Darius Miller returns to NBA as more mature player mentally, physically

by Jim Eichenhofer

Say what you will about Darius Miller’s first stint in the NBA from 2012-14. Miller’s biggest critic of his previous tenure in the league is Miller himself.

“I just wasn’t ready,” the forward said of his jump from college to the pros. “I wasn’t ready mentally. I spent my whole life trying to get to (the NBA). When I got here, it was like, ‘OK, what now?’

“I just didn’t know what it took to succeed. I wasn’t a very good professional – not in terms of not being a good teammate or anything like that, but as far as taking care of my body. Your body is the main thing that keeps you going as an athlete. I wasn’t a good professional in that aspect, but I didn’t know it (at the time). Now I know.”

This fall the University of Kentucky product and 2012 NCAA champion is getting a second chance to succeed in the world’s elite basketball circuit, a mulligan few players receive. After being selected in the second round of the ’12 draft by New Orleans, Miller spent two-plus seasons with the Pelicans, but didn’t make a major impact. He was waived a month into the 2014-15 regular season, which led to him playing three seasons in Germany’s pro league. The Maysville, Ky., native was a naïve 22-year-old when he made his NBA debut; at 27 now, he’s a husband, father of two young daughters and the owner of considerably greater life experience, partly resulting from relocating halfway across the globe.

“I got to grow up a lot, on and off the court,” Miller said of playing in Germany, where he won three championships. “It really helped me. I got in a great rhythm shooting-wise, by just getting more game reps, game shots. It helped every aspect of my game. Also getting older helped me mature mentally and gain my confidence, find my niche and groove. It was great for me.”

Miller was a 35.1 percent three-point shooter in the NBA (47 of 134), but shot over 40 percent in Germany from beyond the arc. He attributes some of his improvement as a player to a sharper focus on conditioning, including a more disciplined diet.

“I’m just in better shape. That’s the main difference,” Miller compared between his first NBA tenure and the present. “When I was younger, I didn’t really know how to take care of my body. I think I grew a lot in that aspect, especially nutrition-wise.

“Being in better shape will help me out a lot. I have way more energy now. It’s about nutrition, working out when I have to. I also didn’t do a lot of stuff on my own the first time, but I realize now that it’s important, to maintain what you’ve built.”

Miller acknowledges that he probably enjoyed New Orleans cuisine a bit too much during his previous time here. Like many men in their early 20s, he could eat whatever he wanted without it impacting him too negatively. As the years progressed, however, he’s recognized the difference in how he feels physically based on food choices.

“When you get to the NBA, you’re on your own,” he said. “You leave (practice) and go get lunch, dinner. You’ve got to know how and when to eat. It’s something you have to learn.”

Miller laughs at himself when he thinks back at his previous flawed thought process toward some meals. He was never overweight, listed at 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, but he didn’t come close to reaching his potential in terms of conditioning.

“I was eating gumbo, jambalaya,” he said of his first Crescent City stint. “I was enjoying myself. I was eating all this stuff I wasn’t supposed to be eating, but I didn’t know at the time.”

Miller said his perspective on his career also began to shift when he got married and started a family, making him more focused. He enjoyed numerous tremendous experiences on and off the court in Germany, but for many players who’ve been in the NBA but are later forced to play overseas, it can be a basketball wake-up call.

“I think a ton differently,” he said. “Having kids, a wife, now you’re responsible for other people, too. You can’t just be playing around. You’ve got to make stuff work. I learned that going over to Germany. I’ve got a family to support. That changes your mindset as soon as it happens. It’s just different.”

In many ways, Miller had always lived a blessed existence as a young player, starting with being recruited in-state by one of the NCAA’s marquee programs. After a decorated four-year college career and national title at Kentucky, he went to the NBA, without going through much hardship. His multi-year detour from the glamorous spotlight of American basketball was a brand-new feeling.

“You have to appreciate this, not taking any minute for granted,” Miller said of being an NBA player. “You try to get better every day, because you’ve seen the other side of things. I’ve been fortunate to be in a lot of great situations – I went to Kentucky, which is one of the best programs in college basketball. Then I came to the NBA. I had never really experienced the other side of it. It definitely makes you appreciate this even more. That goes along with growing up, and seeing everything for what it is.”

During his prior stint on New Orleans’ roster, he was only a sporadic member of the team’s rotation, playing in just 97 of a possible 164 games over his two full NBA seasons, with nine starts. This time around, Miller hopes to make a bigger impression. He believes he’s a much different player than the one who began his pro career five years ago.

“When I first got here, I didn’t set any goals for myself,” he said. “It just took time for me to grow and figure things out.

“(Now) I just want to compete and help the team win in any way I can. I want to make sure I bring energy to the team. Last time I was just happy to be here. Now I’ve got things I want to accomplish.”

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