LAS VEGAS – In the fourth quarter of his fifth summer league game, it looked like Brandon Miller was ready to really go for his moment.
Miller, the Alabama product who was drafted second overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2023 NBA Draft, had a slow start to summer league. In his first four games, Miller recorded more fouls (24) than made field goals (16). But in Tuesday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Miller started to get more comfortable. He had his first 20-point game in the summer league locked in at the end of the third period.
And then, when he rebounded a missed 3 by Portland center Duop Reath, Miller’s eyes widened.
As Alabama head coach Nate Oats looked on, Miller dribbled into the front court. An unbeaten screen by center Kai Jones still allowed Miller to slide by defending forward Justin Minaya. Miller saw Reath in the paint, with the latter’s feet above the restricted area. The Hornets’ rookie then decided to take off like he was channeling 2013 Paul George against Chris “Birdman” Andersen.
Miller’s favorite player is George and he wears the same number 24 George wore when he posted Andersen in Game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. But George got much, much closer to the curve than Miller did ten years later. Reath went with verticality, and Miller ended up looking like a botched animation in NBA 2K24.
It ended up being Miller’s final shot attempt in a game that still represented a positive step forward for the 20-year-old from Antioch, Tenn. The Hornets lost 97-93 to a Portland team playing without third overall pick Scoot Henderson and lost to the Charlottes. record to 0-3 in Las Vegas and 0-5 overall this summer after playing two games in Sacramento’s California Classic. But Miller scored a summer-high 26 points against the Trail Blazers, making all seven of his free throws, shooting 8-of-15 overall, going 3-of-6 on 3s and blocking two shots.
Even though his dunk miss was his final shot of the game, Miller still completed more dunk attempts Tuesday night against the Trail Blazers (two) than the single mark he amassed in his previous four games combined. One of the dunks was a similar setup to his fourth-quarter miss, in which Miller went left before forward Trevon Scott could set a screen and took off as soon as his foot touched the paint, slamming it down before the indecisive Portland center Ibou Badji could register. a credible competition on the edge.
“I just think that was the mindset that he went into it,” Charlotte summer league head coach Marlon Garnett said. “I thought he was a little bit more, a little bit more forceful, I guess that’s a better word. He was a little bit forceful and had good intent in what he wanted to do. I like the way he plays in the offensive end. He stays within himself. He makes the right play. But it was good to see him really try to find his own a little bit and kind of get going.”
Miller’s quest to play the right way has yet to be rewarded with summer league wins, and his field goal percentage was an unfriendly 33.3 percent before his breakout Tuesday night. But he shows an understanding of looking after the ball and knowing where it is going. Miller had just one turnover against the Trail Blazers and has compiled a 17:13 assist-to-turnover ratio in five summer league games. For perspective, George had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 10:24 in five summer league games with the Pacers in Orlando back in 2010.
“I’ve been preaching the whole time, I kind of let the game come to me,” Miller said Tuesday night. “I felt like I was kind of put in the right spots to come up with comfortable shots, just that, and then my teammates built my confidence. Just take such tough shots in games like this, great atmosphere.”
Miller previously mentioned that he let the game get to him after his highly anticipated matchup against top pick Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night. In the Hornets’ summer league game before that, a 98-83 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Sacramento, Miller attempted just four field goals and one free throw in just over 28 minutes of play. He took 15 shots against the Spurs, making just five in what was a remarkably poor game offensively for both teams. At one point, Wembanyama blocked one of Miller’s 3-point attempts.
It was the kind of game where, despite the increase in aggression, Miller’s areas of improvement were laid bare. He will need to show that he can consistently beat his man and get to the rim instead of letting defenders sit on his jump shot.
“I think as I let the game come to me, I think more shots just came,” Miller said on Friday night after Wembanyama’s Spurs beat the Hornets. – The ball somehow found my hands to take shots like that.
One player who could help Miller’s transition to the NBA is fellow Hornets first-round pick and Brad Beal Elite alum Nick Smith Jr., selected 27th overall in last month’s draft out of Arkansas. Smith, a college shooting guard who Miller still disputes about not going to Alabama, is getting a lot of reps at point guard, a position Smith says he hasn’t played since high school. That was evident Tuesday night, when Smith was unhappy with his six turnovers to just three assists.
But one of the reasons Miller didn’t have a shot in the final five minutes of Tuesday’s game was because he recognized that Smith made the Trail Blazers. Although 2022 lottery pick Shaedon Sharpe allowed Portland to hang on for a win, Smith scored 16 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter, including Charlotte’s final 12 points in the final 2:40 of the game. At one point, Smith asked Miller to screen for him, essentially asking for the ankles of Portland’s Jabari Walker on a switch. Smith mixed up Walker for an isolation bucket, one of four straight possessions down the stretch that ended with a Smith field goal.
“I mean, you can see it,” Smith said Tuesday night of the chemistry he has with Miller. “We are still building on a lot of things from high school. We haven’t played with each other in a year or something. But we’re just trying to learn the terminologies and stuff. We’ll get it going, we just have to go out with a win.”
“I kind of felt like Nick should have had the ball more at the end and really tried to get it to him,” Miller said of Smith on Tuesday. “It’s nothing but big things between the two of us. It’s like my brother, man. We argue, then we’re right back, cool three minutes later. So I mean, it’s kind of easy with him.”
Tuesday night’s game was Miller’s first with more field goals than fouls. Even then, he had five fouls, though four came in a fourth quarter without a bucket. Garnett has praised Miller for his willingness to defend, as evidenced by the latter’s aforementioned two blocks against Portland, six total steals in five summer games and 6.8 rebounds per game. But Miller won’t be assigned ten fouls per game after summer league ends, meaning he’ll have to adapt to the best the league has to offer at the big wing position.
“That’s one of the narratives with him coming out of college is that we know he can defend,” Garnett said of Miller on Tuesday night. “But he’s going to have to be a little bit smarter. In the summer league, obviously, you get 10 fouls. So he’s able to increase that aggressiveness. But from a standpoint of just being a little bit more crisp and not being so handy, he can’t wrap around ball screens or whatever. So you have to anticipate certain situations and beat guys to the punch. You can’t be reactionary because when you’re reactionary you’re late to the game and then it will probably amount to a mistake. But the tools he has with his length, the way he moves his feet, I’m not worried about. He’s a good defender. There’s just a little bit of technical tweaks here and there, and he’s going to be fine.”
Miller enters his rookie season with a team that offers a lot of pieces to assemble. He largely occupies the guard spot of Kelly Oubre Jr., who averaged a career-high 20.3 points per game last season. There are already plenty of shots to go around with the return of 2022 All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball, shooting guard Terry Rozier, established small forward Gordon Hayward and power forward Miles Bridges, who will be suspended for the first 10 games of next match. season after pleading no contest to a charge of domestic violence. Last year’s starting power forward, PJ Washington, is still a restricted free agent. Mark Williams and Nick Richards are the centers. Young, recent first-round picks like Jones and 2021 lottery pick James Bouknight haven’t panned out.
For now, Miller can only focus on getting ready for his rookie season. He doesn’t need to be the savior of a Charlotte franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in seven years and hasn’t won a playoff series in over two decades. He cannot worry about being elected ahead of everyone except Wembanyama. Only progress in himself will suffice for now – and maybe leave Las Vegas with a win.
“I think just buying into the defense, trying to get the stops that we need plays a big part in the game of basketball today,” Miller says. “As you can see, the game can turn really quickly. Just one possession.”
(Top photo by Brandon Miller: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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