In return to NBA after playing overseas, Darius Miller among league leaders in three-point shooting

by Jim Eichenhofer

When a player returns to the NBA after two-plus years out of the league, expectations for his impact tend to be relatively tempered. It hasn’t taken Darius Miller long to exceed all of them.

“I think it’s been a little bit better than the best-case scenario,” Pelicans third-year head coach Alvin Gentry said of Miller’s early-season performance. “He’s just been really, really good. He’s found a role for himself and embraced that role. Everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s done and then some. He’s come up with some really big shots, and it seems like when we’ve been struggling the most, that’s when he comes up with big plays for us.”

Miller, now 27, was a New Orleans second-round pick in 2012, but never cemented himself in the team’s rotation before being released in November 2014. He headed overseas, playing and shooting well in Germany, but it was impossible to foresee Miller’s rampant success early in his second NBA stint. The forward is shooting 47.1 percent from three-point range (49 of 104), ranked sixth in the league, sandwiched between the likes of Klay Thompson and Otto Porter. He’s even periodically been No. 1 on the leaderboard, in a category that’s become increasingly critical in the NBA. Not bad for a guy who previously played in Germany’s top pro circuit, which is commonly viewed behind leagues in Spain, Turkey and Russia in terms of caliber of competition.

“I think (opponents have) guarded him completely differently in the last three or four games,” Gentry said prior to Wednesday’s win over Denver. “I think if you’re scouting our team and see that he’s leading the league in three-point shooting, that does send up a red flag to (opponents). And he’s not doing it shooting one or two threes a game. Most of the time, he’s shooting five, six or seven threes. I think that obviously is going to get you noticed.”

Miller, whose breakout performance occurred Nov. 11 vs. Atlanta – he drained five three-pointers en route to a career-high 21 points, lifting the Pelicans to a one-point victory – credits his maturity as a player for a dramatic improvement compared to his first NBA stint. He’s blunt in his assessment of his initial years in the league, saying he didn’t have a clear understanding of what kind of player he needed to be in order to bring value to a team.

“Honestly, I don’t think I really knew 100 percent, and that was probably the problem,” Miller said. “I didn’t know exactly who I wanted to be, or who I should be, coming into the league at first. I was just in the NBA, and that was my goal. Once I got here I didn’t know what I needed to be to have a certain amount of success.”

Miller also believes his experience in Germany was invaluable, saying that the amount of time he was able to spend on his jumper made a major difference in his effectiveness. Since his breakout night against the Hawks, Miller has now made at least two three-pointers in 12 consecutive games. He is shooting 35/68 (51.5 percent) from beyond the arc during that three-week span.

“I’ve always been able to shoot, but over there I got a lot of game reps, game shots,” he said. “My confidence just continued to build. Shooting is a really big thing in Europe. If you can’t shoot, it’s really hard for you to produce over there. There is no (defensive) three seconds in the paint, so the lane is pretty much clogged all the time. You have to be able to shoot over there.”

The German game schedule is also much more conducive to fine-tuning skills. During some weeks of the regular season, teams only play one game.

“There are a lot more practices and more time for you to work on your craft, not in-game,” Miller said. “I had a lot of time to get in the gym and I had really good coaches who worked with me. They helped me develop a lot of aspects of my game.”

“I think it’s going over there, playing at a really high level and having some success,” Gentry said of Miller’s transformation. “Success breeds confidence. When he came back here, he felt like he had become a better player. You stick him out here playing against NBA players again, his attitude is totally different. He felt like he belonged.”

It wasn’t always smooth at first for Miller, who began this season 2/14 from three-point range and saw his playing time dwindle in late October. But the University of Kentucky product expected a few bumps in the road during his transition back to the world’s elite basketball league.

“I think it was just me adjusting to the game,” Miller said of his slow start. “This is a quicker game than in Europe. It’s totally different. It just took me a little bit to get adjusted to the speed and the type of game that it’s going to be. It was tough at times mentally, but I figured (an adjustment period) would happen. It really helped that my teammates stayed confident in me, kept giving me shots. Once I got comfortable and got into a rhythm, everything just started to take care of itself.”

Pelicans players now expect Miller’s shot to find the bottom of the net just about every time he has his feet set and launches from long distance. A 35.1 percent three-point shooter during his previous stint in the NBA, he appears extremely confident when he’s spotted up beyond the arc.

“I’m just a better all-around player than I was last time,” he said. “I’m in a rhythm, I’m more comfortable. I know what shots I want to take and what I’m good at. That makes it a lot easier. And playing with guys who are so talented makes it a lot easier.

“I haven’t changed too much about my shot (since his previous time with New Orleans). What changed most was my mindset, really. I’m more comfortable, more confident in my shot. So they go in more.”