By Chris Dortch, for NBA.com
Posted Mar 12 2012 2:24PM
NEW ORLEANS -- A couple of weeks ago, before Kentucky played its final home game of the season, UK coach John Calipari was asked about Darius Miller, the Wildcats' only senior who has been in the program for four years.
As usual, he had a ready reply.
"There is no college player," Cal said, "that has played with more NBA players than him."
At first glance, that comment might seem a classic example of damning someone with faint praise. After a lost year playing under coach Billy Gillispie, whose ill-fated career at Kentucky lasted just two seasons, Miller has been teamed the last three years with a procession of first-round NBA Draft picks, each one overshadowing him.
Yet Miller's role could not have been more relevant. If Miller had transferred after Calipari began to turn the Kentucky program into an NBA finishing school, the Wildcats wouldn't be the No. 1 team in the country and the top seed in this week's NCAA tournament.
Miller -- chosen the Southeastern Conference's sixth man of the year -- has been a stabilizing presence for a team that starts three freshmen and two sophomores. More than that, he's been the difference-maker in a handful of games, with a clutch shot here, a key rebound there or a lockdown of the other team's best perimeter scorer.
When Calipari said Miller has played with more NBA players than anyone in college, it spoke volumes about how far Miller has progressed. Calipari has had plenty of players in the last three seasons to compare with Miller. So it's not surprising that Cal thinks Miller, who has prototypical three-man size at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, has what it takes.
"He will be an NBA player, no doubt in my mind," Calipari said.
Remember that Kentucky produced five first-round Draft picks in 2010, including top pick John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, three more last year and, depending on some upcoming decisions, perhaps as many as six this year, including Anthony Davis, the likely No. 1 pick.
Calipari has said, and some NBA scouts agree, that Miller could follow the lead of DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson -- Kentucky players who were chosen in the second round (in 2011) and wound up on NBA rosters.
Miller's upward progress hasn't been steady. There has been a downturn or two. The main reason might be that Miller is too nice, too willing to defer to younger teammates. Since high school, Miller's coaches have begged him to shoot more, and with good reason. As he's demonstrated this season, Miller can be a game-breaking shooter.
It's just that he doesn't always want to shoot. The best example of that came last season. In a game at Ole Miss, Miller found himself wide open in front of the Wildcats' bench. With Kentucky ahead by a point and the shot clock winding down, Miller needed to shoot, but he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. Instead he passed to a surprised Liggins, who had to hurry a shot that fell short.
The shot-clock violation handed the ball to the Rebels, allowing Chris Warren to win the game with a 3-pointer. In reports of the game, Miller was described as appearing "scared," or "not having the nerve to shoot." He didn't disagree.
"I guess I kind of froze up, really," Miller said. "That's all I can say."
That was a teaching moment for Calipari, and Miller responded. In his next 13 games, Miller averaged 15.4 points and 4.7 rebounds as he helped lead the Wildcats to the Final Four.
This season, Calipari once again reloaded with an extraordinary recruiting class that teamed with sophomore holdovers Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. And once again, Miller slipped out of the spotlight. He's started occasionally but has been more effective coming off the bench.
Every now and then, Calipari still has to cajole Miller into shooting. In a key late-season game at Mississippi State, Miller passed on a shot and quickly found himself sitting next to his coach. When he got back on the floor, Miller drained a 3-pointer to cut a double-digit deficit to seven. He was fouled attempting another three, made three free throws and Kentucky trailed by just four. Later in the game, he tossed in two more 3s as the Wildcats pulled out a 73-64 win.
Miller would start -- and star -- on every other team in the SEC, given his opponents' praise for him.
"I have great respect for him," said Georgia's Mark Fox. "I think he's a real key to their team, I really do."
"I love him," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I've always loved him. ... I always see him doing what he has to do to help the team win."
Playing that role should serve him well in the NBA. Every team needs a blender. Miller does it better than most.
"He completes everybody," Calipari said. "He's not competing, he's completing. He'll do [whatever]; if he needs to rebound, defend, he'll play some guard, and he'll play some forward, whatever position we ask him, he just completes everybody."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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