Ex-Cats

Darius Miller's surprise NBA comeback another 'win' for decorated ex-Cat

New Orleans Pelicans forward Darius Miller averaged 7.8 points and 41.1-percent shooting from three-point range last season, both career highs.
New Orleans Pelicans forward Darius Miller averaged 7.8 points and 41.1-percent shooting from three-point range last season, both career highs. AP

Life can change quickly. Just ask Darius Miller.

This time a year ago, the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball was coming off his third straight title with Brose Bamberg in Basketball Bundesliga, Germany's highest professional level. Miller a week later returned to Maysville, his hometown, for a youth camp he co-hosts with Chris Lofton each year.

But Miller got to spend much more time in Mason County before this year's camp, and he didn't have to pay for a trans-Atlantic plane ticket to get there. His pro season ended in May, and stateside, as part of the New Orleans Pelicans, the NBA franchise that drafted him in 2012 and played him sparingly before waiving him from its roster in 2014.

Now Miller can be counted among the many University of Kentucky players who've made a meaningful impact in the NBA. He just needed a detour.

"When I went overseas I just wanted to really work on my game," Miller said during an interview with the Herald-Leader. "I was given an opportunity where I was one of the main players on the team, so I got a lot of game reps and a lot of situations that I hadn’t been put into for a long time. I just went over there and tried to take it day by day."

Miller joined Brose Bamberg (then called Brose Baskets) midseason and helped it when the German title in 2015, averaging 12.4 points and 3.4 assists in the finals. He was named MVP of the 2016 finals after averaging 18 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and a block per game in the championship series that season.

Miller was on the precipice of signing with FC Barcelona — a premier landing spot in Europe — following his third title run with Brose Bamberg. His agent, Doug Neustadt, advised against it because a couple of NBA teams were interested in bringing Miller back to the U.S.

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Darius Miller in 2012 was drafted by the NBA franchise in New Orleans, then known as the Hornets. He was with the team until November 2014, when it waived him. Bill Haber AP

"I wasn’t really focused on getting back to the NBA," Miller said. "Of course that was something that I would’ve liked to have happen, but it wasn’t something that I thought about daily. I just wanted to perform the best that I could when I was over there and they happened to notice, I guess."

Suitors included his former team. Miller sought guidance from former UK teammates Anthony Davis, with whom he was drafted in 2012, and DeMarcus Cousins, for whom New Orleans traded for in 2017, before rejoining the Pelicans on a two-year, partially-guaranteed contract last summer.

"Of course, they’re always honest with me, no matter what," Miller said. "They felt like I would be able to help them there. ... I never had a problem with (New Orleans) the first time around so it didn’t really bother me going back. I got to see a lot of familiar faces and my family was familiar with the city, so it was just a good fit for me."

It was better than good: Miller averaged NBA career highs in just about every statistical category, most notably points per game (7.8), three-point shooting percentage (41.1 percent) and minutes played (23.7). He was one of two players (E'Twaun Moore) to appear in all 82 regular-season games for the Pelicans; he played in 102 games during his first three seasons with the franchise.

Miller appeared in all nine playoff games for the team, which reached the postseason for the first time since 2015. The Pelicans swept Portland in the first round, picking up their first playoff win and series win since 2008, before succumbing to Golden State — the eventual champion — in five games.

Miller's quick to remind people that New Orleans was without Cousins, whose season ended after he injured his left Achilles in late January, when it faced the Warriors.

"Hopefully next season we can go even further," said Miller. "We were missing a key piece in DeMarcus, and I feel like we would have made it really competitive on Golden State if he was there. Hopefully we can add him back, stay healthy the entire season and play for a championship."

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Darius Miller, center, won an NCAA title as part of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team in 2012. He's the only Kentuckian to win an NCAA title, a KHSAA title and Kentucky's Mr. Basketball award. David Perry File photo

He says "we" but it's possible Miller won't be with New Orleans next season. His contract for the 2018-19 season doesn't become fully-guaranteed until after July 4, meaning he again could be waived by the team. His name also has surfaced in trade rumors and speculation leading up to the NBA Draft.

Miller perhaps is more familiar with the ups and downs of pro basketball than any former Wildcat, but he knows even more about reaching the championship pedestal. He helped teams conquer the KHSAA and NCAA long before setting his sights on Germany.

Is being "a winner" valued properly by the league?

"I hope so, I hope so," Miller said. "I’ve been on some good teams and been fortunate to have some great experiences on some winning teams, and hopefully they do recognize that."

Whether he's in New Orleans, suiting up for another NBA team or exploring options elsewhere, Miller knows what he needs to do: embrace the grind.

"I think a lot of times people get caught up in the end goal instead of taking it day by day and getting better as a person on and off the court," Miller said. "I just go day by day, keep working on my game and spend time with my family."

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