Walsh Took a Shot by Drafting Miller
By Conrad Brunner
June 22, 2012
When he announced the first draft pick of his career as a general manager, Donnie Walsh was booed off the stage.
That prepared him, or so he hoped, for the angst that awaited him in his second draft.
Walsh took over the Pacers' front office in 1986 and promptly made a splash, hiring legendary coach Jack Ramsay and then duping the rest of the NBA -- not to mention Indiana fans -- into believing he would draft a center with the No. 4 pick. When he instead selected Chuck Person, a small forward from Auburn, local fans reacted angrily.
That Person went on to win Rookie of the Year as Ramsay directed the Pacers to a 41-41 record and their first playoff berth since 1981 soothed the angry hordes and gave Walsh some credibility heading into the 1987 draft. He had a couple of players in mind; the problem was neither of them was named Steve Alford.
Fresh off a starring role in leading Indiana University to the NCAA title, Alford was the people's choice. But Walsh knew Alford's talent wasn't even in the neighborhood for the No. 11 pick. His biggest need being point guard, he hoped to land Kevin Johnson. When it became clear in the days leading up to the draft the California standout wouldn't be available, Walsh turned to Plan B.
Twenty-five years ago today, Walsh stepped to the podium once more to address the fans packing Market Square Arena for the team's draft party. When he announced Miller's name, he did not pause to bask in the knowledge he had just launched the Hall of Fame career of the most popular player in franchise history. He ran off the stage as quickly as he could, fearing for his life.
"When I came off the stage, I said, 'We're not doing this anymore, having everybody in the arena,' " Walsh said. "People were telling me I was going to get shot and I thought if I was going to get shot I wasn't going to make it easy for them, so I ran off the stage."
Indiana's roster at the time had talent but the parts did not all fit. Person filled the need at small forward, and Walsh projected the 6-7 Miller as a shooting guard. The UCLA standout benefited from a new rule instituted for his senior season: the 3-point field goal, a shot that would become his trademark. Miller set a UCLA record by scoring 33 points in the second half against defending champion Louisville, and finished his career second on the school's scoring list behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
He also had something of a reputation for aggressive on-court behavior and a bit of a temper, but Walsh found no red flags, only green lights in researching this particular prospect.
"Everyone thinks he's some kind of flamboyant, outspoken guy," Walsh said. "And then I met him. Reggie was basically very shy, not very talkative, very quiet and I thought a very courteous guy. He was totally different than what I thought so after I met him I knew I was going to take him.
"I thought he was a good enough basketball player so after I checked out all the stuff out there that was negative about him, I thought he was a good guy, he was competitive and he's good. He was a better basketball player than people gave him credit for. They thought he could shoot the ball but he knew how to play and so that was it."
As a prospect, Miller was somewhat challenging to evaluate because his game was so unorthodox. On the move, he was all elbows and knees. And the most significant part of hits game, that jump shot that was launched as his hands met and invariably curved slightly to the right in flight, was anything but textbook.
"It went in; that's the whole point," Walsh said. "And it went in from way out and it went in a lot."
The biggest questions about Miller's game surrounded his strength, his ability to withstand the punishment of NBA opponents, and his ability to create the space to get off his deadly jumper.
"Can he get open? I thought he could," Walsh said. "Really in those days the offenses were far more halfcourt oriented and execution had to be good for any team. And so I thought with Jack, if he could get the team to execute and get this guy open, he'll make shots.
"I always looked at guys who were small forwards in college to be candidates for shooting guards in the pros because it had developed that one guard brings the ball down and the other guard comes off screens and shoots. There wasn't a priority on the second guard handling the ball that much. So as a college forward, he was a great candidate for shooting guard in the NBA and that's how it worked out."
The great unknown was his toughness, a trait that was challenged early in his career but turned out to be one of his greatest strengths. In his 18 seasons, Miller played in 96.5 percent of the Pacers' games. He had six seasons when he did not miss a game and five others when he missed just one.
"No one knew about that," Walsh said. "You could guess at it but no one knew and that's the part I got to marvel at with Reggie, how competitive he was, how much he wanted to win. It was as manic as (Michael) Jordan and those guys. He was like that, he really was."
He did not take over right away, however. As a rookie, Miller came off the bench behind veteran John Long, started just once and averaged 10.0 points.
"Reggie's rookie year, he didn't come in to show everybody. He just fit immediately into the NBA game," Walsh said. "When you put him in, he would score -- not 20 or 30, but he would score. He played within the system, he played with the other players and he kind of knew 'I'm not going to come out here and start firing shots up.' He didn't do that.
"His second year you could see more of it, he was up around 16 but he was still the same way, working his way around the NBA and making sure that he fit in with our team. And then the third year he averaged 25 a game. He gave deference to Chuck a lot the first couple of years but during the third year I remember Chuck coming to me and saying, 'Reggie Miller's a hell of a player.' "
Person was right. So was Walsh, even if no one else knew it at the time.