chelsey, is a junior standout for the Mitchell girls varsity, which got off to an 18-0 start this fall (it’s a South Dakota thing) and is also coached by Munsen. The coach says Chelsey is a “great volleyball and basketball player and I’m sure she’ll get the opportunity to play in a”—you guessed it—“good Division 2 program.”