Miller regains old form following two seasons plagued by own doubts, reservations
Brandon Triche swears he was open, but the play was Dane Miller’s to make. As a high school kid on New York’s Upstate Elite, Miller sized up a defender from a Texas AAU team, crossed him over and met what Miller estimates a 6-foot-11 center at the rim.
The second defender stood little chance, and the Las Vegas crowd went crazy, Triche said.
“If you watch a street ball game, a guy makes a crossover and doesn’t go anywhere but keeps on going,” said Triche, now a senior guard at Syracuse. “The last move [Miller] did really got him.”
But through three seasons with the Rutgers men’s basketball team, Miller’s highlight-reel plays have come with less consistency.
After a freshman campaign in which Miller, now a senior wing, finished runner-up in Big East Rookie of the Year voting, Miller’s scoring dipped to 7.9 points per game as a junior.
He took only 194 shots, nearly 100 less than the year before and fifth most among returning players.
Arguably the program’s most athletic player in recent history saw his role reduced to niche work, defending opposing teams’ best scorers.
Miller could not help but notice.
“I could play 32 minutes out of a 40-minute game and take two shots,” he said. “People were probably thinking I wasn’t getting better or maybe it was the system.”
But what became the Scarlet Knights’ most fielded question in 2011 quietly brewed inside Miller for the better part of two seasons.
Head coach Mike Rice prodded him about his lack of assertiveness. The media tried to draw its own conclusions. And everyone else had an opinion.
But Miller knew all along. He only never verbalized it.
“It was just I had a lack of confidence in myself, where I probably thought sometimes people had a lack of confidence in me, which affected me,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t shoot the ball. I wouldn’t want to do certain stuff where I’m capable of doing it.”
As Miller sat behind a table Oct. 17 at Big East Media Day, he scanned the league’s preseason all-first and second teams, telling himself he could have easily been on each list.
He did not find his name.
Instead, he admitted to thinking negatively whenever he touched the ball the last two seasons. He came out about doubting himself when he thought others appeared to question him. And he cleared his conscience of each play that never was.
“I was second-guessing myself on, ‘OK, should I go get this rebound? Can I get it? Can I guard this person? Should I shoot this shot?’” Miller said. “Someone might be guarding me, and I’ll be thinking in my head, ‘OK, I know I can take him off the dribble.’”
Often times he did not.
Triche said Miller dreamed about being LeBron James — a talented point forward with a penchant for making smooth passes. Miller was a point guard for four seasons on Triche’s AAU team, which began as part of the Donyell Marshall Foundation, before switching over to Upstate Elite.
They scoured Miller’s native Rochester, N.Y., and other talent-rich areas in upstate New York, including Niagara Falls, where Miller used to play pickup games against future pros Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris at a local Boys and Girls Club.
He rode the momentum to Piscataway in 2009, when Miller averaged 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a freshman, scoring at least 15 points in six games. He did so five times during the next two seasons combined.
But one of his best career games — a season-high 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks Feb. 25 at Seton Hall — came at arguably Miller’s lowest point.
As the Knights boarded a bus to Newark, Miller received a phone call telling him Saiquan Moore, Miller’s childhood best friend, had died.
Moore, who grew up in the Scio neighborhood of Rochester, suffered stab wounds stemming from a Feb. 23 altercation. Miller spoke to Moore on the phone following surgery earlier in the week and said Moore was fine.
He could not make it to Moore’s funeral.
Miller showed few ill effects, confounding Seton Hall on 8-for-14 shooting and avenging a Feb. 8 loss to the Pirates in which he played only 25 minutes.
“During that game, I decided to change my number,” Miller said. “I sat down and talked to my mom about it, a couple of his family members about it. They told me I could go ahead and do it, show a lot of love for [Moore] and represent. I carry that number for him.”
He also carries it for a tight-knit inner circle.
His family, including a grandmother in a Bronx nursing home he holds in close regard, is part of it.
So are a corps of players that revitalized Miller’s offseason, which left him in what Miller said is the best shape he has ever been in.
And then there is John Wallace.
Wallace, a Syracuse great and seven-year NBA man, knows the upstate New York basketball scene like few others. Some, like Miller, are lucky enough to seek his council.
Wallace first saw Miller play on the AAU circuit in 10th grade, taking Miller to Syracuse for games and serving as a mentor ever since.
“It’s just like what Kobe was talking about with Alex Rodriguez,” said Wallace, one of the best players to come out of Rochester. “Some people forget they’re great. Dane is great, he just can’t forget that.”
Wallace and Miller talk once every week or two. Wallace tells him taking more shots is not enough — Miller must make them. Wallace started with the message Day 1, but says he has harped on it during the last couple of months.
Miller has noticed its byproducts.
“At the same time, I think I became a whole better person,” he said. “Probably the last two years, I wouldn’t be looking at you in the eye. I just matured and understand having that confidence could build me up in so many places.”
Outside of a 14 point-per-game mark in 1997-1998, Wallace never averaged more than 8.6 points per game in his seven NBA seasons. He
insists with Miller’s 6-foot-6 frame and ball-handling ability, Miller could play professionally somewhere.
But it has always been Miller’s play to make.
“I’m just hoping,” Wallace said, “we don’t have to use the word potential anymore.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.