Senior plays at RAC for final time
No one knows where to find Dane Miller.
The senior wing is supposed to speak to the media following a recent practice, but Miller is nowhere to be seen. He emerges from the locker room 10 minutes later, wearing a tight-fitting thermal long-sleeved shirt and jeans.
Miller, once projected as the future of the Rutgers men’s basketball team, sits on the Louis Brown Athletic Center bleachers — avoiding eye contact.
He speaks about his identity, stigmas with pass-first players and the relationships he has made in four seasons in Piscataway.
“I would say my low point,” Miller said, “would be not understanding people.”
Miller ranks in the top 10 in career blocks, rebounds and steals in Scarlet Knights history. Ten assists in the Knights’ last two games, starting tonight on Senior Night against Marquette, would also place Miller in that category.
But the enigmatic Miller has often been prodded for more — more scoring, more accountability and more consistency. When a reporter asked head coach Mike Rice last season about getting Miller to be more aggressive, Rice said, “You put him on your couch.”
Rice inherited Miller after Miller’s banner freshman season — in which the 6-foot-6 Miller finished second in voting for Big East Rookie of the Year and became the first player since Carmelo Anthony to win conference Rookie of the Week three straight times.
Since then, Rice has failed to tap into Miller’s vast potential.
After scoring 15 points six times as a freshman, Miller did so in five games during the next two seasons combined. He is sixth on the team in free throw percentage, and his stat of 5.1 rebounds per game is a career low.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” Rice said. “When the focus and determination are there, he certainly helps this team as much as maybe anybody in the Big East. Being consistent with that is something I always discuss with him.”
And yet, after practice — as Miller sits adjacent to the Knights’ bench — he is as confident as ever in his NBA future.
“A lot of people probably don’t think I have a chance,” he said. “But who would’ve thought I’d be the runner-up my freshman year for Big East Rookie of the Year? Those who are close to me know what’s going on. You’ll probably be shocked to see what happens.”
Miller grew up as one of four children in Marion Small’s Rochester, N.Y., home. Basketball served as an outlet, and as an eighth grader he caught the eye of Chris Reed, head coach at Rush-Henrietta High School.
Reed suited Miller up in an AAU tournament soon after, and Miller eventually led Rush-Henrietta to three consecutive appearances in the New York sectional finals.
Reed also noticed a shy kid who did not trust adults, especially ones Miller did not know.
“He was very guarded,” Reed said.
Miller was raised by Small and his grandmother — who calls him occasionally from a Bronx nursing home. He said he blacked out during a game on Dec. 12, 2011 against Monmouth when she called unannounced before the game and gave Miller encouragement.
He scored 13 points and added 11 rebounds, seven blocks, four assists and three steals that night.
“I was the one that lived with my mom most of the time,” Miller said. “Everybody in my old neighborhood basically watched my back. So I didn’t really say much. I just always kept to myself.”
Miller said he still does not trust adults.
But, Reed said Miller was comfortable with former Rutgers head coach Fred Hill Jr. and former Rutgers assistant Jim Carr. Miller longed to play for local power, Syracuse — which scouted him as a sophomore, but the coaching staff settled on Brandon Triche, Miller’s friend and AAU teammate, and James Southerland, a 6-foot-6 outside shooter from Notre Dame (Mass.) Prep.
Syracuse never made an offer to Miller.
“I don’t know if he felt slighted,” Reed said. “They ultimately went with someone who they thought could score more. But when you’re from up here, you have to understand, Syracuse is it.”
John Wallace wants to kill Dane Miller. At least that is how Wallace, a basketball legend in upstate New York, feels when he watches Miller play this season.
When asked if Miller can be effective offensively, taking 5.4 shots per game — fifth best on the team — Wallace said, “Yeah, if he’s 5-for-5 for 10 points and 10 rebounds.”
Wallace first saw Miller play as a 10th grader and has served as a mentor for Miller ever since. The former NBA player used to take Miller to Syracuse, his alma mater, and give input on Miller’s game — talking to him two or three times a week.
“I’m going to pass the ball, but our conversations are usually about being selfish and going to score,” Miller said. “Everybody knows I can score the ball, so it’s basically being selfish and not going against the grain.”
Selfish is one of three words Miller uses to describe himself — along with genuine and caring.
His selfishness does not extend to the hardwood of the Rutgers Athletic Center, where Miller has developed a pass-first tendency that has both amazed and frustrated fans. He says his motivation is to put his teammates in positions to be successful instead of himself.
“I think those people are not accepted publicly because not everybody wants to do that,” Miller said of players who do not look to score. “Everybody wants to score, and they think about making it. They can make it without scoring, but people that really do pass the ball first don’t get as much attention. For me, it’s not really about the points. I’ve been there, done that.”
That thought likely makes Rice cringe.
Following a Feb. 18 loss at Villanova in which Miller did not take a shot and attempted only two free throws, Rice said he had to figure out what do to. Miller had to step up. The team needed more, Rice said.
Reed said a rigid offensive structure under Rice could be to blame for Miller’s dip in numbers. He said he noticed Miller played more freely on offense under Hill. Rutgers’ offense has since become guard-heavy.
Wallace has noticed a difference, as well.
“I don’t know if it’s the coaching change,” he said, “but it seems like most of his career highs are from his freshman year.”
Miller said Oct. 17 at Big East Media Day that he dealt with lingering confidence issues during his sophomore and junior seasons. He questioned his defense, sensed others’ doubt in him and took nearly 100 shots less as a junior than he did the year before.
Miller said those problems continue to linger.
“Not to compare myself to LeBron or Deron Williams, but those guys are all-stars,” he said. “They play whatever minutes a game and still lose confidence. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing, you still lose confidence.”
Still, his faith in his NBA dream has not wavered.
Miller says he and Wallace have never talked about playing professionally overseas — where Wallace spent two seasons.
“If it happens, it happens,” Miller said. “But to us, that’s not really an option.”
“That might be his only option at this point,” Wallace said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Wallace said he could not guess how Miller would handle basketball dotted throughout Asia, Europe or the Middle East. Through four years in Piscataway, many unknowns still exist with Miller. But a few things are clear, as well.
Wallace knows Miller is a good kid, one who keeps to himself and does not get in trouble or party. Reed knows that the death of Saiquan Moore — a childhood friend of Miller’s who died a year ago because of complications from a stab wound — had a deep impact on Miller.
Miller knows that, despite his pro future, his mom will still escort him onto the court for one last game.
“I think one of my favorite moments was against St. John’s last year,” Miller said. “It was more because of how happy my mom was … more so that than me getting the [game-winning] tip-in. Because, if that was the case, I could say Georgetown my freshman year, Notre Dame my freshman year — the way I played a lot of my freshman year.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @Tyler_Barto.